Canyon at the Edge of a Neon City

Day 4: Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas

With regrets we said goodbye Zion Canyon. We had done what we had set out to…explore the great canyon and do as much hiking as was possible. But we still had a LOT of unfinished business here, enough for at least one more trip. We departed, vowing to be back someday.

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But we were not done with the hiking yet. In fact, we had a whole other canyon in front of us. We were headed back to Vegas, from where we would fly home two days hence. But many are unaware that, in addition to gambling and world class entertainment, Las Vegas is home to one of the finest urban recreation areas in the United States — fantastic Red Rock Canyon. It is just 15 miles from the Vegas Strip…right at the outskirts of the city.

But we were NOT among the unaware.

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Not surprisingly, being located so close to a major tourist destination like Last Vegas means a great many others are aware, too, and that means Red Rock Canyon is subject to heavy visitation. Two million people a year visit…almost as many as visit Bryce Canyon National Park. It’s actually a good deal bigger than Bryce…the monument itself has over 200,000 acres in all…thought most visitors cluster in a few areas near the popular trails. The back country here is almost certainly devoid of people…but for good reason. This is seriously rough and sun-baked country. One does not lightly travel off trail in a place like this.

On the March day that we visited the trail side parking lots were already quite full. Lot’s of people come to enjoy this amazing place. Don’t expect solitude on these trails.

We chose the short, but very interesting, Calico Tanks trail. In the southwest, many rock formations are referred to as ‘tanks’ because they hold water through the dry seasons, which in the deserts makes them oasis. The Calico Tanks are no exceptions.

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A nearly cloudless day

The trail ascends up a narrow series of low but rugged canyons in the remarkable, brightly colored Calico Hills. It was the roughest trail we hiked this trip…though Angels Landing, which we merely attempted to hike, is in another league.

In the hallmark style of Southwestern trails, this one just keeps changing forms. First sand, then boulders, then white rock and then red…

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The brush filled canyon rises up to a bench of sandstone, then ascends (sometimes over stone steps) to the first of several brackish pools (tinaja.) These are important life giving places for desert wildlife.

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After the first few pools is a deep tinaja that marks the ‘tanks’ portion of the trail. The pool did not have a great amount of water in it when we visited, and was in fact a bit nasty.

The official trail ends here but just past this point is a ledgy area you can scramble out on to get partial panoramic views back down on the city of Las Vegas. We could identify most of the major casinos and McCarran International Airport from here. This is a great place to just sit around and enjoy the view, as generally it’s not too crowded. Only the most enterprising tourists make it this far.

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This is NOT a trail I would advise in hot season. If you do it in summer, do it VERY early. Or…at sunset, to enjoy the colors. But be prepared to walk out at dusk.

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Las Vegas clearly visible behind Sylvia

Though it is considered a modest hike we found Calico Tanks to be somewhat challenging…there are rocks of all sizes, boulders to gravel, underfoot and overhead, and much of this is scrambling with no actual defined trail (though the route is almost always obvious.) There are no prolonged steep sections but absolutely no flat sections either, apart from the very beginning. You will always be going over or around some obstacle. People of lesser fitness levels, or anyone who is unused on rough footpaths will be out of their element here.

But it’s a worthy trail, one of many in the canyon.

Looming over the place, by the way, is Turtle Head Peak. Few people do the five mile out and back to the top of this high point, visible for miles. It is considered quite strenuous. If we’d had more time we might have considered it.

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Turtle Head Peak looms above Red Rock Canyon

All and all we greatly enjoyed our Urban Canyon Hiking expoerience. We think Red Rock Canyon has a lot to offer and will return here next time we are through Vegas to try another of its many fabulous trails. It’s a real feast for the eyes.

Another place to consider in the Vegas area is Valley of Fire State Park. Smaller, less visited, but perhaps more spectacular than Red Rod Canyon, and with more interesting rock formations, Valley of Fire is located just an hour outside the city. For movie buffs, this is where one of my favorite movies, the 1966 western ‘The Professionals’, was filmed. And for TV buffs with WAY too much time on their hands, it is where Jan Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine had their secret helicopter base in the Legendary Airwolf.

We didn’t go to the Valley of Fire this time…but we will, someday.

After checking out wild things outside Vegas, we decided to also check out the wild life of Vegas itself. But all that stuff generally stays in Vegas, so I’m told. Suffice it to say, we didn’t return with anything we had to claim on our tax returns.

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Strange that we would end up in ancient Egypt on a trip to Vegas isn’t it? But it’s a strange place.

Much LESS strange that we’d end up here, doing this.

My recommendation is that if you do go to Vegas do NOT neglect the many fine outdoor venues the area has to offer. And above all, make a trip to fantastic Zion Canyon. Unlike the usual stuff that transpires in Vegas, it might stay there, but you won’t regret doing it.

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