The Backyard Traveler: Discovering the natural beauty of Mount Charleston

When it comes to hiking in Southern Nevada, few places offer as much as the Mount Charleston area, located 35 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Mount Charleston, which is part of the Spring Mountain range, includes 11,918-foot Charleston Peak, the highest spot in Southern Nevada as well as Lee and Kyle Canyons.

The Spring Mountains have the steepest vertical rise of any of Nevada's mountains, climbing nearly 8,000 feet from the surrounding valley floor to the top of the peak.

The journey to Mount Charleston takes you from the flat, desert terrain of the Mojave Desert to barren, rocky heights where only bristlecone pines thrive.

Not surprisingly, you can also find some of the region's best hiking opportunities in the 316,000-acre Spring Mountains National Recreation Area.

The dozen or so established trails in the Mount Charleston area include several short and relatively easy walks that can be attempted on the same day.

For instance, one of the most pleasant treks is the trail to Mary Jane Falls, an attractive cascade of water that usually flows in the spring and early summer months. The trail is accessed from Echo Road, near the end of State Route 157 (Kyle Canyon Road).

The 2.4-mile, roundtrip hike begins on a path that winds through several ponderosa pine and aspen stands and offers wonderful views of the surrounding area.

After continuing along a series of switchbacks, the trail reaches the falls, which can be visually impressive. Note that the area has several small caves, including one directly behind the waterfall.

Another short (2.8 mile roundtrip) but worthwhile hike is the Cathedral Rock Trail. This moderately steep, winding trail leads through stands of white fir and ponderosa pine trees before reaching breathtaking sheer drops that afford spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.

Along the way, you'll pass through Echo Cliffs, a narrow, 800-foot high passage where your voice bounces across the stone walls.

The trailhead starts from the Cathedral Rock Picnic Area. For a slightly longer hike through the Ponderosa Pine forest, hikers can start at an alternate trailhead located immediately west of the Kyle Canyon/Echo Road intersection.

The Bristlecone Trail in Lee Canyon (6 miles roundtrip) is a more challenging hike that includes a little bit of climbing at a slightly higher elevation (nearly 10,000 feet). The trail winds through one of the state's largest bristlecone pine forests.

While the bristlecones are not as ancient and gnarled as those found at places like Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada, there is something unique about trees that are capable of living for nearly 4,000 years.

Adjacent to the trail are two camping areas, McWilliams Campground and Dolomite Campground, which have, respectively, 40 and 31 sites. The trailhead is located at the end of State Route 156 (Lee Canyon Road).

More experienced hikers can also tackle the Charleston Peak National Recreation Trail, a 17-mile loop that begins at the Cathedral Rock Picnic Area and continues to the top of Mount Charleston before concluding back at the Kyle Canyon trailhead.

The trail has an elevation gain of more than 4,000 feet and follows the ridges of the Mount Charleston Wilderness for much of the journey, which involves hiking at an elevation of more than 11,000 feet for about six miles.

There are two roads, Nevada State Route 156 (also called the Lee Canyon Road) and Nevada State Route 157 (Kyle Canyon Road), leading west from U.S. 95 (the road out of Las Vegas) to the Mount Charleston area. Nevada State Route 158 (Deer Creek Road) connects SR 156 and 157 and the three roads create a loop drive through the mountains that is an official state scenic byway.

For a complete list of hiking trails contact the Kyle Canyon Ranger Station, Mount Charleston, NV 89124, 702-872-5486.

Richard Moreno is the author of The Backyard Traveler and The Backyard Traveler Returns, which are available at local bookstores.


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