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Las Vegas-area hiking comfortable under cover of darkness

Updated July 31, 2019 - 11:03 am

Pack your bravery and leave your sunscreen behind when preparing for late-summer night hiking.

August in Southern Nevada can be a month of air-conditioned hibernation for hikers, unless they drive an hour to the cooler climes of Mount Charleston or opt for a closer path of darkness.

Recently, the nighttime route I chose was a rocky loop of moderate difficulty in Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area. A true believer in the safety-in-numbers night hiking philosophy, I picked a group hike led by seasoned trekkers. Still, I had to summon the courage to face what I feared I’d eventually hear: staccato clicking sounds from rattlesnakes warning me to stay away.

Our group of 14 started hiking at the Shadow Canyon trailhead near the Anthem Hills neighborhoods of Henderson. We wore hiking shoes, used trekking poles and each had a headlamp that we didn’t intend to use during our moonlit Sloan Canyon hike. The idea was to let our eyesight adjust as the light faded to twilight and then to semi-darkness. The full moon would light our path back to the parking lot 2 ½ hours later.

As we started out, a stunning sunset was in the making with some clouds gigantic and stormy and others wispy and sky-tall. While we marched along the Park Peak trail on Route 403, fuchsia and peach cloud hues mixed with gray, blue and gold. Creosote bushes offered up scant yellow flowers among their thousands of fluffy white seeds. The bedraggled Beavertail cactus had already given up its bloom for the year. The sunset’s colors deepened and then darkened, and soon millions of Las Vegas Valley lights began brightening up.

With our gain in elevation, we discovered along the trail an occasional Joshua tree, whose silhouette added an artistic flourish to the twinkling lights below.

As we approached Park Peak, the sky was getting darker and the terrain rockier and more uneven. Absentmindedly looking around for pretty details in nature was no longer an option. Not paying attention might mean tripping in such a low-vision venue. So I kept my eyes fixated on the dusty trail in front of me, and my ears were tuned in to any and every nonhuman noise. Snakes were out there, among the volcanic rocks and Mojave yuccas. Speckled rattlesnakes were poised for suppertime strikes, but we ended up not seeing them because their appetite for avoidance is stronger than ours.

However, a 5-inch desert hairy scorpion crossed our path. It stayed still long enough for a photo under red light, which adds illumination but allows your eyes to remain adjusted to the dark. Some hikers had a red light option on their headlamps. We all had but didn’t use bright standard flashlights, headlamps and phone lights, in case we ran into difficulties. We also carried plenty of water and snacks.

In the Mojave Desert darkness, a lone bird called out, and possibly coyotes, too. The clicking noises I continued to hear likely belonged to members of the insect family, but I was still cautious and nervous. My snake anxieties weren’t the only reason I kept looking over my shoulder. The not-yet-visible full moon was illuminating clouds from below the McCullough Hills ridgeline, and it was expected to rise and peek over the peaks at any moment.

Rather than complete the Park Peak loop in the dark, our party took a return path to the parking lot via the connector trail Route 402 to Route 404, walking in the opposite direction of Black Mountain. That’s when the full moon finally began breaking the ridgeline. A hazy dome of intensifying cloud brightness was replaced by a fierce bleach-white moon sliver that grew into a half-moon and quickly became full. The gleaming disc 238,900 miles away appeared to rest on a hilltop for a few seconds before climbing higher and hanging with a visible Jupiter in the night sky.

Through binoculars, we spied the moon’s craters. We spent a few moments taking in the full moon’s beguiling beauty before tackling the remaining steps of our more than 3-mile night hike. The moon was our loyal companion as we walked through its lighting on the Mojave Desert floor.

Several Southern Nevada group night hikes have been scheduled for August. Registration is usually required. These hikes are popular, so call and make a request for more dates if they fill up. More information can be found at the links provided below.

City of Henderson, Aug 10 (1.8 miles) and Aug. 24 (8 miles): bit.ly/2YdDrPa

Mount Charleston, most Friday nights for the remainder of the summer season: bit.ly/2ykPLOj

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, most Monday evenings for the remainder of the summer season: bit.ly/2K3qD5v

REI ($15 for members, $35 for nonmembers), Aug. 15 and Sept. 14: bit.ly/2SOk0Xh

Natalie Burt, a former news reporter at the Review-Journal for 11 years, spends as much of her free time as possible enjoying Southern Nevada’s outdoors. She’s now a teacher and has lived in Henderson for 18 years. Email: nvburt@gmail.com.

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