November 10, 2023 - 10:01 am
Some Southern Nevada hikes are about spotting birds and blooms, and others are about solitude and exercise.
A trek along McCullough Hills Trail in Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area mixes plenty of peaceful desert time with heaping amounts of healthy accomplishment. This 8-mile trail is moderately difficult because of its leg-tiring length, but the terrain and elevation gains are on the mild side. The hike is a commitment of at least half a day.
On a sunny Saturday last winter, we started our walkabout in Henderson’s outback at McCullough Hills Trailhead, 295 Mission Drive, in the general area of Horizon Drive and U.S. Highway 95. We hiked the east-to-west route, but four years earlier we did the reverse by starting our trek at Anthem Hills Park. Regardless of the direction you take, the task is best accomplished with two cars to avoid turning an 8-mile hike into 16 miles.
The logistics of our east-to-west hike included one of us dropping off a car near the baseball fields at Anthem Hills Park, where the walk would end for us hours later, and then driving from there together in a second car to start our hike at McCullough Hills Trailhead. We made sure that keys to both cars were stowed in our backpacks along with lots of water and snacks.
At McCullough Hills Trailhead’s parking lot, there’s a posted map marking a web of trails, and it’s important to look at that for orientation’s sake. The area where we started is popular among walking Henderson regulars and some mountain bikers from surrounding neighborhoods. Narrower hiking paths near the parking lot lead to the wider McCullough Hills Trail, where eventually each mile is marked by a Gila monster sign. The farther you travel on the 8-mile path, the fewer people you will encounter until nearing Anthem Hills Park at trail’s end.
Desert solitude is found between miles 2 and 7, where the mind starts shedding some clutter and, at least for a few hours, most of the focus is on one foot following another through a barren but geologically interesting landscape. Volcanic history is part of the McCullough Hills narrative, as is suggested by the broken black rocks of past lava flows. Skies are big and clouds are often dramatic. The trek took us 4½ hours, but more ambitious hikers will finish sooner.
Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area doesn’t have reliable surface water sources like those found in Red Rock and Mount Charleston, so wildlife sightings are harder to come by. Reptiles are cold-blooded and hide when temperatures drop, so only smaller lizards are typically visible on warmer fall days. Ravens, black-throated sparrows and rock wrens are sometimes seen flying and foraging in the wilderness. Vegetation includes abundant creosote and white bursage. Cactus species include beavertail, cholla and barrel. Mojave yuccas and an occasional Joshua tree can be spotted on the McCullough Hills Trail, which is hilly at times with a few switchbacks and mostly gradual elevation gains.
Remarkably, the quiet trail winds through protected land that’s just on the other side of hills dotted with mansions in Henderson’s MacDonald Highlands, Dragon Ridge and Ascaya neighborhoods. At several points along the trail, hikers will be able to appreciate million-dollar views of the Strip and mountains that surround the Las Vegas Valley.
Stunning panoramas are part of any path in Sloan Canyon’s 48,438 protected acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. So is the solitude on the well-worn packed dirt McCullough Hills Trail leading west.
As the day’s trek continues, Gila monster mile markers keep cheering on hikers by letting them know they are getting closer to reaching their 8-mile goal. Our backpacks were lighter after drinking water and eating snacks along the way.
Nearing the finish line at Anthem Hills Park, west-bound hikers start encountering more and more walkers and runners, many of whom live near access points to Sloan Canyon and regularly put in a couple of out-and-back miles. They are accomplishing their daily cardio goals but probably missing out on the near overload of rugged beauty enjoyed by those willing to make an 8-mile commitment.
If you go
Before stepping onto the trail, take a look online at the BLM’s map and overview. However, the routes in Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area may continue to be confusing as you get to know the vast area. Cell service is unreliable in the wilderness, so let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back.