Red Rocks comes so close to being my favourite destination bouldering venue. I wish I could say it was. But I can’t. Don’t get me wrong, the climbing is fantastic, and so are the aesthetics, but logistically…… it’s a bit of a pain in the arse. Right: American Exotica (V10) That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit, it most definitely is. If you’re a hardy soul who’s happy to put up with a few (admittedly fairly minor) grievances, or want to combine bouldering with some sport routes or long multi-pitches, then Red Rocks is a great choice. With a number of more user friendly venues within a few hours drive of Las Vegas (such as Bishop or Moe’s Valley), Red Rocks is also a perfect place to stop for a few days at either end of your trip.
Red Rocks Canyon is a national conservation area in Nevada, about 15 miles west of the legendary bastion of hedonism; Las Vegas. As the name would suggest, there is preponderance of red rock in Red Rocks, specifically ‘Aztec’ sandstone, though the mountains often feature an attractive varicoloured appearance where later grey sandstone has been thrust upon its elder brethren. Fossilised wood is also common throughout the area, adding to the captivating texture of the landscape. Ecologically speaking, Red Rocks is a fascinating area and exhibits a greater diversity than I’ve encountered in other American desert bouldering areas like Moe’s Valley or Bishop. Whilst desert shrubs are dominant in most of the canyons, there is an impressive number of cacti scattered liberally throughout, as well as some larger trees within some of the more substantial washes. Winter is really the only time any sane person would consider attempting to boulder at Red Rocks, which unfortunately means that much of the interesting fauna is tucked away hibernating and so not available to delight your eyeballs. I spent many an hour scouring the landscape for snakes, tortoises, tarantulas and other exotic species known to occur here, but to no avail. Mammals large and small also live here, though my encounters were limited to desert cottontails, burros and desert bighorn sheep. Small lizards, thankfully, are common and widespread, and the keen eyed animal-botherer may well spot Anna’s Hummingbirds zipping about, along with various more familiar looking avian genera. In truth, reading about all the things that live in the Red Rocks Canyon is a bit annoying for the winter visitor, as its basically a catalogue of things you want to, but aren’t going to see.
The aforementioned Aztec sandstone is both excellently named and a pleasure to climb on, being of solid high quality and beautifully weathered to cater for the breadth of prospective styles that any suitor may favour. The grade range is large, with high quality problems to be found between V0-V14. The weather is the first of my gripes with Red Rocks. With an average July temperature of ~35C, winter is really the only time you can think about bouldering. This in itself is not a problem, but during my two short visits in early January and early February, air temperatures were in the low 20’s, and given the default weather of ‘unrelenting desert sun’, it often felt considerably hotter than this. Much of the bouldering seems to face south, so finding shade can be difficult. You may well find yourself wasting lots of time loitering and waiting for the sun to disappear and running recon missions in order to determine when the narrow window of climbable conditions will grace a particular problem. Of course, certain canyons and specific problems will be better than others. Ice Box Canyon and Pine Creek, for example, are shaded most of the day. Roughly speaking the bouldering is in three areas; the Calico Basin, along the Scenic Drive, and the Southern Escarpment.
This is the nearest area to the Northern end of Las Vegas and by far the most user friendly. The main area here is the Kraft Boulders, which hold the densest accumulation of bouldering in Red Rocks, along with the most amenable walk in. Sadly though, the boulders sprawl across a gentle South facing slope and so are basked in sun for most of the day, leaving you perhaps two hours between the sun dropping behind the mountains and total darkness. Walking past the Kraft boulders, you arrive at Gateway Canyon, which features probably the greatest concentration of quality harder problems (V9/10) in Red Rocks, as well as the areas flagship problem- Meadowlark Lemon (V13/V14 sit). Shade is more prevalent within the canyon, but not by much, with many of the classics such as America Exotica (V10) only receiving shade late in the afternoon. Expect a 40 minute walk from the car to the furthest part of Gateway Canyon, though the latter stages of the walk will take you through some stunning scenery as you scramble through a boulder choked gorge. Several other small areas are dotted around Calico Basin, but due to the open nature of the basin, they are also plagued by the ubiquitous sun problem.
Herein lies the second of my gripes. The ‘Scenic Drive’ is a one-way toll road through the canyons which attracts a fee of $7 and closes around sunset (5pm during the winter). Failure to adhere to this timeframe is penalised with a $150 fine. This closure at dusk means that night sessions to try and get cool conditions are not possible, unless you apply via phone for a late pass. Your $7 entrance fee is also single trip, and so your days itinerary is worth considering in advance to ensure venues are hit sequentially along the route. Most of the venues along this drive are high quality but small and spread-out, thus more suited to cherry-picking specific classics than circuiting. Some of the venues along this drive are in the narrowest and/or best orientated canyons for finding cool, shady conditions.
Best accessed from the Southern end of Las Vegas, the Southern Escarpment hosts a number of small venues. The most interesting of these is Black Velvet Canyon, which is home to two of the classics of Red Rocks - The Fountainhead (V9) and Wet Dream (V12).
Getting there and getting about
McCarran international airport is located within Las Vegas itself, though you’ll probably need to change flights somewhere on the East coast when coming from the UK. Excluding stop offs, flight times are approximately 13 hours from the UK to Las Vegas. Expect to pay ~£550 during the winter months. Las vegas is about 15 miles from Red Rocks, slightly further to get into the canyons. Obviously, you’ll be needing a car for this commute. If you’re only planning to visit the Kraft Boulders any old vehicle will do, but many of the Scenic Drive/Southern Escarpment venues are accessed by dirt tracks of varying quality, so an SUV with reasonable ground clearance is mandatory.
Surprisingly, provided they are booked in advance, the cheapest places to stay in Las Vegas seems to be one of the massive casino complexes on or around The Strip itself, during the winter at least. This is a very surreal experience, but the rooms are pleasant and not as seedy as you would expect- I don’t recall seeing a single vibrating bed! When booking one of these, bear in mind you will often be hit with a ‘resort fee’ of $15 per night (per room), to be paid on arrival. It’s also worth checking if parking is included in the price, as this could sting otherwise. For the Kraft Boulders especially, its worth being on the northern end of the city to cut driving times as much as possible. We stayed at the Riviera and the El Cortez. Of the two the Riviera was far better for eateries (they do an ace $5 breakfast) within the casino, but the proximity of El Cortez to ‘deviant alley’, or Down Town to give it its official title, may be an attraction to some. There are of course loads of these places, so you’re probably best letting price make the decision for you.
Two guidebooks vie for your attentions in Red Rocks; the mighty, ostentatious Southern Nevada Bouldering from Snell Press, and the more sensible Vegas Bouldering from Wolverine Publishing. The former tome embodies much of the spirit of the nearby Las Vegas, with its glorious decadence and frivolity. Weighing in at a ridiculous 1.14kg, this near A4 glossy monstrosity was clearly a labour of love. Historical, cultural, geology and ecological tidbits are rife within its pages, along with more practical information. This guide does, thankfully, cover all the areas developed in the Red Rocks area. In contrast, Wolverines offering is smaller, cheaper, lighter, and far more sensible. But its not as awesome, and it focuses mostly on the Calico Basin area, with only a few of the other venues described.
Due to the apparent recent rise in popularity of the area, several projects listed in the guides have now been completed, along with various other development. Whilst there doesn’t seem to be a repository to chronicle these, there are numerous videos available online that should enable a savvy researcher to piece together the necessary information.
As you’ll be staying in Las Vegas, provisions are unsurprisingly ready available. There are several Walmart and VONS supermarkets throughout the city which will supply you with anything you desire. Vegas is also liberally supplied with pharmacies (yep) and other outlets to satisfy your requirement for Margaritas from a plastic leg at 3am. I’d go as far as to say there is very little you couldn’t obtain from Vegas if you set your mind to it. I didn’t specifically see any Uranium, but I bet it’s there.
The only climbing shop in Las Vegas is Desert Rat Sports, which is conveniently located on Charleston Boulevard (a direct road from Northern Vegas to the Calico Basin). This is over the road from our favourite bar- Calico Jacks. This place does a fine burger at a very reasonable price.
Vegas baby! Literally anything. Shoot a gun, lose your life savings, get herpes… Or maybe just go for a walk in the canyons.
I’m ambivalent about Red Rocks. It mesmerised me with its landscape, and when you get a decent session with reasonable conditions, it feels world class. But all the time spent walking to see if something is in the sun or sitting around waiting for the shade to come starts to grate very quickly. The toll and restrictions on the scenic drive are a pain, especially when all the venues on it are so small and spread out. Staying in Las Vegas is hilarious and bewildering initially, but it doesn’t take long until you crave a bit of tranquility. The 30+ minute drive from The Strip to the boulders is also just that little bit longer than you want each morning. If none of these minor complaints perturb you, then Red Rocks is well worth a visit. My recommendation though, is to combine it with a trip to somewhere more user friendly, like Bishop, Moe’s or Joe’s Valley.