RED ROCK CANYON, LAS VEGAS – A massive wall of rusty-red and sun-bleached yellow rock topped by a pale blue sky. Families clambering over smooth orange boulders.Towering, ragged mountain tops lit up by the late afternoon sky.
The Grand Canyon rightfully gets most of the attention when people talk about the great outdoors in the Las Vegas area. Much closer, more accessible and nearly as impressive is Red Rock Canyon, a series of glorious ridges and ruffled mountains set amid the high desert west of the Strip. You could hardly find anything more at odds with Sin City than this place.
On a recent visit to Vegas I have a mid-winter tour with Bob Stephens of Pink Jeep Tours, one of many great activities you can book with Expedia.ca. On our way to the canyon, Stephens offers up a history of Las Vegas, talking about the springs that used to exist near where we find Fremont Streets’ explosion of neon today. He reminds us of the need to stay hydrated; always a good thing in a dry environment where folks often indulge in one or two drinks too many at night.
We start our canyon tour at the main entrance to the park, which was the state of Nevada’s first National Conservation Area and measures almost 200,000 acres. There are fine displays on local wildlife and the formation of the mountains, as well as bits about native culture. It’s all well-arranged and serves as a good appetizer, but we’re here for the main course.
Our first stop in the great outdoors is at the base of the Calico Hills, along the well-marked, 20-km long scenic drive that snakes through the park. It’s a wondrous formation with a base that’s dry and dusty but quickly rises to yellowish-beige exposed rock and then shifts into dark orangey-red, primordial looking mounds stained black by iron and manganese deposits. There are massive, dark cracks and deep lines and striations in the rock that resemble a psychiatrist’s Rorshach test.
We’re here around 1:30 p.m. and the sun is high and hot. The colour is nice, but it will edge deeper and more mysterious late in the day with the afternoon sun slanting down.
Further along, we stop at White Rock Spring Peak and snap photos. The terrain here is quite different in parts; with equal amounts red rock and then smaller, bleached-white rocks that march towards distant mountains. It’s a stunning place, with fairly easy walks and great views. The more ambitious members of my group scramble up the hills for better views. I’ve got a camera I don’t want to break so climb only 20 or 30 metres up the hill.
Later, there’s a lookout high on a hill overlooking most of the canyon. We’re touring in our Pink Jeep but folks here are driving tiny, brightly coloured, 3-wheel scooter cars you can rent.
“They’re a blast,” one fellow yells as he passes me.
A few minutes later we’re taking a short, easy walk along Lost Creek Canyon, admiring the hearty desert cactus and spiky trees and palm trees huddled against a small creek.
Stephens shows us ancient hand prints on a wall, placed there for mysterious reasons long ago by Pauite Indians or members of other tribes who eked out a living in this treacherous environment.
Stephens points out buckhorn cholla cactus and black sage plants, as well as something locals call Mormon Tea and pinon trees that produce tasty pine nuts. It’s now getting closer to dusk, and the light on the nearby mountains casts the rock in a brilliant veil of yellow-gold.
As we finish our last walk and are safely ensconced in the Jeep, Stephens says it’s now the time to answer questions we might have about local snakes.
“There are four types of rattlers out here,” he explains. “The worst is the Green Mojave. If you get by one of those, it’s a life changer.”
The group is safe in the Jeep but feeling slightly, well, rattled. But Stephens says we don’t need to worry.
“Snakes rattle like that to keep you away. They don’t want to use their venom on you because it takes them a week to get it back and they want to save the venom to subdue rodents and other small animals. They don’t want to waste the effort on something they can’t eat.”
Snakes shy away from people, Stephens says, so as long as you stick to main trails and watch yourself there’s not much danger.
There are some areas where snakes tend to congregate, but they’re not in the main hiking regions.
“If you want to find rattlesnakes, you have to hunt them, really.”
I feel a lot better about my hike after he’s explained the situation. There are so many other ways to get yourself in trouble in Vegas, I figure one more hardly matters.