Southern Nevadans who enjoy the outdoors are willing to endure summer's stop-drop-and-roll heat because they know the sun will eventually retreat from the Mojave Desert and give way to perfect fall days.
Those days have arrived, and that means bicyclists and hikers, joggers, dog walkers and picnickers are heading to the just-finished River Mountains Trail, a 35-mile asphalt and concrete loop linking Henderson, Boulder City, Lake Mead and Hoover Dam.
Early Thursday morning, with the sun still low and a crisp breeze in the air, a coyote hunting for its breakfast could be seen from the trail south of Railroad Pass. From there, the trail heads toward Lake Mead and eventually wraps around the River Mountains.
The vegetation is sparse, dominated with creosote bushes, jimson weed and the occasional cactus. But by March -- a more colorful time for hiking and biking -- the primrose, buckwheat and lily, three of the many wildflowers of the Mojave, will carpet the desert floor.
Few trees grow on the River Mountains, which were created eons ago by volcanoes, and then cut and shaped by the Colorado River when it ran wild. Across the highway, the vast El Dorado Valley stretches for what looks like forever.
"There are some steep hills at some points, like at the Three Sisters hills near Lake Las Vegas where the grade is 15 percent," said John Holman, who has been part of the trail dream since 1996. "The trail can be challenging, but there are other places that are less taxing, and there's a lot to see.
"In the spring there are wildflowers. You've got vistas of the lake. There are picnic tables near the lake and displays that educate people about the wetlands and the Spanish Trail that runs through there."
Plans to blaze the trail were hatched 15 years ago with the objective to provide "close to home" recreational opportunities for locals and tourists alike, according to Holman, a senior services planner at Southwest Gas.
Holman and other volunteers from the gas company rebuilt and then maintained the Historic Railroad Hiking Trail after flash floods damaged the site near Hoover Dam at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Relationships were built with the lake's National Park Service employees, who in turn initiated the River Mountains project, Holman said.
Construction began in 2000, and the entities involved signed off on the trail last month when the last piece, about three miles, was completed near Lake Las Vegas.
The trail was built at a cost Holman estimated from $15 million to $17 million and funded in large part with revenue from the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act.
The entire trail is paved and closed to motorized vehicles, making it ideal whether you're on two wheels or two feet.
"I've ridden trails all over the country, and this is one of the nicest," said Jim Twomey, owner of JT Bicycles in Henderson.
Twomey, 63, is an avid cyclist who bikes more than 100 miles a week. He spends his vacations traveling across the country to take part in biking events from Canada to Utah, and he said River Trails is one of his favorites.
"This is absolutely one of the nicest trails I've ridden," he said Thursday morning while riding the trail between Railroad Pass hotel-casino in Henderson -- one of many trail heads -- and Boulder City.
"It's got scenic hills, flats and what you'd call switchbacks," he said. "This is a great training ride."
Vic Valenzuela, who rides 26 to 30 miles of the trail several times a week, said the wildlife and flora and fauna along the trail add to the ride.
"We see coyotes, tortoises, and rattlesnakes all the time," the 50-year-old said.
Darlene Navarre, a 40-year-old mother of five from Boulder City, jogs the trail on the days she doesn't bike it, logging between eight and 12 miles a day on foot and twice that many on her bike.
"I started jogging about seven and a half months ago," she said. "I love the wildlife out here, and I love how my mind focuses when I'm out here."
THE WORD IS OUT
Besides, the word is out, and it's already garnered national and even international attention. Last year the Department of the Interior designated River Mountains a national trail.
Even before the loop was completed, a good chunk of it was used in September for the bike portion of the Ironman World Championships, and on Nov. 5, the trail was used to host the bike portion of the 2011 ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships, Holman said.
Triathletes from more than 40 countries participated in the Ironman competition; the triathlon drew competitors from 26 countries.
"That's good exposure for the trail and good for the Las Vegas Valley," he said.
But Holman doesn't want anyone to think they have to be a world-class athlete to bike or hike. Homan also said a hiker can walk to Hoover Dam where the River Mountains Trail converges with the Historic Railroad Trail.
"I don't think any other trail in the country has something like that," he said.
The River Mountains Trail is part of an ambitious trails plan for the valley. Holman said several public entities and private groups hope to build a trail in the mountains that rim the Las Vegas Valley, linking a system of trails from Hoover Dam to Red Rock.
And while the River Mountains Trail is not overly difficult for most people, Holman does suggest anyone using it to bring plenty of water, a hat, sunscreen and lip balm.
"You always want to be prepared," he said.
Because even in the fall, when the days are perfect, the Mojave is still a desert.
Contact reporter Doug McMurdo at email@example.com or 702-224-5512.