Cool mountain temperatures, fantastic far-reaching views and some of the oldest trees to be seen anywhere await those who head to the Bristlecone Trail in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area.
Located in Lee Canyon, there are two trailheads for this hike, called the lower and upper, with about one mile of road in between. Hiking from one trailhead to the other and returning to your car by the road will make this outing a 6.2-mile loop. Many people, though, start at the upper trail and hike about halfway, up to a wide saddle, and return the way they came. This way they hike about the same overall distance yet enjoy the most interesting segment of the trail, as the rest of the way to the lower trailhead is along the wide, though now-abandoned, Scout Canyon gravel road.
The upper trailhead is at an elevation of about 8,680 feet, so this might affect your experience. Temperatures could easily be 25 degrees cooler than in Las Vegas, and the air is thinner. The latter fact means hiking might feel more strenuous, and it is easier to get sunburned.
From the signed upper trailhead, a well-defined path leads you immediately into the woods and up the ridgeline. You will notice a metal fence at the beginning of the trail. This was installed in 2007 to encourage hikers to stay on the trail, which enhances plant growth and the health of the forest.
There are more than 25 plants and animals in the Spring Mountains that are endemic. Four wildflowers that are rare but you might see along the trail are Charleston pinewood lousewort, Charleston ground-daisy, Clokey eggvetch and Rosy King sandwort. An illustrated sign at the beginning of the trail helps you identify them.
Other vegetation throughout this section of trail includes a stand of aspen, ponderosa pine, white fir, mountain mahogany and a couple of bristlecone pines. The bristlecone can be easily identified by its needles, which appear like a bottlebrush. As you travel higher, you will find many more bristlecones.
Bristlecones are thought to have the longest lifespan of all trees, and some on this very trail are thousands of years old. A small tree, no more than 5 feet tall, might be a couple of thousand years old.
After less than three miles on the hike, you will reach a saddle and see the sign for the Bonanza Trail on your left. This little-known trail is a haven for backpackers seeking solitude in the Mount Charleston Wilderness Area. From here, you can turn around and go back or continue along the gravel road and down to the lower trailhead.
This is a very popular trail, so if you want any solitude, get to the trailhead first thing in the morning. Be aware also that cyclists and horses share the trail. When a hiker encounters either, it makes sense for the hiker to step off the trail and let it pass, as the cyclist or horse can't readily do so.
Dogs are allowed on the trail, but please have them on a leash. Two weeks ago while hiking, I encountered four unleashed dogs on the trail. This not only scares off wildlife such as mule deer and wild horses but also can scare other hikers or their children.
Deborah Wall is the author of "Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide" and "Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States," published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.