by Julie Engelhardt
click images to enlarge
Las Vegas visitors and locals alike agree that the Spring Mountains and Mt. Charleston are a great place to escape from summer heat or to enjoy winter snow sports.
Many visitors to Las Vegas have the impression that there's not much to see or do beyond the bright lights and huge resorts on the Strip. I mean, isn't it all just desert out there?
Well, if you've done your homework before you make your trip to Las Vegas, you'll know that the hills and mountains surrounding the city offer a myriad of recreational opportunities throughout the year.
One such place is Charleston Peak, which the locals call Mt. Charleston. It is about 35 miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip. Take US 95 north from the Strip and then head west on Nevada Highway 157.
The name Charleston was given to the peak by John C. Fremont while he was exploring this portion of Southern Nevada. The name refers to Charleston, South Carolina, which was Fremont's wife's hometown.
Mt. Charleston reaches a staggering height of 11,913 feet, and it is the third-highest peak in Nevada. It is located in the Spring Mountains, which run along the western edge of the Las Vegas Valley. This 316,000-acre region is part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
Tourist and locals alike have found that the Spring Mountains and Charleston Peak are a great place to escape from the sweltering summer heat. The temperature is usually about twenty degrees cooler in the mountains than it is on the desert floor.
As you drive up the mountain, you will not only experience a difference in the temperature, but you will also see changes in vegetation. At the lowest level, which is 2,080 feet, you will find Joshua Trees.
As you continue your ascent, cedar trees begin to line the road, and once you have reached the mountain's uppermost region you'll be surrounded by an Alpine forest.
Also be on the lookout for acres of Bristlecone Pine. The Bristlecone Pine, looking unlike any pine tree you might expect to see, is the oldest known life form on earth. It is also one of two trees designated as the state tree of Nevada.
Be on the lookout for wildlife, too. Wild burros and horses can be found roaming throughout the region, as well as many different types of birds such as humming birds, eagles, and woodpeckers.
Once you've reached this cool haven, you have many options as to how you can spend your day. Mt. Charleston has seven campgrounds with more than 180 campsites and about 160 picnic sites. The campsites vary in size from single family to triple family, with RV spaces available.
There are two large picnic areas available for reservation. If you're the type that doesn't like to just sit around and breathe fresh mountain air, then lace up your hiking boots, strap on your backpack and head off for a trek down one of dozens of trails that wind throughout the woods.
You certainly have your choice, since there are fifty-three miles of trails that crisscross the mountains. These trails are all marked and maintained, with some paved for handicapped accessibility. They vary in length and degree of difficulty, and offer great views of the forest, canyons and wildlife.
If you want to let someone else do the walking check out the Mt. Charleston Riding Stables. You can take a three and a half hour horseback ride that goes through Fletcher Canyon. Wear a hat and sunscreen, and be sure to bring your binoculars so you can do some bird watching. They also have hayrides in the summer and sleigh rides in the winter.
Mt. Charleston and the Spring Mountains are also a great destination for winter recreation.
The Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort located in Lee Canyon, has a total of 13 runs, with 20% beginner, 60% intermediate, and 20% advanced. The resort is open from Thanksgiving through Easter, weather permitting.
Alpine (downhill) skiing has been a popular sport at Mt. Charleston since the 1930's. In the early 1940's, the US Forest Service began to seriously evaluate the possibility of opening this area for full-time use during the winter. During this period, skiers were towed by ropes behind horse drawn sleds up to the site of the present ski slopes.
There are now three power lifts that take you to the top of the slopes (the only horses you'll find now are the ones back at the Mt. Charleston Riding Stables).
If you are too tired to drive back down the mountain after a day of summer hiking or winter skiing, and you'd rather sleep in a cozy bed instead of camping under the stars, there are several over-night options available (it's recommended that you make reservations well in advance).
This charming location offers individual cabins with king-sized beds, fireplaces, and whirlpools. Almost Heaven Mountain Retreat is another option for overnight guests.
Two things to remember when visiting Mount Charleston: if you plan on staying for more than a day or two—fill up the gas tank before leaving town, as there are no gas stations on the mountain, and stop by the grocery store before you leave, since there aren't any stores 'up top' where you can buy supplies.
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