November 12, 2020 - 1:25 pm
A network of faint bighorn sheep trails is visible when the lighting’s just right. Chuckwallas can be seen guarding their rocky lairs like desert dragons when the weather warms. And lichens add bursts of bright orange and neon green to volcanic rock when most other Mojave colors have faded to drab.
These are some of the sights you can expect on the 6-mile-round-trip River Mountain Hiking Trail, which is accessible off U.S. Highway 93 near St. Jude’s Ranch for Children in Boulder City. This foot trail leads to Black Mountain Overlook and is near, but apart from, the more heavily trafficked and paved 34-mile River Mountains Loop Trail. On this hike, I’ve seen a herd of bulky but nimble bighorn sheep, silver cholla with chartreuse flowers, speedy zebra-tailed lizards, cliff-nesting ravens, panicky desert cottontails, foraging black-throated sparrows, a slithering-up-the-rocks speckled rattlesnake, a seemingly levitating juvenile sidewinder, lavender desert asters contrasted against black volcanic rock and pineapple cactus blooming fuchsia in spring.
What you’ll see depends on luck and timing, but one thing’s for certain with any climb to trail’s end: spectacular views of Lake Mead, the River Mountains, the Las Vegas Valley, Boulder City and northern Arizona (including a peek at the O’Callaghan-Tillman Bridge through binoculars).
The hike is challenging but manageable with an elevation gain of about 1,200 feet. It’s one of my go-to hikes in fall and winter because of the stunning panoramas and abundant sun exposure. Cold-blooded reptiles mostly hide during cooler months, and a blooming plant is a rarity, but the views and geology make for a rewarding journey. The hike is close to hassle-free, as in there’s no need to make a reservation or enter through a pay station. And it’s near Hemenway Park, in case you need a second chance at spotting bighorn sheep.
Looking up from the trailhead’s parking lot, Red Mountain is visible on the left and Black Mountain on the right. That remains so throughout the trek. A hiker’s lofty goal is the saddle between the two, and getting to the ridgeline requires energy and surefootedness.
The west side of Red Mountain is a popular area among mountain bikers using the Bootleg Canyon trail system, but the well-maintained packed dirt route for hikers heading east and up to Black Mountain Overlook is open only to foot traffic. Signage at the start of the trail helps keep hikers on their designated path.
The River Mountain Hiking Trail gently meanders past a neighborhood and along flood-control features before reaching creosote-dominant terrain that offers glimpses of Lake Mead and close encounters with colorful strands and curves of rock. It’s in the initial desert floor section of the trail where spring shows the most cactus blooms and reptiles, including zebra-tailed lizards as well as two sidewinders and a speckled rattlesnake I saw in April and May.
Such sightings are unlikely in cooler months, when reptiles are dormant.
The trail remains easy for the first mile and in part runs parallel to an arroyo that routes water through the canyon during flash flooding. The ascent through rugged foothills and toward the ridgeline gets gradually more difficult and offers prettier and prettier views of red rock on the left and black volcanic rock on the right. My best luck spotting bighorn sheep has been on the left.
As the path continues up the rocky canyon that separates Red and Black mountains, the climb and its switchbacks begin to require more power and caution. It narrows and in spots offers scant margin for error as the saddle approaches. The switchbacks, brought to hikers by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s, may become dreadful and painful for some. If that’s the case, it’s time to stop in a safe spot and look to the side and back down the trail for bighorn sheep and the subtle paths they make while wandering their steep terrain.
Once the saddle is reached, look to the path most traveled that heads to the right and up to the Black Mountain Overlook. Our raven’s view along the ridgeline of the Las Vegas Valley and the Spring Mountains is unforgettable. Although wildflowers aren’t part of the fall and winter scene, colorful collections of lichen decorate volcanic rocks lining the final stretch of the trail, where chuckwallas often can be spotted in the warmer months. Rock overhangs and lookout points tempt hikers just before they reach the overlook, where they will find spots to rest, an informational UNLV geology panel to read and gorgeous views of Lake Mead to enjoy.
After a brief respite, snacks and photos, the trip back down the River Mountain Hiking Trail is more enjoyable because the hard work is over and the backpacks are lighter. Paying close attention to footwork is still crucial on such steep ground, but the descent offers a second chance to catch the details that may have been overlooked on the arduous way up.
Additional information on the River Mountain Hiking Trail is available here: https://www.bcnv.org/Facilities/Facility/Details/River-Mountain-Hiking-