Perched On The Nose of a Turtle

While there are plenty of hikes to do in Red Rock Canyon, we were after a long one that would give us a birds’ eye view of the climbing crags we’d been playing in… and Turtlehead Peak fit the bill. Its peak rises, looking a lot like a turtle’s nose poking up and out of its shell, from the desert floor.

Already on our “hit” list of possible hikes for our time there, it was recommended to us by a Vegas couple that we met while hiking in Zion. They belonged to a weekend hiking group in Las Vegas and this was one of their favourites. 

Turtlehead Peak looms above the cacti on the trail. Its triangle-shaped peak reaches up, like the blunt nose of a turtle poking up through the rocky shell of the landscape.

It has a long, windswept ramp on its backside that gives you a choice of a trail: take one that goes straight to the summit, or walk along an easier one that meanders along the edge of the ramp before circling around to the peak. We did both trails up there, and preferred the lengthy one, marked “easier” on a spray painted rock directional sign, for its tremendous views of Vegas, the Red Rocks mountains and crags, and the expanse of desert that stretches off as far as the eye can see.

Shortly past the parking lot, the trail branches off to the left. Right takes you to Calico Tanks, an awesome area that lets you explore and scramble to your heart’s content. Left takes you to the trail to Turtlehead Peak.

The hike begins at the Calico Tanks parking lot (Sandstone Quarry, the 3rd turnout on the scenic loop) and follows a desert wash before working its way up a rocky, rubble-filled slope.

The hike starts out, walking alongside a wash and the sandstone cliffs of the Calico Tanks area.
Soon, you head up, through the cacti of a gentle slope.
At first the trail is very easy to follow, rising up as a clear, single track from the desert floor.
The views back, toward the striped cliffs of Wilson Mountain are spectacular.
But then the trail becomes quite braided… as if a herd of mountain goats had been penned in up there for decades. Can you tell which trail to take?

The route, once you are on the front slope of the ravine’s gully, can be quite confusing. In essence, look for the painted dots in turquoise and in white. There is one in the photo above. They can be quite challenging to pick out, especially on the way down,  as they have faded in the harsh desert light and are covered in a thin layer of dust from the action of hikers walking past since the last rainfall.IMG_2038.jpg

Sometimes they’re right on the ground and hard to see from below on the steep trail.
At other times, your way is quite clear.
Your goal is the shoulder of rock above the gully. From there you can look back on the sandstone cliffs… looking from this height, like hardened mud flats, below.
Once you are on the shoulder of the mountain, you curve around to its backside ramp. A little ways down the trail, you will come upon this rock (the flat one in the foreground).
Painted on it are the words “Easy” and “Hard.” Hard is the most direct way to the summit, but Easy has the best views. I recommend doing both: one on the way up and one on the way down.
Up top, the views are astounding. Cradled between the mountain on which you are standing, and the mountains across the way, is the Red Rock Canyon park. If you look carefully, you can just make out a squiggled line through the desert floor. It is the pavement of the scenic loop drive.
From the “Easy” path on the ramp we could make out the Calico Basin area where we’d been climbing for the previous two days. It’s the magenta rock heap in this photo. Vegas is off to the left.
At the top is a cache with a book to sign.
It was quite windy, so we bundled up in the shelter of a couple of well-worn rocks and ate our lunch, taking in the views.
Keep your backpack shut up there, as this sneaky, industrious little guy was on the hunt for some goodies.

If you go…

  • Both the way up and the way down, from the mountain’s shoulder to the main trail that leads you down to the ground level wash, are very confusing. There has been a lot of trail cutting, and there are so many routes from which to choose… it’s like a herd of bighorn sheep had been left to go crazy. We came upon a family with very small children in tow who were on a particularly steep, very loose and challenging section, struggling off-trail.
  • To stay on-trail, look for the spray painted dots and arrows. They are in white and teal colours, and many are quite faded from the harsh sunlight, blending into the colour of the rock, and covered with dust that obscures them. You’ll need to look for them carefully.
  • On the way up, you will do two unexpected switchbacks that seem to take you away from your mountain shoulder target. Take them anyway. They lead you away from, and around, trickier and loose parts of the slope.
  • Once up top, at the base of the mountain’s back ramp, do both the “easier” and the “harder” routes to the peak. Pick one for the way up and one for the way down. They are both beautiful in their own ways.
  • Once at the peak, you will find a canister with a log book to sign. It’s always fascinating, especially in a place like Las Vegas that draws people in from all parts, to flip through the pages of a trail log and see who’s been there before you.
  • Although not entirely necessary, hiking poles will certainly help you with the descent. It will speed things up, save the pressure on your knees, and make the slippery, dry, loose, unstable sections easier to navigate.
  • This bears repeating: be sure to take a sunscreened lip balm. All of us had sunburned lips after the first day at Red Rocks, despite applying (in my case) a regular Blistex lip balm that usually works like a charm. You will need one with sunscreen in it or your lips will blister, peel and crack. To put it in perspective, in the 30 years I’ve known Bill, he’s never had chapped lips. Not once. Until this trip.
  • Why invent the wheel? For detailed trail instructions and gps co-ordinates, go to ProTrails‘ description.
  • For an absolutely hilarious bit of writing about this hike, go to Tom Pfaendler’s piece in Friends of Turtlehead Peak


5 Comments on “Perched On The Nose of a Turtle

  1. Red Rocks is another place I will remember for future travels. Thx. Sheri… and my best to Bill!


    • Will do, Mike. Thanks!

      If you go to Red Rocks to hike, there are some pretty remarkable places to adventure through. Last time we were there we went up Icebox Canyon and it was quite beautiful. It’s only one of a few canyons on the other side of the park, over by Wilson Mountain.

      In an upcoming post, you’ll see a bit of Calico Tanks… that’s another hike you can do that is a very fun scramble, and it’s within the park. It starts where this blog post’s hike does.

      I hope you venture through, some day!


  2. Pingback: The Mass Production Wall of Calico Tanks – Trail to Peak: The Adventurous Path

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