Red Rock Canyon Climbing
By Melissa McGibbon
Climbing towers the size of skyscrapers in the desert seems normal—climbing desert towers within catapulting distance of actual skyscrapers does not. It’s among the oddest of juxtapositions to see a bustling city with a torrent of flashing lights and ring-a-ding-dings billowing out of what would otherwise be an ocean of arid earth and tumbleweeds. But there it is, just 425 miles south of Salt Lake City, the opulent metropolis of Las Vegas set against the backdrop of a contrasting quiet and graceful escarpment of Aztec Sandstone known as Red Rock Canyon.
In 1970, local climbers Joe Herbst and Mr. and Mrs. Urioste, who preferred route-setting to dice-rolling, started claiming the first alizarin ascents and bolting lines at Red Rocks. It has earned its way into the books as a premier climbing destination because it has more than 1,700 climbing routes of all grades, lengths, and types so there’s something to suit every climber’s taste from beginning sport to steep-face 13-pitch trad. This accommodating attribute along with the friendly-textured rock and convenient location, just 20 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, make it an ideal destination for those who like to get rad on the rocks in the morning, relax poolside in the afternoon, and experience Sin City by night.
Whose idea was it to build a city of casino hotels in the middle of the Mojave Desert? Not exactly whom you might expect. Though Nevada was the first state to legalize casino-style gambling in 1931, the area did not gain a noteworthy populous until the 1940s when the Manhattan Project beckoned an influx of scientists who had come to party and needed places to stay. Okay, so they came for Atomic Bomb test-watching get togethers, but still. Maybe it was those festive intentions that bred the Vegas party personality.
Capitalizing on the area’s need for accommodations and entertainment, guys from Back East with names like “Bugsy” built the first major resort hotels on the Las Vegas Strip. Howard Hughes’ Sands Hotel opened in 1952, and is considered the birthplace of the “Rat Pack.” Impromptu shows performed by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Junior are largely credited with driving tourism through the roof. Las Vegas has since become the most popular city in the world for gambling, entertainment, and general debauchery.
Indeed Las Vegas engenders revelous appetites. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area has been host to the country’s largest outdoor climbing festival each spring for the past ten years. The Red Rock Rendezvous draws more than 800 participants and is a veritable extravaganza of outdoor adventure, including climbing clinics for every ability level, mountain biking, and trail running. It’s thought by many to be the best climbing event of the season.
Two main areas divide Red Rock Canyon, the Rainbow Mountain Wilderness region, which includes ten canyons, and the La Madre Mountain Wilderness region, which features the Kraft Mountain bouldering area and Calico Hills. Though Red Rock offers year-round climbing, the most ideal seasons to climb there are fall and spring. If you’re an ambitious summer climber, you can achieve early morning glories if you’re willing to go on dawn patrol, you know, before the buxom glitterati have gone to bed from the night before.
Of course, climbing isn’t the only game in town, Red Rocks NCA is also a spectacular place to ride and run. Its paved one-way road offers breathtaking views of Joshua trees that pepper the terrain that is dominated by views of giant sandstone formations and big open skies. It’s hard to miss the high volume of cyclists joyriding through the 13-mile backcountry byway. The first five miles deliver a challenging elevation gain, but riders are soon rewarded with a fast descent full of amusing bends.
And there’s always the possibility of a few wildlife sightings too. Mind the tortoise-crossing signs as you drive the loop and be careful not to run over Mojave Max, the famous mascot desert tortoise who lives there. The resident desert tortoises can live to be 60–80 years old and spend most of their time in burrows, but have come out on occasion for special appearances, especially when Old Blue Eyes was playing.
Classic Routes at Red Rocks
Jubliant Song: ★★★, 5.8, Trad, 8-pitches, Grade III, 800’ (Windy Peak)
Crimson Chrysalis: ★★★1/2 Stars, 5.8+, Trad, 9-pitches, Grade III, 1000’ (Juniper Canyon)
Epinephrine: ★★★★, 5.9, Trad, 13-pitches, Grade IV, 1600’ (Black Velvet Canyon)
Levitation 29: ★★★★, 5.11, Trad/Sport, 9-pitches, Grade III, 700’ (Oak Creek Canyon)
The Nightcrawler: ★★★★, 5.10b, Trad/Sport, 5-pitches, Grade II, 550’ (Juniper Canyon)
The Prophet: ★★★★, 5.12b, Sport, 1-pitch, 65’ (Calico Basin)
Plumber’s Crack: ★★★1/2, V1+, Boulder, 40’ (Kraft Boulders)
Angel Dyno: ★★★1/2, V7, Boulder, 12’ (Kraft Boulders)
Where to Stay
The Red Rocks Casino Resort and Spa is a ten-minute drive from the entrance to Red Rock Canyon. This resort has one of the most illustrious pools in Las Vegas with plenty of options for entertainment and dining. Rooms feature luxurious amenities including flat screen televisions mounted above the bathtubs and pillows so comfortable you will find it difficult to depart from them. Prices start at $80 per night.
11011 West Charleston Boulevard
Las Vegas, Nevada 89135
Melissa McGibbon is an Associate Editor for Outdoor Sports Guide magazine, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, and a Lolë Ambassador. She is exceedingly optimistic and always in pursuit of adventure, travel, or some daring combination of the two.