How to Survive Summer in the Desert, and Other Life Lessons in Las Vegas

Exploring Red Rock Canyon in sunny Las Vegas, NV

Fresh off of the frigid summit of Mt Shasta in California, the next stop on our Year of Adventure was the desert: fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada. More specifically, we were headed to Red Rock Canyon, the rock climbing paradise about 30 minutes off the Vegas strip, named for the clusters of rust-red sandstone rock. While the area was a tourist hot-spot – visitors line up daily to make the ‘scenic drive’, a loop around some of the closer canyons – the canyons of Red Rock are home to around two thousand rock climbing routes. With everything from low-commitment climbs only minutes from the parking lot, to 10+ hour, high-exposure mega-tower climbs, Red Rock Canyon had a bit of everything. Unfortunately for us, Chris and I picked precisely the worst time to visit the desert for high-exertion activities: the summer. While I longed for the dry heat in the early morning darkness of Shasta, I was soon longing for cold mountain air as we sweated our way through town. Our time in Nevada lasted about a week, and included a few days at Red Rock campground until it closed for the summer (June 1st), a few nights on the strip itself in a hotel, then some blisteringly hot days at the campground at Lake Mead. Finally, our departure brought us through Death Valley, before heading to the high Sierra region in eastern California. Some highlights of each leg are below.

Red Rock Canyon

-Arriving in Red Rock campground after dark. The hot, windy air was full of sand and a fireworks display for Memorial Day. While the campground was incredibly convenient for climbing access, we got kicked out after just a few nights, as the campground closes on June 1st due to heat! This might have been the sandiest place I’ve ever been; we would return from a day in the park to find the inside of our tent and all of our things coated in sand, despite our best efforts to keep the strong winds out.

Our campsite in Red Rock Canyon. Not pictured: the thick layer of dust on EVERYTHING.

-All of the wonderful desert plants: cacti with red buds opening to yellow flowers, a variety of succulents, countless forms of Joshua trees, a surprising amount of flowers, long and trailing circular cacti, trees that I’m pretty sure were holly (a strange Christmas association here in the desert), bright yellow desert marigolds, and sharp spears of Mojave yuca.

Desert cacti in bloom.
Beautiful red sandstone and pointy green plants.

-My first experience with sandstone rock – grittier and more textured than I expected, shimmering in shades of red, brown, beige, and full zebra stripe (white and pink) under the hot sun. An interesting discovery was the ‘black varnish’, a bizarrely strong and cracked skin of mineral deposit sitting atop the underlying rock, providing excellent climbing and protection.

The ‘black varnish’ covering the sandstone in patches.
Intimidating pillars of rock!

-The serious towers blanketing the sides of the parallel canyons that make up the park, and the massive amount of trad routes up each one. Observing these towers was very humbling; I realized as soon as we started getting out that the multi-pitch trad routes were very committing, usually with difficulties not reflected in the grade, such as run-outs, huge exposure, gear anchors, hanging belays, non-trivial descents, massive days, quick-moving weather, lots of wind, and insane heat in the summer!

Lots of zebra stripes across the park.

-Memorable climbing to add to our road trip scrapbook: huge offwidth chimneys, curved shady ceilings to hide from the blasting sun, the best gear belay in existence (a lovely sandstone arch), the chilled velvet walls of Black Corridor slot canyon, and red, red rocks everywhere.

Hiding from the sun against this cool rock mid-climb.
Trying to not get heatstroke on the wall.
Black Corridor gets shade most of the day – basically, whenever the sun isn’t directly overhead.

Las Vegas

The one, the only: the Vegas Strip.

-The sights, sounds, and smells of the Strip, which Chris and I thought we were absolutely going to hate! Despite Vegas being over-the-top ridiculous, we were entertained by the blue twilight walkways of Caesar’s Palace, the patheticness of the canals at the Venetian, the hot conservatory gardens full of Instagrammers, and the all-American Bellagio fountain show. We even stumbled across some KISS-themed mini-golf, which, again, proved surprisingly entertaining.

Being tourists and taking all the photos.

-The food: while eating the artery-clogging and wallet-emptying meals of the Strip was not a highlight, we found a couple hidden gems in town: a wonderful traditional Ethiopian restaurant off the Strip with the best coffee (complete with traditional ceremony) I’ve ever had, plus an Asian bakery with wonderful coconut iced coffee and pastries. Also, some nice Italian mussels.

Jamming out at KISS mini golf. Worth every penny.
Traditional Ethiopian coffee with incense.

-Escaping the tent! After a solid five weeks of living out of a sedan and tent, even a cheap hotel room felt like untold luxury.

Thank god for small pleasures like AC.
Silly and atmospheric Caesar’s Palace.

Lake Mead and Hoover Dam

-We like a bit of suffering, and we found it at the Lake Mead campsite: temperatures approached 40 C during the day, and barely cooled down at night. Coupled with the incessant noise-making of the lakeside community of pigeons (24/7!!), we’ll look back somewhat fondly on this campsite as the time we didn’t sleep for three days.

-Visiting Hoover Dam, which I again enjoyed more than I expected. It’s a truly impressive work of engineering and construction. Learning about the diversion of the Colorado River and witnessing the sharp and simple contrast of the curved white dam against the aesthetic lines of Black Canyon were worth the time and money.

Looking down Black Canyon from atop the dam.
Looking down the concave face. The dam was built up block by block.
The view of the Hoover Dam from the bridge.

Death Valley

-Our time in Nevada drew to a close with our exit through Death Valley. On-theme with the rest of the trip, the sun was our primary enemy as we dashed out of the car for short bursts to see some of the sights: the Sand Dunes, the Devil’s Cornfield, and the striking white and red marble of Mosaic Canyon.

Death Valley… where trees go to die.
Marble rock in Mosaic slot canyon.

As we fled the desert heat and climbed the hills into Eastern California, we felt a sense of relief at having survived summer in that furnace. However, the floods from a unseasonably huge California snowpack soon began to create their own kind of havoc on our drive, and we were soon swept off (almost literally) into our next adventure.

Chris saying goodbye to a Joshua tree.
Hello California. Guess we won’t be going this way…

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