Friday, January 25, 2013

Hike 2013.003 -- Turtlehead Peak, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

(Picture 1: Turtlehead Peak, as viewed from near the trailhead).

Hiked Sunday, January 20. Thanks to Martin Luther King's contributions towards advancing the cause of civil rights, and to the fact that he was born in January rather than, say, February, I got Monday the 21st off. So this gave me a three-day weekend to head up to Las Vegas. I'll probably be making more frequent trips up this way in the coming year, perhaps once or twice a month, particularly on long weekends.

(Picture 2: Also near the trailhead, showing the infor-mational displays).

It may be as many as ten years since I last came to Red Rock. A lot has changed. For starters, there's a new entrance station, and a huge new visitor center. I didn't spend too much time IN the visitor center, so I can't say if the space is being well-utilized. The bookstore has definitely been spiffed up, though. I bought several hiking books and a map there, mainly for future reference.

(Picture 3: Sandstone blocks in the quarry).

For this day's hike, I just looked at the free newsletter for the area, and settled on one that seemed reasonable. Actually, I was thinking I might do two hikes, since I have hikes to make up if I want to get anywhere close to 100 this year. At my current rate, I'll barely break 50.

(Picture 4, Sandstone and Sandstone Bluffs).

I also chatted with a volunteer at the info desk. I was told there, while there are several waterfall hikes mentioned in their handouts, there would be little if any water. So I will save them for early spring, when there might be some snow melt to feed them.

Instead, I settled on Turtlehead Peak. The newsletter described it as 5 miles and strenuous. Two thousand vertical feet, with an intermittent trail.

(Picture 5, Turtle-head, with still a long ways to go).

I concur with that description. By the time I was done with this hike, I knew I wasn't going to take a second hike on the same day. It was a very difficult five miles, taking me about 4 hours to complete. Without stops for pictures and to admire the view at the top, it would have taken maybe 3 1/2 hours. That's a long time for such a short distance. Don't know if this is because the hike really is strenuous or if I'm just in lousier shape compared to past years.

(Picture 6, Same as picture 4, but from a higher perspec-tive).

How you get to Red Rock NCA depends on which end of the Las Vegas Valley you're coming from. From the south, you can take I-15 to Blue Diamond Highway, then head west. Turn right at NV-159 (there's a sign for Red Rock), and continue 'til you see the sign for the scenic drive, on your left.

From the north, you'd typically take U.S. 95 west, then Summerlin Parkway, then follow the signs, eventually dropping south to Charleston Blvd, and heading west. The only problem with that route is that there are several traffic circles along that way, so if you don't like traffic circles, head south on Rainbow, then turn right on Charelston.

If you're already on Charleston and west of I-15, you will likely just head west.

[Note: In the years since I originally posted this, the western beltway has been largely completed, so now you're more likley to take U.S. 95 to Summerline Parkway to the Beltway (CC-215), then drop south two offramps, to Charleston, or take the Beltway west from I-15, down near Blue Diamond/Harry Reid Airport, then, again, exit at Charleston and head west.].

(Picture 7: Jagged rocks on the way up the ravine).

If coming down Charleston, the entrance station will be on your right. Charleston becomes NV-159, by the way.

After paying your fee ($7 for a day pass, $30 for an annual pass, or show them your America the Beautiful pass), the visitor center is signed as the first left. In addition to information and the bookstore, there are flush toilets, drinking fountains and vending machines (I didn't check if they had food as well as drinks).

(Picture 8, a tiny patch of snow, near the summit of Turtle-head). After leaving the visitor center, you next want to get on the 13-mile scenic drive. It's one-way, so don't miss your turnoff when you get to it.

The trailhead for the Turtlehead Hike is the fourth parking area along the scenic drive (after Calico I, Calico II and Calico III), about four miles from the start of the drive. It's a fairly large parking area, but it was definitely overflowing when I got back from my hike.

(Picture 9, Calico Hills, from Turtlehead Peak).

There are pit toilets here, but no running water.

Several trails pass through this area. You could either take a short (2.5 mile RT, 400 foot altitude change) hike to Calico Tanks, do a segment of the huge (11.4 mile) Grand Circle trail, or the Turtlehead Peak trail, which is what I did. I was pretty sure that the impressive cliff ahead was going to be my destination (See Pictures 1 and 2).

Several signs and informational displays are right at the trailhead, too.

(Picture 10: La Madre Mountains, north of Turtlehead Peak).

Also right near the trail-head are some huge sandstone blocks, illustrating what was done at the Sandstone Quarry for which this trailhead was named (See Picture 3).

At the lower section of trail, clear trail markers are placed at regular intervals. Still, there are several use trails even here, making it sometimes difficult to stay on the official trail. This difficulty becomes nigh impossible once you get higher up into the ravine. In multiple places, equally clear and worn tracks will run on both sides of the ravine, with numerous other paths running between them. They really ought to do some additional signage, to make one route "official," and try to let the other trails slowly heal.

(Picture 11: Brownstone Canyon, below and east of Turtlehead Peak).

Turtlehead Peak is in view for most of the way up. Also as you climb, the large amphitheater that is "Red Rock Canyon" (actually, many canyons, all flowing towards the broad opening between the mountains) becomes visible, in all its glory. To the west are the Sandstone Bluffs, with multi-hued Rainbow Mountain in the midst. To the north are the La Madre Mountains. To the south, the Calico Hills.

(Picture 12: Gateway Canyon, east of Turtlehead Peak).

Although I lived in Las Vegas for a number of years, I don't recall hiking this particular trail before. I'd hate to think I had seen this view before and forgotten it.

This entire trail is very slow going. In the lower reaches, you pass through and along a wash, and the sandy surface makes for lots of loss effort as your feet slip through the sand. Meanwhile, the upper reaches are VERY steep, and often require either sloppily climbing up steep sand or hopping and climbing up and over boulders.

There's really no trick to conquering this trail. You just need to keep moving slowly and carefully.

(Picture 13: Las Vegas, in the distance).

Once at the saddle, the trail description says to head up the shoulder. However, a person in front of me reported this was impassable, so a group of us ended up taking a roundabout route, contouring along the east slope of Turtlehead before zigzagging back up the back.

However, on the return trip, I had no major difficulty making it down the "shoulder" or ridgeline directly. Yes, it was steep. And it would have been very tiring heading up. But there were no impassable barriers.

(Picture 14: Moon rise).

The view from the top? Outstanding. Despite the glare of the low sun to the south, the twisted and fractured nature of the rocks all around, and their red rock splendor, definitely made the effort here worthwhile.

I spent about 20 minutes on the summit. At one point, I ease down a bit towards the west, wanting to take a picture down the sheer drop. But I chickened out. Just couldn't make myself lie down and snap a shot over the edge.

But I did take LOTS of pictures in all directions from the top.

(Picture 15: Jar Jar Binks, in stone).

The return to the car was definitely faster than the climb. Yes, in spots you need to stop and puzzle out the easiest way down. However, it's easier to pick out more-worn trails on the way down.

By the time I got back to my car, I knew my hiking for the day was over. Just five miles, as I said, but 2,000 feet. A father led his two young children (probably no more than 10 and 8 or so) on this hike, but I would not necessarily think this is a hike many that young would want to conquer.


  1. Wow, looks like an incredible area. There is so much still to see in this country!

  2. Ecology is similar to Mojave National Preserve, but the geology is more colorful. Fair number of juniper and pinion pine mixed among the scrub.

    Will probably be hiking around here this next weekend, again. Yes, it's only Tuesday, but I'm already thinking, "Weekend!"

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. The views are spectacular at the top! Don't forget to sign the book they have hidden at the top! You made it, you need to sign it!!! We didn't know about the book on our first time up, but when we get up the this coming Spring, we will definitely sign it!
    This is NOT an easy hike! Make sure you wear hiking boots (not sneakers) or you could end up with broken feet or ankles (I'm speaking from experience)...2 broken ankles and a broken foot! Have a few liters of water, mixed with Gatorade for best hydration, Chapstick, gum, and sliced oranges for your breaks on the way up. Pack a small lunch to enjoy at the top.
    ALSO, it took me 3 times to finally make it to the top. It's not that I wasn't in shape, it was the high altitude. I was getting bad headaches, I was VERY nauseous, I didn't want to drink or eat even the oranges, I was Very dizzy and lightheaded! I was experiencing Altitude Sickness and had to get to lower ground. Be aware that this can happen to anyone so you might not get to the top the first time you try, but keep at it...a few months later, I was at the top taking beautiful photos!

  5. Hey, Debster!

    Yes, I recall a pretty extensive section of this hike to be walking over a lot of broken rocks. But even on less challenging terrain, I almost always wear boots, because I do need the ankle support.

    From my own past experience, I always go SLOOOOW when I'm at altitude, because if I push myself, I get a pounding headache.

    Not sure where I'll go next time I'm in Red Rock. Partially depends on the weather, and if water is running over any of the waterfalls.

  6. Can't remember if I signed that register, or even if I saw it.

  7. In reading my directions to the trailhead, I see that I made no mention of the Beltway (Clark County Highway 215). I think that's probably because it didn't exist when I lived in Las Vegas Valley, and know it well enough to take it to Red Rock. Nowadays, if coming from the south, rather than taking Blue Diamond Road, they suggested route is to take the 215 Beltway west from I-15, then exit at Charleston Blvd, and head west. From the north, its suggested to take US 95 north to Summerlin Parkway, Summerlin Parkway to the Beltway, then south a few miles to Charleston, then head west, again.