Many people have a difficult time believing that sunny warm Las Vegas is also a ski resort community. The ski resort on Mt Charleston is less than a one hour drive from anywhere in the Las Vegas Valley, yet relatively few people pack skis with their baggage for the trip. In a way this is not surprising, because it is so easy to be mesmerized by the bright lights of the big city.
It can be dry as a bone in the Las Vegas Valley and at the same time there can be blizzard conditions on Mt Charleston. On the other hand, when it is 110ºF in the valley, the temperature on Mt Charleston can be in the comfortably cool. The Mt Charleston environment is lush up around 7,000 feet and the pine forests are thick. Sitting in the shade while enjoying the cool temperatures way uphill is a local Las Vegas pastime and when winter rolls around, the snow covered mountain is a winter sports playground.
There are two roads that go up Mt Charleston and both can be dangerous during the winter season. The roads on this mountain are rarely clear of snow and ice above 6,000 feet when storms pass through. Snow chains are required above the mile high level and for good reason. There are some steep grades on this mountain and guard rails are a rarity. A car that starts to slide can quickly disappear into a ravine, so it pays to heed the warnings.
Mt Charleston has an elevation of 11,916 feet above sea level. Mt Charleston is the 8th most prominent view of all mountain peaks in America. The crest of Mt Charleston can easily be seen from the Las Vegas Valley and even on The Strip! The summit is usually capped with snow during the winter and that makes Mt Charleston easy to distinguish from the other Spring Mountain Range peaks.
The name Mount Charleston was given to this mountain in 1840s. It was named after the wife of John C. Fremont’s home town Charleston, South Carolina. The town of Mt Charleston is located at the base of the summit at an elevation of about 7,700 feet on the Kyle Canyon side of the mountain. The ski resort is just north of town on the Lee Canyon side of the mountain. There is a connecting road in between that offers spectacular views of the valley below. The connecting road is also where a historic site called Robber’s Roost is located. The hike to Robber’s Roost is only about 70 yards long, so it is worth checking out when passing through.
The flora changes in stages as the elevation gets higher on the way uphill. Joshua Trees thrive well into the 5,000 foot level. Juniper Trees start to become more frequent about another few hundred feet up and at about 7,000 feet the Ponderosa Pine forest is thick and lush. The 8,000 foot level is where the Bristlecone Pine can be seen. These are the world’s oldest trees and there are Bristlecone Pines on Mt Charleston that are actually thousands of years old. Bristlecone Pines have almost no bark and they can look barren and dead for long periods of time, yet these trees are very much alive. These strange trees do sprout leaves on cycles of their own making. The Bristlecone Trail is located next to the Las Vegas Ski Resort and this pathway is the best for viewing the ancient Bristlecone Pines. I did that six mile hike many years ago and the views are as majestic as can be!
The summit of Mt Charleston can only be reached by hiking and the trail requires one full day to get to the top of the mountain. A campout near the peak is necessary, before doing the downhill trek back to civilization. The air at the 11,000 foot elevation is crystal clear and the view of the stars at night are what dreams are made of!
There are plenty of great hiking trails on the mountain that vary from 60 yards to several miles long. Many trails are closed during the winter months due to the threat of avalanches. Spring through fall is the best time for hiking and mountain bikes are permitted on some trails. Horseback trail riding is also a great option and there are rentals nearby. Some of the trails offer spectacular views of mountain waterfalls while others go to unique rock formations.
My favorite trail at Mt Charleston is the 1.3 mile hike to the top of Cathedral Rock. The Cathedral Rock Trail is the longest mile that a person could possibly ever wish to hike! This trail seems a lot longer than one mile and it causes people to stop and wonder if the distance on the trail map was correct. The reason why is the ascent is pretty close to being vertical on this challenging trail. The view from the top of Cathedral Rock is nothing less than awesome, bedcause the houses in the town of Mt Charleston below actually look like tint toys! While on top of this towering rock, you can even see the old Nevada Test Site in the distance.
Mt Charleston is a great place to view wildlife. During a recent trip I watched an eagle capture a fair size snake while driving along in the lower elevations. This all happened so fast, that there was no time to take the lens cap off of the camera, so I just witnessed the fleeting glimpse.
During the same trip at the 7000 foot elevation in Lee Canyon, I spotted two Nevada wild horses that were grazing in the Ponderosa Pines. The brown mare looked like she was going to give birth to a foal this spring. Her black stallion mate kept an eye on me from behind a ponderosa pine branch. Pictures like these of wild horses are a photographers dream, especially when there is some snow on the ground. Evidently these horses were foraging for anything they could find in the pine needles, because food is scarce when the slopes are covered with snow.
The breed of the wild horses in the photos are the descendants of the wild horses that were cut loose by the Spanish over 150 years ago. Those two wild horses literally are living history and they look far different than the usual mustangs that are seen out in the desert. These horses were short, stocky and they had a rounded nose. These attributes fit the description of horses that the Spanish explorers brought from overseas.
Tourists always seek a place to get some good grub, while doing a sight seeing excursion or after a day of playing in the snow. There are a few good places to get a bite to eat on top of the mountain and one of the local favorites is The Mt Charleston Lodge. This place is well known for serving oversize portions that are big enough to satisfy a mountain of an appetite! The Mt Charleston Lodge is located at the base of Cathedral Rock and the views from the dining room are spectacular. Old fashioned cabin lodges are available, but it is best to make reservations ahead of time. There is also a nice wedding gazebo that overlooks Kyle Canyon, just in case you wish book a romantic wedding event!
It is easy to spend an entire day on Mt Charleston, especially during the winter sports season. During the summer, this mountain offers a chance to escape from the extreme heat down in the Las Vegas Valley. The fresh clean crisp mountain air is inspiration enough to plan a visit, especially after a crisp cold front rolls through. Just be sure to keep a good camera handy, because one never knows when some wild horses will step into the picture!
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