Thursday 5 April 2018

Las Vegas Red Rock Canyon Running Route

Click here for route map
Length 10.5 km (6.5 miles), terrain: rocky, rugged, gain 281 meters

Las Vegas Running Routes:
The Strip  
University of Nevada

Red Rock Canyon
White Domes, Valley of Fire 
Fire Wave, Valley of Fire

For more running routes, see the Route List page.

The park website:

Las Vegas is non-stop action, blinking lights, swirling mobs... And after a while, it's great to experience the very opposite for a bit of reality. And luckily, the city is surrounded by natural wonders, right nearby!
The climbing area along Calico Rocks
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is just 15 kilometers from the main Strip casinos, but it's like being on another planet: desert plants on rolling dunes, and a surrounding wall of peaks and cliffs looming majestically. The bright red sandstone pinnacles and ravines of the Calico Hills give the park its name, and they are a sight that you'll never forget. So, if you're a runner or hiker, find a way to get on out to Red Rock for a day!

How to Get There:
Red Rock is straight west from town. There is no public transport out there, so you almost have to have a car at your disposal. A few people head out there on bikes. Most people head west on Charleston Boulevard (Nevada Route 159) until you reach the park entrance. If you are on the south side of Las Vegas, near the airport, you can also take Blue Diamond Road (Route 160) west, which runs into Route 159 at a Chevron gas station.
You're entering a desert paradise!
At the park entrance, each car has to pay $15 to get in. Watch out: the park's Scenic Drive is one-way, so if you miss a stop, you won't be able to get back to it later!

The Route:
We'll take the most colorful route in the conservation area: in the Calico Hills. You need to park at the Calico I parking area, but if you want to run a few extra kilometers, you can also park at the Visitor Center and run through fairly flat country to join this route at Calico I. There's more parking at the Visitor Center. You could also stop at either Calico II or Sandstone Quarry parking lot and first run east, out-and-back to Calico I before heading up the Calico Tanks trail further to the west.
Naturalist at the trail start
This route, as published here, starts at Calico I, heads west along the base of the Calico Rocks, passing Calico II and then past the Sandstone Quarry parking lot. It then curves northwards along the Calico Tanks Trail to enter the Calico Hills from the west, heading uphill along a ravine into the peaks from that side. This last part of the trail ends at Calico Tanks, water basins where life-giving rain water collects in depressions in the rock. There are amazing views from up there, where, out in the distance to the east, you can see Las Vegas and far beyond.

This route isn't your normal running route. I would describe it as a running/hiking/climbing route. Some parts are steep and slow-going, and many spots are so beautiful, that you'll want to stop in your tracks and just experience nature's wonders that spread out before you (and above, and below...). And remember: you're in the desert, so in the summer it will be hot: make sure you have a hat, sunglasses and a water bottle!
The striped rocks: great for climbing around!
So, say you actually got a parking space at Calico I: you'll see the Calico Hills spread out before you. To the right (east) they are striped red/white pillowy rocks. To the west, they turn completely red, and even further west, they turn white. Now follow the trail down into the ravine running along the base of the rocks.

Because the red/white-striped rocks are so unusual, I'd recommend to first turn right and run a bit into the first few striped rock formations and do some climbing, and get that out of your system. Great climing here!
The trail splits here: your choice
Now turn westwards and follow the trail down in the ravine. It parallels a dry gulch, right below the cliffs. There is a fork in the trail right after the start, and you can choose to hug the cliffs (steeper, nicer view) or to stay near the stream-bed (smoother going). Both trails go lightly uphill, in fact the whole trail goes uphill until the turnaround point.

After about a kilometer, the two trails join back together again, just before the Calico II parking lot.
Weathered tree stump along the way
Where the trails come down from the Calico II parking, the main trail turns left to head uphill a bit, after a cairn (a stone trail marker). This is an interesting spot: the red walls open up to a side-canyon used for climbing. You can turn right to head into the side-canyon to get close-up to a lot of interesting rock formations and eroded caves.
Rock caves in the climbing area
Now continue on the main trail westwards, still going lightly uphill. You'll pass a huge, sheared-off boulder right by the trail. Somewhere around here are petroglyphs, Native American rock carvings.

When you come to the Sandstone Quarry parking lot, after the 3-km marker, the trail goes right over the asphalt parking area. The red cliffs have now given way to white sandstone. All the sandstone that you see here was originally dunes, which were cemented together by ground-water.
Calico Tanks trailhead, with Turtlehead in distance
Now follow the Calico Tanks signs. You'll head straight towards Turtlehead Peak in the distance, but soon you need to turn right as the Tanks trail splits off from the Turtlehead trail.

Just off the trail, there is a agave roasting pit from the Paiute Indians, who once roamed the area.
The agave roasting pit, with Turtlehead
Now, at the 4-km mark, the trail curves to the right and starts heading eastwards up a ravine into the Calico Hills. In the ravine, it's not always apparent where the trail is, and markers are rare, but you just basically have to keep heading up through the ravine.
Into the ravine: rough going
Sometimes, you're following a stream-bed. In other spots, you have to climb up over red sandstone slopes. The good folks at the Nevada Conservation Corps have built stone steps in a lot of places, to make it a bit simpler to move.
Conservation Corps trail crew: the unsung heroes
Big red cliffs rise up to the left on the last part of the rise, then you'll find yourself in a white sandstone amphitheater surrounding the Tanks down below, in a high hollow between the peaks.
The Calico Tanks
You can now go down through the tanks to reach the final lookout rocks on the other side, or climb the slope to your right side and go up along the south side. Either way will provide you with a tremendous view at the end. Enjoy this amazing spot! You can see the hotel towers and the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas out in the valley.
View from the top, Las Vegas in the distance
Now just turn around and head back the way you came, downhill all the way to the starting point. Now, that's what I call an amazing contrast to the Strip!


  1. so I know now exactly what were you doing that morning

  2. That's right. I had been wanting to head to Red Rock for the last few trips to Vegas, and I was excited to finally do it!