A bridge over red rocks down Vegas way

I was pleasantly surprised at the plethora of hiking opportunities during a recent trip to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area near Las Vegas. Though very close to the rapidly expanding metropolitan area, Red Rocks remains a sanctuary for those seeking an escape to the natural wonders of Southwest topography.

Red Rock Canyon is mainly noted for its red-and-buff-colored sandstone cliffs of up to 2,500 feet, as well as the nearby Calico Hills with their boldly alternating colors. The many canyons incising the escarpment offer views similar to those at Zion National Park and interesting hiking for the whole family.

An option for those with more backcountry experience is to approach the rocks from above. This provides more solitude and a breathtaking bird's eye view of the Red Rock area and the city beyond.

One such climb is Bridge Mountain, so named because of a natural bridge in the light- colored Aztec sandstone near the summit of the dome-shaped peak. Trail access is attained by driving up the 13-Mile Drive behind the visitors center to Rocky Gap Road from Willow Springs Picnic Area to Red Rock Summit. A four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle is recommended for this steep, five-mile road.

From the summit parking area, follow a good trail for about a mile that ascends the ridge to the east. Turn right at the ridge top and follow the Bridge Mountain trail for about half a mile to the open sandstone terrain west of the peak.

The route up to this point is fairly easy, and most hikers will have no problems. The remainder of the climb is short but steep with a lot of exposure to the possibility of falls in places. Some climbing skills will be necessary. Even if you choose to stop and have your lunch here, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view. For those continuing on, a close-up encounter with the bridge awaits.

Travel over the sandstone mesa is less obvious since there is no trail, and one has to look for cairns and some painted route markers to guide you through a descent of several hundred vertical feet to the saddle west of the peak. From there, climb a prominent crack for about 100 vertical feet to a ledge, step left a few feet, and continue up a second indentation for about 50 feet. From a distance, these cracks look difficult and steep, but upon approach, experienced climbers will find them fairly easy.

Bearing left again will bring you to the beautiful bridge you've been anticipating. Walk under it and climb the rocks on the left side of the enclosure to a broad shelf overlooking a "hidden forest" of ponderosa pines in a large tinaja (erosional depression in sandstone that traps water). Proceed to the right side of the forest and follow cairns up an easy, diagonal route to the left to the summit. After enjoying the breathtaking view, retrace your steps.

Bridge Mountain towers over Ice Box Canyon to the north and Pine Creek Canyon to the south. A walk up either of these is very enjoyable and gives you a view of Bridge Mountain from below. Pine Creek Canyon has a fairly reliable water flow that sustains a multitude of animals. On our recent trip, we saw 30 bighorn sheep, eight wild burros, cottontail rabbits, frogs and many birds.

On your next sojourn to the south, take the time to check out Red Rock Canyon and its hidden wonders off the beaten track.

• Chip Carroon, of Stagecoach, is an avid hiker and has a doctorate in geology.

If you go

WHERE: Red Rock Canyon NCA is about 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip; Bridge Mountain is centrally located in the NCA.

HIKE DISTANCE: About 5 miles round trip.

ELEVATION GAIN: At least 3,000 feet due to up-and-down route.

DIFFICULTY: Moderate to difficult.

MAPS Las Vegas 1:100,000; Blue Diamond and Mountain Springs 1:24,000

Reading: "Afoot and Afield, Las Vegas and Southern Nevada" by Brian Beffort, Wilderness Press; "Hiking Nevada" by Bruce Grubbs, Falcon Press.


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