Turtlehead Peak 6325ft (1928m) – Las Vegas, Nevada
5 miles return (approximately 8 kilometres)
2000 foot elevation gain (approximately 630m)
A crisp Thursday morning in April, walking past pokies, restaurants and day spa posters in my hiking shoes, running pants and a long sleeved shirt, I was smiling. Today I’d exit the kitchy painted ceiling of Paris Hotel, for the real sky of Red Rocks Conservation Park.
On previous trips to climb in the area, a particular feature had always caught my eye – a butressed, lone formation towering behind Calico Basin. This was Turtlehead Peak.
Driving to the Bureau of Land Management entrance I paid my $7 entry to the scenic drive and tootled to the Sandstone Quarry carpark, noticing early climbers. With a tinge of envy at clipping bolts, I reminded myself the hike ahead was going to be just as enjoyable. It would be my first hike in a United States desert.
Starting out the soft sand underfoot made me slightly out of breath, my cardio system making it clear a lack of physical activity wasn’t in its best hiking interests. I decided to take my time and enjoy the scenery, but still move at a reasonable pace to make it up and back in four hours.
The trail dipped into a wash, and the nearby rolling sandstone provided an interesting distraction. Soon I was heading east and steadily upwards, facing toward a gully leading to a saddle. I knew the saddle was where I needed to aim, there I’d turn right and wander to the top.
I also knew the trail was going to be unmaintained, however that was not the issue, it was the number of trails formed over the years. Maybe that’s what they mean by unmaintained, like blind goats had tracked all over the hillsides, it was a mess.
Staying just left of the gully I soon found myself back in the gully, enjoying some easy scrambling to gain elevation. Hearing voices closeby, three young ladies popped out behind a rock, “I’m going down on my bum!”, “It’s okay we’ll go first and last”, “Ohh this is so much fun!” I smiled and we greeted each other, then I waited for the less excited member of the group to gingerly make her way down.
Traipsing upward the saddle came surprisingly quickly and the view from there was wonderful. The La Madras Mountain Wilderness peered down from the north east, they were bigger and it seemed like Turtlehead Peak popped its head back in with embarrassment.
Washes spread eloquently through the landscape, their sandy veins constrasted against the desert brush. I imagined how wonderful it would be to see them bursting with water in a summer storm.
Plodding onward toward the summit I realised the weather was superb, the hike was populated but not busy and it was challenging enough to be interesting, but relaxing and fun at the same time.
The trail network continued to be somewhat random, so I chose whatever felt natural to head toward the top. There, I sat and ate tuna and a muesli bar, popping on a light puffy jacket to cut the light wind.
I smiled at the 360 degree view, from Las Vegas, across Calico Basin, to the exotically beautiful Rainbow Wall, Mount Charleston in the distance and the La Madras Mountains.
Atop this desert hill, a contented feeling washed over me. It’s a feeling I’ve had at the top of other hikes. There’s never regret, just contentment and pride in your body and your mind, to be in that place at that particular time. It was bliss.
The way back I attempted to follow my ascent trail, but ended up somewhat like those blind goats, taking a slightly higher trail on the right of the wash. Deciding to turn back on a section that didn’t feel familiar turned out in my favor. It was less steep and spat me out at the base of the gully nicely. I looked back and wondered how I never saw it on the way up.
Eventually the trails funnelled together and I followed the main track back to the carpark, walking by other visitors scrambling about, taking photos, laughing and climbing, and enjoying the smooth rocks.
I’ve never been a fan of desert hikes, much preferring the soaked valleys of New Zealand, the lush meadows of the Sierra, or exploring on snowshoes in Canada. However, Turtlehead Peak revealed that desert hiking can be just as interesting and rewarding, if you’re willing to get out of your shell!