Charleston Peak Loop

For Thanksgiving this year, we drove down to Las Vegas to see my brother. Frankly, I can’t stand the town. I don’t enjoy gambling and I loathe frat party culture. I regard The Hangover films as quasi-journalistic in that they unapologetically fetishize the (white male) juvenilia around which the city’s economy really does revolve. As a New Yorker in exile, it occurs to me that Las Vegas is what passes for culture West of the Hudson. Put differently, if New York City is the epicenter of American consumerism, “Sin City” represents its vulgar extremity—all spectacle, no taste. Trump must love Las Vegas.

On top of it all, the city’s flagrant disregard for basic sustainability strikes me as particularly obscene in our time of ecological crisis. This little patch of sand consumes far more water than nature would otherwise grant and Ed Abbey’s ruminations return to me:

Water, water, water. . . . There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.

A city where no city should be. When it comes to Las Vegas, this is a multilayered sentiment.

As soon as we met my family at the hotel, I began looking for ways to escape the oppressive kitsch that is the Strip. Unlike some cities of its size, it is very easy to get away from Las Vegas in Las Vegas. We had stopped at Valley of Fire State Park on the way down and did a couple of short but quite lovely hikes. We made plans to visit nearby Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area as well, a popular site west of the city maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. Red Rock Canyon sees 2,000,000+ visitors annually and Thanksgiving is the busiest time of the year, as I was told over the phone. I wanted to hike somewhere less saturated with tourists, however, and this is usually no more complicated than increasing the mileage. Flipping through a copy of Bruce Grubbs’s Hiking Nevada, I settled on a long but promising day hike to the summit of Mt. Charleston (officially Charleston Peak).

My Dad had recently been training for a marathon and decided to join me. 15 miles would have been more than he had ever hiked in a single day, but he was in good physical condition and felt up to the challenge. We scheduled our trip for the day after Thanksgiving. I had wanted to be on the road by 5.30 AM (the trailhead is about an hour’s drive) but Thanksgiving revelry kept us up until 1.00 so we delayed things a bit and arrived at the trailhead by 7.30.

The trail (FT 041) rises steadily from the Trail Canyon Trailhead at the edge of the small community of Mt. Charleston. Both mountain and town are named after the city in South Carolina, apparently by southern emigres who settled in the area.

Two miles from the trailhead, we intersected with the North Loop trail (FT 042) to the summit and continued to climb. My father was doing very well. Light snow covered the trail as we ascended, but nothing too serious. As the morning clouds began to clear, spectacular views emerged across the valley. We could make out our route all the way to the switchbacks up Mt. Charleston’s bald and rather unremarkable peak. From there, a ridge walk along the Spring Range would round the loop before a steep descent returned us to the valley floor a short walk from the car. Surveying the topography, it didn’t look like 15 miles to me. I suspected the guide was a bit off. Just a bit.

Old growth trees, large enough to resist the area’s frequent avalanches.

Because I didn’t know what to expect from my father and because I wasn’t sure how challenging the ascents would be, I had estimated a worst-case pace of 1.5 mph. If we started at 8.00 AM, that would have us summiting in the early afternoon and off the mountain by 6.00 PM.  A long day but probably realistic. I wasn’t hiking alone, after all.

At 11,916 feet, Mt. Charleston is the eighth highest in the state of Nevada. Strange as it sounds, I’ve never hiked at such altitudes (the peaks in my Glacier National Park trek were almost entirely in the 7,000-8,000 ft. range) and my Dad began to experience minor signs of altitude sickness. His fingers swelled and his breathing became labored. Our perfectly respectable initial pace of 2.5 mph slowly evaporated as the trail became higher and steeper. But it wouldn’t ascend indefinitely and I felt confident that we would make up time on descent. We were on course to easily beat my 1.5 mph worst-case estimate.

Then my Dad injured his knee.

As we began to switchback up to the summit, he stepped into a snowdrift and twisted his leg. A minor irritation in his knee became an excruciating pain. He could scarcely bend his leg, which made walking extremely difficult. According to my GPS we had already come nine miles. If the trail was 15.4, there was no point in turning back now that we were (supposedly) more than halfway through. We would press on. I tied a rudimentary knee brace for my Dad from a small towel and he began to hobble along throwing his lame leg ahead of him without bending it and then stepping forward with the bad knee locked. I also lent him my trekking poles, which prevented countless falls and additional injuries. Our new pace was excruciatingly slow but steady and we reached the summit of Mt. Charleston at about 2.30 PM.

At the summit.

Few mountains in this area rival Mt. Charleston for height and the views at the peak are certainly spectacular. One can see as far as Arizona and California. A small ammunition box at the summit is filled with souvenirs and tokens of hikers who came before us, including love notes, business cards, an empty beer car (which I packed out), photographs, and a small American flag with a tribute to fallen comrades in Vietnam. We took a few selfies before I insisted that we continue. Sunset was officially at 4.28 PM, less than two hours away.

At the height of the Cold War in 1955, a CIA transport plane crashed atop Mt. Charleston while headed to Area 51 to test the U-2 spy plane, killing all 14 passengers aboard. The wreckage still lies strewn upon the mountainside but we must have passed it without realizing because the sun was rapidly setting as we proceeded along the ridge.

Mile after mile we continued with no end in sight. Now my GPS said we had gone 14 miles! Through the burned forest along the ridge, we could see our car in the trailhead parking lot far—very far—below us at the base of the valley. It was dark by the time we got to the intersection with the Griffith Peak spur-trail and began a steep descent. The desert temperature was plummeting. With all my layers on, I pulled out my headlamp and began a ludicrous routine that was to be repeated without end throughout the night: I would run about 30-40 feet ahead of my father and then light his path forward, pointing out large rocks, roots, and other obstacles as I went. And then again and again, until increments of feet slowly became miles.

At one point, the trail spilled out onto a large flat spot atop a sheer cliff and I wasn’t sure which way it continued. I was suddenly jarred to hear a dog growling menacingly and noticed that it was coming from a small tent erected near the trail. Someone within quickly zipped up the flap as they realized they were not alone and the dog continued to growl. Hoping to avoid being mauled by a feral canine, I attempted to defuse the situation: “Hi, do you know which way the trail goes from here?”

After a long pause, a deep voice responded simply. “No.”

“Oh, ok. Thanks.” For nothing, I thought. We soon found the trail again and continued for another couple miles of icy switchbacks.

Following the trail at night was difficult, but easier than I would have expected. The moon had been full on Thanksgiving and it illuminated our way whenever the trees became thin, which was often. When we were forced to rely primarily on the dim light of my small emergency headlamp, however, it was absolutely essential not to lose our way—not that we would have been lost per se. Even without GPS our general course to the car was obvious and we could theoretically have made our way down the mountainside without the trail, but it would have been that much slower going overland and through heavier snowfall on this side of the valley. Moreover, I had not anticipated being out after dark and my Dad simply wasn’t dressed for it in shorts and a light hoodie. He wore no gloves and as the temperature was now 28 F, I worried about frostbite. I must have asked how he was doing at least several hundred times throughout the night, wondering when our circumstances might slouch towards an emergency. Fortunately, there was no wind or snow. Had there been, our situation may have been dire. As my Dad never once complained and, on the contrary, insisted that he was good to keep going, we simply continued at a glacial pace of slightly less than one mph.

Finally, around 10.00 PM with the GPS indicating 22.2 miles, we came the Cathedral Rock Picnic Area, where I had planned to leave leave my Dad and sprint the final 1.5 miles to the car. To my great dismay, as I ran the perimeter of the picnic area, I discovered that we were trapped inside the picnic complex. The 10-foot fence of vertical bars looked impossible to climb and I frantically searched for a way out. Obscured by trees near Kyle Canyon Rd., I found a section of fence that had been ripped from its joints and strewn nearby. The handiwork of local teenagers, perhaps? Or else other wayward hikers? Whatever the case, I took the opportunity and ran down the road until my lungs heaved and burned in my chest, past houses adorned with premature Christmas lights and silent driveways leading to garish mountain McMansions. I found the car sitting alone in the parking lot, started it up, and blasted the heater as I sped back to the picnic area.

It was possible to drive into the picnic areas, but after several fruitless efforts, it became obvious that the main complex was indeed fenced off. I left the car by a “no parking” sign near the section of errant fencing and, running in the darkness through one identical picnic area after the next, made my way (with no small amount of help from the GPS) back to my Dad. All the while, I was shouting, “Dad! Daaaaad!” Yet no one answered. Where was he? Was he in shock? Asleep? Arrested for trespassing by an overzealous recreation officer? As I approached the restroom where we parted, I apprehended a dark figure leaning casually against the structure.

“Dad?” I asked.

“Nope,” the figure responded in a listless voice that almost sounded like my father’s.

“Uh, Dad?”

“Oh, sorry Kris. I didn’t recognize you with the dog.”

It was him. Dog? He must have dozed off and been dreaming, which at least explains why he didn’t respond to my hysterical screaming. I apologetically explained our predicament and we hobbled the last quarter mile through the hole in the fence to where I had left the car.

It was some time before the heater penetrated our frozen bodies on the drive back to Las Vegas. All said and done, we hiked just over 22 miles in fourteen hours (not counting my road run)—a daily average of about 1.57 mph. My worst-case scenario pace turned out to be presciently accurate.

what WE did wrong

There’s no question that I screwed up on this trip. I wasn’t fully prepared for an outcome that would keep us on the mountain long after dark. We were lucky and I’m just grateful that our bad situation didn’t become an emergency situation. It was a stark reminder that poor planning opens the way to disaster.

Sure, I had a headlamp, a first aid kit, extra food, and a poncho for each of us—but I didn’t insist that my Dad bring proper layers and I lacked an extra layer myself in case the weather changed for the worse. What if it had been snowing or even raining? What if there had been a strong wind? What if it had been 10 degrees colder? If I thought either of us was facing hypothermia or frostbite, I would not have hesitated to press the SOS button on my Garmin, but we should have been better prepared.


0.0 miles: Begin at the Trail Canyon Trailhead at Mary Jane Falls Campground.

2.4 miles: Intersection with North Loop Trail. Keep left.

3.0 miles: Spring.

9.5 miles: Summit Charleston Peak. Continue on South Loop Trail.

17 miles: Spur trail to Griffith Peak.

22 miles: Trail terminates in Cardinal Rock Picnic Area.

23.5 miles: Return to Trail Canyon Trailhead.

Trailhead GPS: 36°15’58.7″N 115°39’30.8″W
Elevation gain: 4,190 feet
Distance: 23.5 mile loop
Maps: U.S.G.S. Charleston Peak; U.S.F.S. Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest – Spring Mountains National Recreation Area

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, November 23, 2018.

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