Monday, May 26, 2014

Running Around Las Vegas

View of Red Rock Canyon area from atop Turtlehead Peak, with Las Vegas in the background.

May, 2014 - I recently had the opportunity to hang out in Las Vegas for a week and thought I should be able to find some great running opportunities in the area. I really didn't realize what was available within relatively close distance until I started looking. I knew Death Valley and the Grand Canyon were not too far away, but I had already run in both of those locations and I was hoping to keep it a little closer. I had four days to run and I finally decided on going to Red Rock Canyon, Zion National Park, Mount Charleston, and Bootleg Canyon.

Day 1
Turtlehead Peak in the background.
My motel was just off the Strip and Red Rock Canyon was only half an hour west of the city. Red Rock is federal desert land and has a 13 mile paved one-way road that runs through it but I was more interested in the trails that ran through the area. I was hoping to put together a 30 mile or so loop through the area. I got out to the visitor center about 8am on Monday morning, with enough water and food to hopefully last me until 5pm.

I started out on the Calico Hills trails and picked up the Calico Tanks spur out and back. The land is desert, with a lot of desert scrub bushes and cacti. This stretch includes trails up against the red rocks that give the canyon its name. After getting back from the Calico Tanks spur, I started up the assault on Turtlehead Peak, which I believe tops out at about 6000 feet (my Garmin malfunctioned so I'm not sure what the elevations were). The trails became very sketchy on the ascent and I got off-trail. I was basically climbing up a wash, using my hands to help me get up. I soon realized that getting down was going to be a problem because the "trail" was just scree. It is always easier climbing that kind of stuff than descending. I could see myself sliding for hundreds of feet with no way to stop.

I decided to head over to where the trail might be and eventually I was able to kind of pick it up. I saw some other hikers and that helped. Eventually I got up to the peak and it was a magnificent view of the valley and Las Vegas in the distance. It was worth the climb. Coming down was a lot easier, although the trail here is more of a suggestion than anything that is actually defined or marked (this was typical for the Red Rock Canyon trails).

After returning to the grand loop trail, I soon came to the White Rock - La Madre Spring loop. This was my favorite trail of the day. It started as a typical desert trail but then gradually the flora changed and the trees got a little bigger and actually produced some shade. There was clearly the presence of more water in this area. Eventually I got to the La Madre Spring and filtered some more water into my hydration pack. I finished off this loop and headed to Ice Box Canyon, which I planned to be my last spur of the day before heading back to the visitor center.

Ice Box Canyon is a narrow canyon that supposedly doesn't get a lot of sunlight. I found a buddy early on here and we hiked back together. There wasn't much running here as it was mostly scrambling over boulders on an unmarked "trail." We got to more or less the end of the canyon and headed back to the trailhead/parking lot. He offered me a ride. I was going to run the 4 miles back to the visitor's center but then I looked for the connector trail and realized I would have to run back up the road for awhile to get the trail back. I already had 24 miles in for the day and was tired of running through washes so I took advantage of his offer. He took me back to my car and I drove back to the hotel.

Day 2
Wildcat Canyon Trail.
View from Wildcat Canyon Trail.
This is the day I had really been looking forward to. I was headed to Zion Canyon for the day. I had arranged with a local outfitter, Zion Adventures, to shuttle me to the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead. Originally, I had hoped to run the whole Zion Traverse, which is 48 miles from one end of the park to the other, but I had trouble working out the logistics and I wasn't sure I wanted to attempt this alone, anyway. I had to be at the outfitters in Springdale, the closest town to Zion Canyon, by 7am to catch the shuttle. It is a healthy 2.5 hours from Vegas so I was planning on leaving my hotel at 4am. But then when I was talking to the shuttle people, they mentioned that they were on Mountain Time and Vegas was on Pacific Time so I was actually going to have to leave at 3am. I was very happy to hear that.

I got up early, left by 3am, stopped at McDonalds for some pancakes, scarfed them down and hit the road. I got to Springdale by 6:45am MDT, got my stuff together and got in the van for the trip to the trailhead. My plan was to run the 20 or so miles from the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, descend the west rim into the main Zion Canyon, run up the other side of the canyon and do an out-and-back on the east rim. I was hoping to get in at least 30 miles.

West Rim Trail.
We reached the trailhead before 8am, I got out of the van and hit the trail. I had some peanut butter, jelly and waffle sandwiches, some dried mango, peanut butter M&Ms, turkey jerkey, pringles and about 100 ounces of water. I had a map that listed the springs along the trail so I was confident I could fill up with water if necessary but just in case I had enough to last me into the main canyon, where there was definitely water. It was about 30 degrees when I started, at about 6200 feet of elevation.

The Wildcat Canyon Trail is a 5 mile or so stretch of trail that runs mostly through Pine forest until it connects with the West Rim Trail. Along the way there are nice views of some of the side canyons in the park. There were still some patches of snow from a snowstorm earlier in the week but the trail was mostly dry. This was an enjoyable stretch of single-track with a gradual climb to it.
Best pit stop view I ever had.

After I hit the West Rim Trail, the forest opened up a bit and I was mostly running over an open plateau with smatterings of trees around but expansive views of the surrounding mountains and canyons. The trail was muddy in spots from the recently melted snow. I was running on rolling terrain up above 7000 feet here so the ascents taxed my lowlander lungs. Along the way I did have to take a little pit stop as my supper from the previous night (a hamburger in one of the hotel's restaurants) was not a great decision. I spied a tree off the trail on top of a knob that looked like it had a great view and headed for it. It was indeed a fantastic location for a pit stop tree, offering a fantastic view of one of the canyons. Some appropriately named Toilet Paper Plants were nearby (they didn't look poisonous and they were a better option than the cacti) so all was good. I think it was about 20 miles until the descent started in earnest into the Zion Canyon. I hadn't seen many people (a few hikers and a few other runners) up until this point but now there were more people out on the trails.
Toilet Paper Plant
 (may not be the actual name)

It was about a 5 mile descent into the Grotto. Along the way there is a side trail to Angel's Landing (a lookout over the canyon) and I thought I might take this in but when I saw the trail there was a large line of slow moving people so I decided to skip it. After I arrived at the Grotto, I ate another sandwich, refilled my water bottles, and headed up the road for a mile until I reached Weeping Rock and the start of the East Rim Trail. I felt pretty good so I started an out-and-back, or perhaps I should say up-and-back. Many switchbacks later I reached a fork in the trail. Right would take me eventually to the East Rim Trailhead and left would take me to Observation Point. I went left and continued the relentless switchbacking until I was ready to stop. I never did reach Observation Point but I was at the same elevation as I could see it across the way. My gas tank was a little low so I decided to turn around and head back.

Zion Canyon.
After the 2000 foot descent back down the canyon wall and the mile down the road to the Grotto, there was less than a mile left on a trail to the Zion Lodge. I ordered a large soda at the Lodge, sat and drank it and then caught the bus back out of the canyon to the Visitor Center. From the Visitor Center, I caught a bus back to Springdale and the outfitters where my car was parked. I took the long drive back to Las Vegas and got back at about 6pm.

Zion Canyon from near Observation Point.
My total mileage for the day for just under 33 miles. This was a great run and the highlight of my week. The views are fantastic. I would love to come back to this one some day and do the whole traverse.

Day 3
For the third day of running, I set my sights on Mount Charleston. There is a 10 mile trail to the summit, the North Loop Trail, that starts at about 8400 feet and finishes at 11,880 feet. I thought this might be reasonable to do an out-and-back on. Mount Charleston is less than an hour from Las Vegas so it was an easy drive. As I approached and got sight of the summit I knew I probably wasn't going to make it all the way up that day. There was quite a bit of snow still on the peak, it was extremely windy this day, and I didn't have any Yaktrax or other spikes with me.

Mount Charleston in center in background.
I reached the trailhead, started out and quickly ran into patches of snow in the shade. The trail wound up through a pine forest and for most of the time I could not see the summit. Occasionally I would catch glimpses of it far away and I started to lower my goal for the day as the going at this attitude was slow. I climbed to about 10,000 feet and crossed paths with a few other hikers. They were taking an intersecting trail and were not heading towards the summit. I only met four people all day.
Typical scree trail.

Turnaround point.
The trail actually went down now for a little, which I really didn't want because it just meant more climbing, and was on the side of the mountains that were largely clear of snow. The trees were also more sparse so I was exposed to the sun and the wind. The trail at this point was narrow and was basically just a "suggestion" across scree slopes. I started to realize that if I fell or a mountain lion ate me there would be no one around to hear my screams or render assistance. I always struggle a little in these situations because I am a bit of a safety nerd and my safety sense was telling me to call it a day and turn around. I wasn't ready to do that, however, so I pushed on.

I finally decided to turn around after 6.5 miles as I was getting tired from the relentless switchbacks, the attitude was getting to me, and I knew I would have a significant trek back. I was also getting to the point where I was halfway through my water (I had brought 40 ounces which I realized later was not enough for a trip all the way to the summit) and there were no springs around to fill up at. I made it to 6.5 miles (10,600 feet), sat down on the rocks, "enjoyed" another peanut butter, jelly and waffle sandwich and Pringles, and then headed back towards the car.

Of course it took much less time to get back to the car as it was mostly downhill. I drove around a little more in the mountains and headed back to Vegas.

Red Mountain and Black Mountain.
Day 4
This was going to just be a half day so I want to stay close to Vegas. I found a bird preserve online in Henderson and I wanted to do some birding first so I left at daybreak and drove to Henderson (20 minutes) and spent an hour there. Then I drove to Boulder City (another 20 minutes) as my objective this day was to run in Bootleg Canyon, just outside of Boulder City. There are twin peaks there, Red Mountain and Black Mountain, and there are many trails in the area that go around and up the mountains. Bootleg Canyon is a very popular mountain bike destination so many of the trails were multi-use but there are a few that are for foot traffic only.

View of Lake Mead from Black Mountain.
I parked in a trailhead lot and started the climb. I wanted to try to run all the way up to the top of Red Mountain as it seemed that this would be doable. The last few days I had done a lot of walking on the ascents and I wanted a change. It was about a 1200 foot ascent over three miles so it wasn't too bad. After I reached the peak of Red, I went partway back down and across the saddle to the peak of Black Mountain. As I stood up there and took pictures, a hummingbird flew over about a foot from me (I had a bright orange shirt on) and just hovered there and looked at me to figure out where to get the nectar from. I was a little concerned as the little buggers have sharp beaks but it couldn't figure it out so it flew away. It did come back numerous times until I went on the move again.

Hummingbird hovering over Boulder City.
The mountains provided nice views of Lake Mead and the desert and other mountains in the area. I ran back-and-forth a couple times to get some extra mileage and hill training in and then ran back down the mountain. When I got back to the parking lot I wanted to get in a little more mileage so I did a few miles out-and-back on the River Mountains Loop trail, which is a nice paved 30 mile or so loop trail through the area.

This was a great running week for me. Days of 24, 33, 13 and 12 miles (plus a 5 mile loop near the Vegas strip on Friday morning) when added to the Hyner Challenge from the previous Saturday gave me a 104 mile week. I felt pretty good through it all and got in a ton of ascent. It was great to be on new trails and in unfamiliar terrain. The weather was good, even a little cold, and I believe this is probably a great time to run in this area, before it gets too hot. I was by myself nearly the entire time, which was fine, although with some company I would have felt more confident tackling a little more than I did. My gear worked great and I felt as ready as I could be to tackle the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 two weeks later.
Black Mountain (left), Red Mountain (right) and Boulder City in the middle, taken from the saddle.

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