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Red Rock Run
A Vegas vacation yields a desert beauty.

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By Chris Russell
Posted Monday, 4 April, 2005

The warm desert air blows my hair back. Ray Ban shades. Arm out the window, top down, cruisin down the highway. The ravishing starlet in my other arm leans close and whispers in my ear, “Daddy, wake up. We want to go to the pool.”
“Get up, we want to go to the pool.”
Reality coalesces and I prop myself up on one elbow in the hotel bed. “I think we’re going for a ride today. We’ll get you a big breakfast at Denny’s and then we’re going to take the car out to Red Rock Canyon.”

It would be good to get off the strip. You can run on the strip, but it’s ugly. I’d been getting up early and running from the MGM Grand, where we were staying, down to the Stratosphere and back in the morning, maybe 6 miles. The good news is that there is nobody up in Vegas in the early AM. The bad news is that the strip is not a great place to run. It’s all cement, stop lights and bad air. The people who are up, haven’t gone to bed yet!

I read in the travel guide that Red Rock Canyon was a family friendly place just west of Sin City. I talked my family into it. I figured they could picnic or something while I did a little trail run.

We loaded them up on eggs and pancakes at Denny’s. I stuck to a bowl of oatmeal and picked up a couple bottles of Gatorade and H2O at the Walgreen’s. Good to go. Sure enough, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is just 17 miles west of the city. The sprawl rolls right up to its gate. The first thing we saw was burros casually breakfasting on shrubbery by the side of the road. The park maintains a herd of about 100 semi-wild burros. Being tourists, we took photos.

It had been raining the week before we got there and the desert hills were green, well greenish. Not green like Vermont in May, but as green as the desert gets.

We went into the visitor’s center. The basic layout is a one-way circular tourist road that meanders 10-12 miles through the conservation area. There are a bunch of pull-off areas where you can take hikes of varying difficulty into the features of the park. I talked to the guy at the desk and said I was looking for a trail that was more than 10 miles to get a long run in. Nonplussed, (they get a lot of whackos here), he pointed me to the “Grand Circle Loop” and handed me a photocopied, hand drawn map saying it was about 11 miles and I should take some water with me.

It was a great set up. The Grand Circle roughly followed the tourist road and crossed it a couple times. This way I could meet my family at a couple points and get some fluid support. The trail was classified “strenuous” whatever that means and peaked at a 1400 foot rise from the start, and then came back down. No problem. Nice rising 10k out, nice dropping 10k back. Perfect. Maybe an hour-and-a-half jog. Then again, I was a stranger in a strange land and the desert would hold some surprises.

I slathered up with SPF 50, mixed up a ½ and ½ Gatorade-Water combo bottle and headed my Albino Clydesdale butt up the trail. It was beautiful. The weather was 75 degrees, windless with a full low morning sun. Back in Boston it was snowing again. Here I was with shorts, tank top, hat and sunglasses pounding up the trail.

The first couple miles ran me into a formation called the “Calico Hills”. This is a set of red sandstone hills that rise out of the desert. The red rocks are ancient sandstone formed from great dunes that used to cover this area 100 million years ago. The striking lines of different color rock are formed by a “thrust fault” when two tectonic plates collide and the older rocks are forced over the newer. This area encompasses the Keystone Fault.

The trail was rocky desert gravel for the most part with low sage brush and yucca plants reaching out to scratch your ankles. After a couple miles it changed to sandstone and got fairly “strenuous”. Turns out that 1400 feet is the peak elevation gain, but it runs you up and down a series of 300-500 foot canyons to get there.
In the calico hills the trail switched to packed red dirt. Very nice footing. I was very happy to be spinning along in this scenic venue. Running easy, smiling, up and down the canyons.

I had the road on the left and the calico hills rising to the right. The trail dipped and climbed in and out of the rocks. There were great red chunks of rock and boulders scattered about like they had been casually discarded by some catastrophic event. This part of the world always makes me think I’m running through a Road Runner cartoon.

I left the trail once thinking that I could see a better line to get down off the stone bluffs I was traversing. I ended up rock climbing to get down from a series of dead ends. My Adidas were nice and sticky on the sandstone. “Stay to the trail you idiot,” I said to myself.

In the bottoms of the canyons there were standing pools of crystal clear water. For the most part I didn’t pass any pedestrians, but when I did they were surprised to see me churning up the steep paths, smiling like an idiot. There were rock climbers doing their thing high above, up on the cliffs.

Every once in a while I’d see a small yellow or purple flower poking out of the scrub made beautiful by their austere surroundings. I paused at one isolated chunk of rock to look at petroglyphs carved by ancient peoples. Cool. I scared little lizards that I’d have to guess were geckos, scurrying across the path and out of site.

I was out of Gatorade-Water mix when I emerged into the parking area around 4 miles. 20 ounces and my shirt wasn’t even wet. Hmmm, we’re not in Massachusetts anymore. My family was easy to find and I refilled my bottle. Unfortunately, my kids had drunk all my Gatorade. Cockroaches! I checked my watch. Holy Moly! I’ve only run 4 miles and I’ve been out 40 minutes. I’m not that slow. Somebody’s math is wrong. They must be measuring crow-fly. OK, fresh bottle and I’m off; see you at the 10k.

The Grand Circle Trail turns away from the Calico Rocks and into a desert infield crisscrossed by washes; evidence of recent flash flooding. I look up at the sky. No clouds. Not one. Need clouds for flash flooding, right? I don’t know. I keep losing the trail because of the wash outs. I find myself walking around in the desert, like a tracker, looking for footprints to follow. After a few more miles of this the trail pops back out onto the road at the mid-point parking area.

The family isn’t there. I spend some time looking for the trail. The only thing I can find is a dirt road that continues up into the hills. Can that be the trail? I was hoping for something more…downhill. Then the rental Buick pulls up. Good thing, I’m out of water again. Hmmm… 40 ounces and counting… I look at my watch. Holy Cow! 1:30! That’s ok, I wanted to run long today…

Another fill up of the bottle and I’m off up the dirt road which sympathetically comes to a trail head after ½ a mile and the Grand Circle takes a left turn back towards civilization. There aren’t too many tourists out here. An occasional hiker is startled.

The trail continues it’s up and down through canyon and sage brush. I cross a nice little babbling brook and think about filling my water bottle, but don’t. I rinse my hat instead which has a big salt crust across it now. The sun is higher, it’s just after noon and a small breeze is all that keeps me from being hot. I come to a trail sign. 4.4 miles back to the visitor center. I look at the watch. Just over 2 hours out. I consider the 8 ounces of warm water sloshing in my bottle. Got to make it last. Oh Well, tally-ho!

This part of the trail cuts across the infield of the car road on a semi-washed out dirt road. No cover. There are Joshua trees scattered in the rocks and gravel. The plain is flat with a barely perceptible downward tilt. Perfect for finishing up. I push my hips forward and cruise.

Something squirrel-size with a white streak across its back darts across the trail. Lizard? Road Runner? Hallucination? 4 Ounces of hot water left. Dry mouth. Crusty eyes. I’m reviewing scenes from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in my head. I think I can see the visitor center up ahead a couple miles. It shimmers low in the heat.

My sciatic starts to scream a little. I’m getting weary. I push my hips forward, square my shoulders and pick it up. No problem. A couple miles. I can see it. Nobodies dying here today.

I see a figure sitting in the trail ahead. As I come closer a woman in a white shirt and khakis sitting on a rock materializes from the shimmer. Strange…
I talk to her as I approach, “Hi, are you ok?”
“Oh yes I’m fine, thank you for asking.”
“Well I’m not!” I laugh as I pass.
“You look great!” she yells after me.

These last couple miles are fairly rough and I’m struggling a little. It reminds me of the last two miles of the ES20 for some reason. I promise to let myself swallow the last bit of warm backwash from my bottle as I round the bend about 1k out from the center.

The trail tilts up out of a wash into the parking lot and I emerge, a salt encrusted apparition. I look at my watch. 2:40. “11 miles my ass!” I say to no one in particular as my family walks up to meet me.

I stretch in the shade of a vending machine shack and put on a fresh shirt. My pointy bits are chaffed, but other than that I’m great. What a run. What a nice surprise. I’m always worried that I won’t be able to squeeze any quality runs in when I go on vacation with the family. This run exceeded all my requirements and expectations!

The canyon itself is outstandingly beautiful. The early March weather was perfect. The footing was soft and forgiving, even without my trail shoes. The terrain was challenging but not too “strenuous”. What I thought would be a short 11 miler ended up being more like 18; perfect for my marathon training.

The fact that you have access to your support vehicle kept it from getting too miserable at the end. I went through 60+ ounces and could have used another 40! My Clydesdale albino body is not engineered to be running in the desert in early March.

What a great run. Take my advice, next time you’re stuck at some awful trade show or convention in Vegas, leave the strip and head west to Red Rock Canyon. You’ll be treated to numerous scenic trails of many lengths. Go for a run in the desert and purge that cruddy casino air from your lungs. It’s a hoot!



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