High rolling in Las Vegas takes on a whole new meaning when you ditch the bright lights and hike the Mt. Charleston Loop Trail. Some 10,000 feet of vertical relief-and eons of time, biologically speaking-separate the sky island peak from the surrounding Mojave Desert. The contrast with Sin City is even sharper. In terms of flora and fauna, that translates into more than 50 plants found nowhere else, and no gambling junketeers.
For backpackers the payoff is something just as unique: a long, otherworldly ridge walk among ancient bristlecone pines, and above-treeline vistas that sweep into four states on a good day. As luck would have it, the trail returns to within a mile of the starting point for a perfect weekend loop.
LENGTH: 17 miles, one-way
RATING: Strenuous; a 4,000-foot ascent from trailheads to the 11,000-foot ridge. The trail peaks on 11,918-foot Mt. Charleston. Altitude sickness is a distinct possibility for flatlanders. Weather and wind can get rowdy on the crest. Steep snow is a hazard in late spring. Water is scarce after the thaw, and the ridge is no place to be during a thunderstorm.
WHERE: The south loop trailhead at Cathedral Rock Picnic Area is 40 miles northwest of Las Vegas (45 minutes). Take US 95 north from Las Vegas then NV 157 west to Kyle Canyon and the picnic area. The Trail Canyon trailhead is 1 mile north on Echo Road off of NV 157.
MAPS: USGS topos Charleston Peak and Mountain Springs. Order through MapLink (800-962-1394) or Mercury Blueprint in Las Vegas (702-794-4400).
CONTACT: Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, 2881 S. Valley View Blvd., Suite 16, Las Vegas, NV 89102-0152; (702) 873-8800.