January 08, 2019

Leaving Las Vegas: Hiking Red Rock Canyon

Las Vegas ›  

By Milosz Pierwola (

As our flight crossed into Nevada, the sight out the window took my breath away. Obvious as it was, it all suddenly made sense. When you hear about Las Vegas, most likely the image that pops into your head is a desert oasis that literally shines like a diamond from outer space. For someone like me, this oasis was not my destination. The place that brought me here was surrounded by hundreds of miles of “no man’s land,” a hostile frying pan that confined most visitors to the opulent air-conditioned halls filled with the merciless choir of slot machines. Not me. As soon as the opportunity arose, I found myself dashing for the city limits to explore the incredible environment that would have intimidated me before.

I could swear I saw glimpses of dancing figures on the horizon. As I departed the confines of The Strip, my mirage of a colorless and featureless wasteland dissolved. I anticipated getting lost in a broad parking lot of sand with an occasional sign-post cactus. Things aren’t always as they seem. My inner child’s expectations were on the line and I wanted to be just like a cowboy; carefully pacing in the heat, able to spot any threatening gunslingers as their silhouettes teleported into view over the boiling horizon. What I discovered was not a cracked wasteland, but one of the most diverse and thriving environments I have ever come across.

Approaching the mountains that surrounded the Las Vegas valley, my imagination filled with tumbleweeds and dust. As I got dropped off, the sweet scent of flowers was in the air. I passed a large bush that appeared dry from a distance and realized it was actually covered by yellow flowers with hundreds of insects drinking its sweet nectar. Looking away from this surprising discovery, I was here. I had arrived in the small tent colony of the Red Rocks Campground where I set up home base. This was to be my haven as it would be my first time venturing into this environment alone.

To enter the wilderness, I stepped through a gate in a fence that stretched from one end of the world to the other. Right away I took notice of what was underfoot. Nearly every plant I passed was of a different kind. Some had thorns, some blades, others sharp leaves and hard bark, and all were adorned with vibrant colors in some way. I discovered species that looked like something from another planet - long branches with sharp needle like leaves and hollow bubbles along the stems. I couldn’t help but “pop” one to discover a vacant cavity… and just at that moment, out of the corner of my eye I felt a presence - a stranger!

I remember becoming startled as a figure came into view in my peripheral vision. I darted up and nearly fell over laughing - it was a Joshua Tree! Perhaps this is the reason they received a proper name. These trees grow with broad, gently winding branches that end in a tuft of leaves, not unlike a torso and limbs. Staring at the strange figure, I could not help but laugh as I imagined it dancing when I looked away.

This place, the desert, is easy to overlook. From far away it takes on the appearance of emptiness and sameness, as if nothing interesting ever happens here. Perhaps this is the secret of its longevity and how it preserves itself. Upon closer inspection, there is more life here than most other places I’ve looked. It’s a fantasy to be here. As a child I would find myself absorbed in the romantic depiction of the Mojave Desert by classic Western movies. Such film epics truly captured the incredible sense of discovery and adventure that accompanied exploring vast badlands. The absence of comfort from heat, the silence of windless air, and unrelenting bright sun that hung unobstructed in a big blue sky.

Approaching the cliffs, I was met with even more revelation as I ran into a stranger, a real one this time. A man was hiking the other way and told me to look for patterns in the stones. He told me that the Native Americans would build prayer circles facing east and leave them as they were. These sacred places of worship were never recorded or marked, and could be found anywhere. He described that there was no real way of telling how old they were and, because trails between springs in the desert tended to remain the same over great expanses of time, it is possible that some could be a thousand years or older. He directed me to my final destination, a formation under the cliffs that looked more like a planet from a science fiction movie than the edge of one of the loudest cities on earth.

The desert landscape was just the beginning, another treasure was right beneath my feet. As I studied the stones, the sand, and the mountains, I began to read a story; the story of the past of this place. Because of the lack of rain and mostly trivial impact of vegetation, the past is clearly visible here. I began to tell where the streams run when rains do come, where the wind moves the earth when it does blow, and how the land twists and bends under the pressure of time.

I arrived at the top of a small jumble of rocks that peeked out just past a hill which, until now, blocked Las Vegas. The view from here was surreal. I stood in the middle of the desert looking back at the city. In that moment, I appreciated where I was. The sandstone underneath my feet was rock, but it was brittle to the touch and had a distinct appearance as if it were melting under the hot sun. Wind and water had shaped this stone and revealed nearly organic structures that took on the shape of muscles, tissue, sinew, and even bone. The most prominent feature was a large pillar that had the distinct appearance of a sphinx. It would be atop this pillar that I found myself gazing at Las Vegas and reflecting on my experience.