Las Vegas, NV: Mt. Charleston

At 11,918 feet, Mt. Charleston is a peakbagger's dream. This strenuous, high-altitude (nontechnical) climb brings you to the top of the most prominent peak in Nevada—and it's only a short drive from Las Vegas. BY CHELISE SIMMONS
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At 11,918 feet, Mt. Charleston is a peakbagger's dream. This strenuous, high-altitude (nontechnical) climb brings you to the top of the most prominent peak in Nevada—and it's only a short drive from Las Vegas. BY CHELISE SIMMONS

There are few places where you can begin your day driving through a desert landscape of Joshua trees and creosote and end up only hours later on a prominent mountain peak with views across 3 states by way of 3,000-year-old bristlecone pine forests. Las Vegas is one of them. Mt. Charleston’s proximity to Las Vegas—combined with the fact that it can be conquered in a long dayhike—makes it a great choice hike. Don't let the "dayhike" part fool you though because this is not an easy hike, and many people turn around due to altitude sickness or weather conditions.

Mt. Charleston is a Sky Island rising out of the Mojave Desert. The surrounding Spring Mountain National Recreation Area contains 58 sensitive species of flora and fauna, 24 of which are endemic (look for Palmer's chipmunks and blue butterflies). The Strip sits at 2,150 feet and Mt. Charleston Peak barely under 12,000 feet—that’s almost 10,000 feet of elevation gain in one day. You may need to adjust to the altitude before attempting a strenuous, high-elevation hike such as this. Some people choose to camp in the surrounding area before hitting the trail.

The hike up Mt. Charleston begins at 7,750 feet at the Trail Canyon trailhead and climbs 1,600 feet in 2 miles on a loose, rocky trail through ponderosa pine, aspen, and wax currant trees. Just beyond a town water tank you’ll pass into Mt. Charleston Wilderness. (You are allowed to backcountry camp in the wilderness, but no fires are permitted.) As you hike north up Trail Canyon toward Mummy Mountain’s toes, Cockscomb Ridge looms over you from the east. The trail partially flattens out after some switchbacks at around mile 1.5 and the grade becomes easier until you reach the junction with the North Loop Trail. Many people just hike Trail Canyon as a quick dayhike so this is where they turn back. It’s also a good spot to set up camp. Before you continue northwest on the North Loop trail, take a few minutes to walk out on the rocky ledges west of you for great views down Kyle Canyon. From the junction, the treeless, gray Mt. Charleston summit and the trail leading to it winding across banded, limestone cliffs is clearly visible to the west.

From the junction, the North Loop Trail climbs northwest through a decades-old burn area. Half a mile past the junction you reach Cave Spring, a watering trough carved out of a log that provides water for wildlife. Depending on the season, you can find water coming out of the cliffs above the trough, but don’t rely on it. The cave-like ledge above the trail is a popular campsite. At the 3 mile mark, the trail makes a long switchback through aspens growing in the burn area. As you cross the upper portion of a scree gully you make another switchback directly under Mummy Mountain and the trail starts to head west under the North Ridge. The views from this open part of the trail are great. You can see down to the resort at Kyle Canyon as well as all the way over to Red Rock Canyon NCA. Look for fossils in the limestone that are remnants of when the Spring Mountains were at the bottom of an ancient ocean. It is illegal to take them, so just take photos of them.

For the next 3 miles the trail stays on the south side of the North Ridge, heading west. It wanders through gnarled bristlecone pine forests, which are the only trees tough enough to survive high-altitude living here. You will hike past three places where the trail climbs on top of the ridge and levels out enough to make a good site for dispersed camping. These sites have great views over the north side of the ridgeline down into Lee Canyon and the ski resort below. Visible peaks include the North and South Sisters and McFarland Peak to the north.

Approximately 3 miles past Cave Springs, climb a short, steep set of switchbacks that will bring you above 11,000 feet. Just beyond this is a small section of rock that juts dangerously out from the trail. It’s a popular place to take photos of the sweeping views beyond and below you into Kyle Canyon. Over the next couple of miles the trail has some seriously exposed areas. You don’t want to trip over a pointed rock or a tree root on this narrow section of trail.

At the south end of the North Ridge, reach the Devil’s Thumb, which is limestone outcrop. From here, the trail meanders south. You’ll have a chance to look down some very large avalanche chutes on your way to the first of six switchbacks that lead you up the east face of Mt. Charleston. Notice how the vegetation changes—the bristlecone pines get smaller and the ground-hugging foliage gets thicker. The final three-quarters of a mile crisscross 700 feet up the rocky, treeless peak. Pat yourself on the back at the summit because you’ve earned it.

The views from the summit of Mt. Charleston span approximately 300 miles across 3 states. On a clear day you can see Mt. Whitney and the Sierras and Death Valley’s Telescope Peak to the west.

Trail Facts

  • State: NV
  • City: Las Vegas
  • Distance: 17.0
  • Contact: (702) 515-5400
  • Land Type: National Forest

Waypoints

MCS001
Location: 36.266344, -115.658582
Trailhead

MCS002
Location: 36.286179, -115.647151
Trail Canyon junction with North Loop trail. Good spot for dispersed camping. Continue east to rocky vista east down Kyle Canyon Rd. Continue on North Loop trail.

MCS003
Location: 36.291318, -115.653325
Cave Springs. Good place to camp. Possible water available.

MSC004
Location: 36.270847, -115.691413
1st switchback in the final push to the summit

MCS005
Location: 36.271569, -115.695631
Summit of Mt Charleston. Turn around and retrace steps to trail-head.