Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Red Rocks Canyon Run - 03/12/2012

Sandra and I went to Las Vegas for Xerox's President's Club for a week.  After 5 days of too much fun, food and drinking, I got up early Monday to go out to Red Rocks Canyon for a long run.  Red Rocks is 25 minutes from the Strip, and I was able to get to my first parking spot 45 minutes before dawn, and be running at first light.  On the ride out, I listened to the news highlights on the radio, which included a note that there had been a hiker missing in Red Rocks Canyon since January, and his body was just found the day before.  I didn't think too much of it, but did remind myself to stay on the trails and not get lost.

My first spot was the Blue Diamond Hills where a series of mountain bike trails crisscrossed the hills.  From the parking lot, there were several trails leading out.  In retrospect, if I had gone left or right, the trails would have curved out and around to climb gently to the top.  But I chose the one in the middle which led me straight into an arroyo.  After just 5 minutes, it had already become steep and rocky enough, that I had to walk much of it.  Shortly after that, I reached a dead end.  I had a choice of climbing 30 feet straight up or backtracking.  I really wanted to run, so turned and looked for greener pastures.  Soon I passed an opening into another arroyo and took a chance, heading up the creek bed.  It was a bit eerie running along at first light; the canyon was dark, and I had visions of mountain lions just above me, waiting to pounce.

I am not sure when, but somewhere in the dimly lit canyon, I lost the trail.  I stubbornly continued up the creek bed, huffing and puffing, convinced it would lead out to the top.  Once again, I hit a dead end, but this time decided to climb.  None of the rises were more than 10 feet, so I was never in danger of serious injury if I fell.  But it was rough, slow going.  Finally after a nearly an hour, I came out on top of the escarpment.  Once there, I quickly picked up one of the trails, and began to really enjoy pounding up and down the twisting trails.  The grade was rarely steep, but never level either.  The trail was very rocky, so I had to spend a fair amount of time watching my feet so as not to fall.  There were numerous yuccas, cactus, and other low-lying desert bushes that I spent some effort avoided getting speared by.  I saw little wildlife, but did get spooked by a rabbit the size of a small lab.  Later, there were beautiful quail, nearly 16 inches tall, that let me approach quite closely before scurrying off.

At some point I must have made another wrong turn because I came out onto a dirt road.  I was a little concerned that I wandered off trail twice in less than 90 minutes.  But looking west, I could always see the La Madre mountains rising above the canyon.  Knowing I had a good reference point, I figured I could orienteer my way back if needed.  Looking at the map later, I realized I had run out of the park and onto some other land.  The road led upslope, and appeared to go all the way to the peak of the Blue Diamond Hills.  So up I went.  The slope varied between 5-15 degrees; and I was pretty pleased I was able to run almost all of it.  The car, back at the base had said the temperature was 56 degrees, but as I climbed, I could feel it dropping quickly and the wind picked up.  I soon added the long sleeve shirt I had carried even as I sweated profusely working uphill. 

The peak was beautiful.   To the east, I was looking back down into the valley and the urban sprawl of Las Vegas.  Beyond it, I could see Lake Mead shimmering in the low sun.  To the north, I saw the Sheep Range mountains in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge where I had run last year.  And back to the west, I had a panoramic view of Red Rocks Canyon, with the mountains of dizzying hues spread around it.  Much as I wished to enjoy the view, I did not tarry.  The wind was howling through about 50 mph, and the temperature had to have dropped below 32 because I could feel the snot on my face, freezing into ice. Shivering, I turned back down the road and ran hard trying to warm back up.  I retraced my steps until I found a trail again and just kept working my way west back towards the car.

The trip coming back down was very different, as I could pick out the trails on the slopes below me and keep my bearings at all times.  After a bit, I saw the canyon I had earlier climbed off to my left, and a similar one to the right.  The slope became very steep in places, and the switchbacks frequent.  I marveled at the people who decided this was a good place to bike and classified them all as insane.  The steeper the trail got, the slower I became, at times having to skip sideways to gain purchase on the crushed rock under foot.  I had no interest in tumbling off the edge and making tomorrow's news reel.  Finally, after just over 2 1/2 hours and almost 11 miles of good hill training, without seeing a single other human being, I was back to the car.

I snapped a few pictures, jumped in the car, and raced a mile down the road to the Red Rocks Canyon visitor center.  I quickly sucked down a coconut water, refilled my camelback, and was on my way.  The canyon has an 11.6 mile loop called The Grand Circle that goes around the perimeter and hits most of the highlights of the park.  Within a mile, the trail approaches Calico Hills and also the site of the demise of the aforementioned hiker.  The hills are cross bedded sandstone of different colors, created by deposits left over from an ancient sea.  The first section is a bright pink that does not look possible to be natural.  That soon gave way to the longer orange section.  Here the trail connected to numerous other trails leading down from the scenic overlook above me, and the path wound up and down the slope driving my heart rate ever upwards.  In the midst of this, I took my third, but final wrong turn of the day. 
At a fork I had turned right to follow what I thought we be a lower trail, down closer to the sandstone itself.  Before I realized it, I had gone right out onto the rocks themselves.  I climbed to the top until reaching a dead-end with 60-100 foot drop offs in 3 directions.  I needed rappelling equipment, or to turn around.  Before I turned back, I glanced up a the cliffs and was stunned.  Too often, when running, I am in such a hurry to "make my time" or "keep my pace", that I don't slow down enough to enjoy the sights that were a major attraction for turning to trail running a few years ago.

Calico Hills from up close (and at this point, within) are jaw-droppingly beautiful.  They rise for almost a thousand feet straight up from where I was.  This area was once a desert with huge sand dunes, much like the Sahara now.  The dunes would get blown back and forth into waving and curving patterns, into which they later solidified into Aztec sandstone.  An artist could not have painted them any better as they weaved in and out and around each other.  Small bushes and trees popped out of the cliffs in places with dark splashes of green against the bright orange, and now sunlit rocks.  Here and there, splashes of yellow lichens grew just out of reach of the strongest light.  I saw more patches of blue and red; and then realized they were people working their way to a good climbing spot.  I must have stood in place for several minutes just staring.  It was a good reminder of just how blessed I am to have taken up this sport and having the opportunities to see these things.

I backtracked down the rocks, found the correct trail and continued west towards Sandstone Quarry where the orange rocks turned suddenly to yellow.  The suddenness with which the rocks changed color but not composition or structure was stunning.  It looked like someone had taken two colors of play dough and mixed them together.  The trail had gotten no easier and my legs were starting to feel the toll of the days efforts.  I glanced down at my hand held map a few times wondering if I should turn back, or head back on the paved road next time the trail crossed it.  But I pressed forward hoping to get closer to the west wall of the canyon.  I knew that would be the highest point of the run; with easier, downhill running on the return.  I stared up at Turtleback and La Madre mountains taking in as much as I could without taking a nasty spill.

When I reached the turn for White Rock Canyon, I decided to cut that section out.  I had lost 20+ minutes on my fortuitous Calico Hills detour, and was now short on time to get back to Vegas. I ran the paved Scenic Loop for just over a mile before intersecting the trail again as it came down out of Willow Spring.  From there, the trail follows a low ridgeline 3.7 miles back to the visitor's center.  It was not quite straight, but mostly downhill and I was able to run the entire distance at a nice pace.  The entire stretch, I had the Calico Hills off in the distance to my left, Blue Diamond Hills straight ahead and the 3,000 foot cliffs of the Red Rocks Wash to my right; there was no shortage on views.   In the end, the two combined runs of the morning were 22.2 miles in 5 hours flat with 3,058 feet of elevation change.  Best of all, I was on my way back to the Bellagio for a massage, some wine, and immediate rest.  Another great run in the books.

1 comment:

  1. Nice report on another beautiful adventure. Of course I laughed when you said you got spooked by a rabbit. So typical.

    Anyway, sounds like your training continues to go well. We should be about the same speed when we hit Black Hills in June. Looking forward...