Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Red Rock and Red Roll

I had a longish drive from Zion to Red Rock, though not nearly as long as the following day's drive would be. I reflected that this was probably why Zion is one of the most overcrowded national parks: it's one of the very few top-tier national parks within a few hours' drive of a major metro area. If you live in Vegas, you could wake up at 6AM on a Saturday and be in Zion shortly after 8AM. Folks flying into the airport can easily make a day trip out of it, unlike more remote parks that require more of a commitment to travel and establish lodging closer to the park.

I gradually left the mountains behind as I drove, moving into the desert. Traffic moved quickly, now that I was back on an Interstate highway for the first time in over a week, and very few people were headed in my direction.

Following the GPS instructions, I skirted along the northern perimeter of Vegas, then headed into my next and final recreational destination, Red Rock. Unlike most of my parks on this trip, this one is run by the Bureau of Land Management. Most of the BLM properties I'm familiar with are relatively bare-bones affairs, but Red Rock is pretty thoroughly (and nicely) developed: a very well-maintained scenic drive with a day-use charge, a large visitor's center with many exhibits and a gift shop, good restroom facilities and water, and many hiking trails.

I'd considered doing the Grand Circle Loop, a collection of trails leading from the Visitor's Center that would take you to many of the park's destinations, but decided instead to focus my time on the Turtlehead Peak trail, and otherwise take advantage of the road.

I did have a lot of fun at the very first stop, Calico Hills. This is a really picturesque collection of, uh, red rocks that form a rambling, interesting slope. This is a very popular climbing area. A lot of people like me just scrambled around and climbed up as far as we felt like going, but I think some more serious people use this area for more intense climbs.

I continued slightly farther and then started my main hike at Sandstone Quarry; a few trails lead from here, but I had my eye set on Turtlehead Peak, yet another trail that advertises a worrying ration between a long trip time and a short distance traveled. You start off crossing several broad washes through the canyon, then make a gentle ascent through the scrubby desert. I peered at the mountain ahead and to my right. "Is that Turtlehead Peak?" I wondered. "I guess it kind of looks like a turtle's head."

Yes: as I would learn, it was Turtlehead. The face you see while approaching looks extremely forbidding, but I anticipated that the trail would wrap around and find a more reasonable purchase up some slope that I couldn't see.

There were a good number of people on the trail at first, but it thinned out dramatically once it reached the foot of Turtlehead and began climbing. The trail became a lot more obscure, too. This was the one time on my vacation when I got significantly lost: not terribly lost, I doubt I was ever further than 1000 feet from the trail, but 1000 feet can be a long way on a rocky, steep, scree-filled mountain.

Looking back, I think my main problem was unfamiliarity with local trail-marking procedure. Throughout all my hikes in the desert, and in other Western parks over rocky or sandy terrain, I'd gotten used to having cairns as trail markers. You look for the pile of rocks, walk towards it, look for the next pile of rocks, walk towards that, and so on. I'd been thrown off because there were some cairns early on in the rocky portion of the hike, but they almost immediately vanished. Instead I should have been looking for blazes: small daubs of white paint on rocks that mark the way. Though even this wasn't foolproof: many of the rocks around here are naturally white, and I suspect that in other cases the markings have been covered up by rockfall or other debris.

As it was, I was inching my way up a precarious slope, thinking "This is probably not a trail," when I suddenly saw two people walking up the hill a ways to my right. "Oh," I thought, "That is the trail!". I carefully moved laterally along the slope in their direction, found their trail... and went "Oh, crap, this isn't a trail, either."

Still, you can only get so lost when walking up a mountain. I mean, it's Turtlehead Peak, so I'm going to end up on top no matter what: just keep going higher up! And with all the rock I was less concerned than I would have been otherwise about messing up the resources by continuing off trail. I kept my eye on the ridge and carefully chose a route over the most solid surface I could see, favoring long and gentle curves over short steep scrambles.

I finally emerged at the top and rediscovered the trail. The blazes were a lot more visible up here, and there's a lot less loose rock, so the route was really clear from here on out. I greeted a man coming down, who would be the last human being I would see for the next several hours. I was pleasantly surprised at just how deserted the peak was after seeing the large number of people down below. (Again: Not a misanthrope!)

Now that I could recognize the blazes, I had a lot of fun following the trail. There were a few spots where it seemed a little cheeky, breaking out oversized arrows or other overly-explicit directions. The steep part of the ascent was mostly done now, with just a few short scrambles necessary along the generally-gentle slope towards the top.

For almost the entire time, I'd been looking back and down at Red Rock Canyon, marveling at how its distinctive, uh, red rocks shrank and became a single discrete object. Once over the ridge, though, the entire area opened up and revealed new vistas. Once I reached the top I finally saw Las Vegas itself, as promised. There was a bit of a haze that day, but it was clear enough that I could make out the Strip and the overall sprawl of the city. I wandered the crest, marveling at the panoramic view, and also noticed an interesting device of mysterious origin and purpose perched against the ledge.

I ate, I drank, I descended. It was a calm and quiet return, though I very nearly got lost again once I reached the scree-filled middle portion of the hike, which oddly reassured me that I hadn't been uniquely dumb on my way up. I knew what to look for now, though, and while I suspect that some of the blazes were lost or invisible, I knew when to turn back and retrace my steps to try another potential route.

The valley floor was a lot quieter when I reached it, with only a few hikers on the trail and the parking lot nearly empty. I continued along the loop, stopping at a few more spots to see more sights. As with nearly every park I visited on this trip, I could have used another day or so at Red Rock to do all the hikes that looked interesting. I think I'd made the right choice for the one I'd done, though: the view and challenge of Turtlehead felt like a great cap to my two-week journey.

I bypassed the stops that only served as trailheads, hit up a view more with nearby viewpoints, and before long was headed into Vegas. I'd booked a room at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Summerlin, pretty close to the Red Rock area. I got to experiment with using their app as a key to my room, which was a neat experiment and makes me feel like I ought to deduct at least part of this trip as a business expense for research purposes. The hotel itself was great: corporate, like I'd expected, but super-comfortable and clean. The staff was incredibly friendly, too. It kind of pains me to say it, but I think that the best service I received in my entire trip was in Las Vegas: Every employee I met went out of their way to be friendly and helpful, which I greatly appreciated, even if it does make it harder for me to be snarky about Vegas.

Even if the people are great, the city of Vegas itself is definitely not for me: it absolutely demands a car to travel even the shortest distances. I'd hoped to walk to dinner from the hotel, but found pointless walls blocking my desired route, so I sighed and drove a half mile to get the 500 feet to my destination.

I had dinner at The Bar, a smallish and friendly establishment that was exactly what I expected. An enormous bar with four counters sits at the center; there are barstools all around it; and tables up against the walls. I had a pint of Newcastle and an enormous and delicious club sandwich. I took my time munching down while watching The Force Awakens silently play on the large TV as the bar slowly filled in. It sounded like a lot of the folks there were regulars, starting or ending their shifts at nearby casinos. Like almost every other building in Vegas, but unlike my hotel, there were slot machines all around the bar, but folks seemed happy to focus on the drinks, food, and conversation.

Back at the hotel I watched the sun set over the western mountains, slept soundly, and woke up early with the sun. There was yet another free breakfast in the morning, a step above the Continental breakfast I expected. Taking advantage of my early rising, I hit the road and had no traffic at all heading out of Vegas and back towards California.

My last day of driving was nearly as long as my first. Long ago I'd considered taking a route through Death Valley on my way back to squeeze in one more national park, but by now I was eager to get home, and hadn't heard many positive things about the park from other travelers on my trip. Following the GPS, I took I-15 to Barstow, CA-58 to Bakersfield, CA-99 up to Madera, then CA-152 all the way through Los Banos and into Gilroy. From here I was on familiar turf: US-101 up to San Jose, then I violated GPS by taking CA-85 to I-280 for the scenic route home. All in all, it was a little less than 9 hours of driving, broken up with some In-N-Out burger and fueled with a massive random shuffle of my entire Spotify library.

I swung by home to drop off all my gear and luggage, then brought the rental car back to the airport. It had served me very well, through rain and heat and days full of driving and days motionless by backcountry trailheads. I had picked it up with four digits on the odometer and was returning it with five, adding nearly 50% to its lifetime mileage. The return to Enterprise went really smoothly, just a quick scan and I was on my way home again, this time for good.

Vacation was wonderful, but as always it felt great to be home. I love being in nature, and it helps me appreciate civilization far more: for a week after I felt profound gratitude every time I could acquire clean drinking water just by turning a tap, or go to the bathroom without digging a hole in the ground. The memories of that beautiful land will continue to linger for years and years, aided by my excessive number of photos and this overly verbose blog.

That's the end of my journey, but not of this series! One more post to come, in which I will present the statistical quantities that can be derived from my trip.

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