Hiking in Las Vegas: The Summer Edition

Every summer, Las Vegans head to Mount Charleston, just an hour away from the city and yet a world away from the sweltering summer heat. The Mount Charleston Wilderness Area, part of the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, is at a much higher elevation than the Las Vegas Valley. By well over 5,000 feet! (And WAY more than that if you’re climbing to the top of one of the peaks.) As a result of the higher elevation, it’s usually about 20 or more degrees cooler up here—which is why Vegas locals flock to it in the dead of summer when the city is hovering around 110 degrees.

There are numerous different trails to explore, peaks to bag, day sites for picnicking, campsites for overnighting, and even charming rustic lodging for a stay-cation. Here’s an overview of some of the best ways to escape the heat for a wilderness adventure just an hour from the excitement of Sin City!

Please please PLEASE note: all fires are currently prohibited except in approved fire pits or grills provided in developed recreation sites. Humans caused the last fire in Mount Charleston that happened earlier this summer that burned almost 3,000 acres. This area is extremely dry and the smallest spark can ignite a fire that consumes thousands of acres, killing wildlife and jeopardizing the safety of everyone else in the area (including those that live here). Also, leave no trace! If you packed it in, pack it out.

Have a fabulous time exploring the great outdoors of Las Vegas, and stay cool!

HIKING

Cathedral Rock

This is one of the most popular hikes in Mount Charleston. It’s just under three miles up and back, but you do get a pretty serious cardio workout in those three miles. The top of this limestone pinnacle offers great views of Kyle Canyon below and the surrounding prominent peaks, including Mummy Mountain and Charleston Peak. During the spring, wildflowers are abundant, and in the fall, the aspens that line much of the trail explode in fiery oranges and yellows. After the hike, find an area amidst ponderosa pines near the start of the hike for a nice picnic!

Echo Falls (aka “Little Falls”)

This is another very popular hike and starts from the same parking lot and trailhead as Cathedral Rock. At under one mile round-trip, this is an easy hike great for family members of all ages and fitness levels (and all sizes of furry family members, too!). The hike ends at the seasonal Echo Falls, more commonly known as Little Falls, which usually have a good flow in the spring and early summer that reduces to a small trickle by the fall—except during years when the previous winter had significant snowfall, then these falls will rush all summer long!

Fletcher Canyon

This hike is relatively easy at roughly four miles out-and-back, but it offers a beautiful journey through forests of juniper, pinyon, mahogany, ponderosa, and white fir, and some jaw-dropping views of limestone cliffs that culminates in Fletcher Canyon, a limestone slot canyon with 200-foot walls. The Fletcher View Campground is located right across the road from the trailhead, and is an excellent year-round camping site with tons of amenities.

Mary Jane Falls

Mary Jane Falls is another seasonal waterfall that will flow nicely with the snowmelt and taper off to a trickle by mid- to late summer. This three-mile hike is extremely popular, and often crowded. The trail is fairly narrow, which can make passing people a little challenging, and is primarily switchbacks up the side of a mountain (just make sure you keep an eye out for the sign where the trail splits to the right from the main wide, rocky path). The parking lot is accessible by following a gravel road at the back of the Trail Canyon trailhead parking lot. If that lot is full, you can park in the Trail Canyon lot and walk the extra distance.

Bristlecone Trail

There are two starting points for the Bristlecone Trail, simply named Upper and Lower Bristlecone Trails. You can start at either point and make this hike a loop, for a total of a little more than six miles, or an out-and-back for whatever length you would like. (In which case I would recommend the Upper Bristlecone Trail, which has much more scenic start.) This hike is a great meander through the pine forests of Lee Canyon, on the other side of Mount Charleston from most of the other hikes listed here. You can often spot wild horses in the area, especially in Lee Meadows; just don’t feed them, even if they come right up to and let you pet them! (Which they often will, because they know that’s how they get food from humans.)

Rain Tree via North Loop or Trail Canyon

Rain Tree is a giant, ancient bristlecone pine tree, estimated to be somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 years old, and it is the oldest living thing in Southern Nevada. As far as Las Vegas hiking bucket list items go, this one ranks among the top must-sees. There are several ways to get to Rain Tree, but the two most popular routes are via the North Loop trailhead and the Trail Canyon trailhead. Both trails take you through forests of towering ponderosa pines and twisted bristlecone pines, but Trail Canyon is a bit of a longer hike at just over seven miles, while North Loop is closer to five and a half. Both hikes are also extremely steep, so if you’re looking for a good cardio workout, this is it!

Griffith Peak

Griffith Peak was not accessible for several years after the Carpenter One Fire in 2013 caused massive damage to the South Loop Trail, but after it reopened in late 2016 it has once again solidified itself as one of the best hikes in Mount Charleston. Griffith Peak is the second-highest peak in Southern Nevada (after neighboring Charleston Peak, accessible from the same trailhead), and the hike up offers gorgeous views of aspen groves, limestone walls, ponderosa pines and white firs, and bristlecone pines closer to the top. During the spring and summer, wildflowers and butterflies—including the rare blueish-purple Mount Charleston butterfly—are abundant, and there is an unnamed seasonal waterfall to the left that you can hear from many points along the lower switchbacks. You are very probably going to see some deer here, too. In the fall, the first several miles of the hike are FULL of color, and this is probably the best place in Southern Nevada to experience fall colors. There are two prominent overlook points along the trail (at roughly miles 2.5 and 3.5) that offer even more stunning, sweeping views. Once you hit the saddle between Griffith and Charleston at roughly mile 4.5, you can head to the left for another grueling half-mile to Griffith, or head right for another four miles to Charleston. The hike to the summit of Griffith and back

Charleston Peak

This is the big boy of Mount Charleston—Charlie himself. At 11,916′, it is the tallest peak in Southern Nevada and the eighth-most prominent peak in the United States (how’s that for some trivia?). Accessible by either the North Loop or South Loop trailheads (some might want to make this a loop, which requires a car shuttle), Charleston is a long hike—16 to 19 miles, depending—no matter where you start from, and it is challenging no matter how good of hiking shape you’re in because of both the length and the altitude. Even the most skilled and practiced hikers can find anything over 10,000 feet, where oxygen levels really start to drop, challenging, so be sure to have PLENTY of food and water and take your time, especially if you start to feel light-headed, dizzy, or start getting a headache. Altitude is no joke! The North Loop route is lovely, but I highly recommended taking the South Loop either out and back or as a loop with North Loop—the forest of the burned-out bristlecone pine remains from the Carpenter One Fire is absolutely haunting and breathtaking to see, and if you time the hike right in the late summer, you might even find yourself surrounded by fields of vibrant wildflowers along the stretch between the saddle with Griffith and the peak. Pro tip: no matter how hot it is outside, it can be COLD and WINDY at the top of this peak. Bring layers!

CAMPING

Fletcher View Campground

As noted above, this is an excellent site for year-round camping with easy access to the Fletcher Canyon Trail. All sites in this campground include electric hook-ups, tables, campfire rings, and grills. Drinking water is also available. Reservations can be made except during the summer monsoon season (mid-July to mid-September), when overnight stays are only allowed as weather permits. Fees run $33-58 per night.

Mack’s Canyon

If you like your camping a little less developed, you’ll love camping in Mack’s Canyon. This is “dispersed camping,” or primitive camping—no paved parking spaces, no electric hook-ups, no fire pits or grills, no garbage cans, no water, no bathrooms of any kind. If the whole point of camping for you is to get AWAY from people, you’ll probably love Mack’s Canyon (just please note the current fire restrictions in place). No fees, but don’t forget to leave any trace!

Blue Tree Group Camp

This large group campground in Lee Canyon is a lesser-known area for dispersed camping, not quite as popular as Mack’s Canyon but relatively close to it. The winding paths of gravel roads and parking areas go on for quite a while, so finding a place to park and set up camp is rarely a problem. This campground also has a whole network of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails surrounding it, which connect to the nearby Sawmill Picnic Area with tables and restrooms. No fees; leave no trace!

McWilliams Campground

This large campground was recently renovated, and some sites are (potentially, though not guaranteed to be) open year-round. There are single and double family sites with picnic tables, grills, campfire rings, tent pads, flush and vault toilets, drinking water, and trash collection. There is no electric hookup, but roads and parking spurs are paved. Fees are $25-50 per night.

Mahogany Grove Campground

This campground has six group camp sites, picnic and serving tables, grills, campfire circles, tent pads, and vault toilets. The sites are tent-only; you’ll have to park in the parking lot and carry your equipment in. The North Loop and Robber’s Roost trailheads are both nearby, and the parking lot is shared with the Deer Creek Picnic Area, a day-use site with tables that run alongside a seasonal stream. Fees run $67-130 per night.

LODGING & FOOD

The Retreat on Charleston Peak

If you’re looking to turn your trip to Mount Charleston into a little staycation but aren’t about that tent life, you’ll enjoy this rustic-chic lodge in Kyle Canyon. As the largest and most elegant retreat on Mount Charleston, the Retreat on Charleston Peak (it’s not really on the actual peak or really anywhere near it, FWIW) is a popular wedding destination during normal times. Right now, locals can enjoy some serious discounts and support this sustainable lodge with an emphasis on local sourcing. The on-site Canyon Restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The Mt. Charleston Lodge

Just steps away from the trailhead that leads to Cathedral Rock, Little Falls, and Griffith Peak, the Mt. Charleston Lodge is a VERY popular place for hungry hikers to grab breakfast, lunch, or dinner, with a tasty menu of burgers, sandwiches, flatbreads, steaks, and other house specialties, as well as decadent house-made desserts. The Lodge is also a local favorite spot in the fall and winter for their cozy central fireplace that is the ideal setting for one of their “Fireplace Favorites” cocktails—start with their signature “World Famous Mt. Charleston Coffee!” There are also several cabins available to rent, with the choice of one king + twin bed or two king beds, as well as pet-friendly options.

Lee Canyon

Did you know you can ski in Las Vegas? Like, legitimately ski (or snowboard) on REAL powder? Mount Charleston gets TONS of snow each year, and the ski runs at the Lee Canyon ski resort can get over 11,000 feet—the same elevations you would find at the world-class ski resorts in Aspen and Telluride. But that’s winter talk, and right now we’re all about beating the heat. Summer in Lee Canyon is also a blast, where you can ride the chair lifts and enjoy the Mount Charleston scenery, do some hiking, play disc golf, try out their “archery experience,” or just grab a burger and beer at the Bighorn Bar & Grill. There is no lodging at Lee Canyon, but there are several campgrounds nearby (Mack’s Canyon being the closest).