Desert Companion

Eyes on the prize: hikes with hidden treasures

Sure, hiking is all about the journey. But these five boast destinations — stunning views, historic sites and other treasures — that are well worth the huffing and puffing

Big Falls1. Big Falls

The prize: Mary Jane Falls has a reclusive big brother, a towering, 100-foot waterfall that few Mt. Charleston hikers ever see. Big Falls has snow late into spring, when the falls can form a gaping crevasse behind a veritable tower of the fluffy white stuff. The parking area is large and crowded, but 90 percent of those hitting the trail will wander right past this detour and miss one of Mt. Chuck’s hidden gems.

The hike: Take the Mary Jane Falls trail as it gently slopes up parallel to a wash. The path here is surrounded by towering ponderosa pines and white fir. Hike to the first switchback where, instead of making a sharp right like everyone else, you’ll go straight ahead and drop down into a rock and tree strewn wash. Follow the wash upstream, picking your way over boulders and fallen trees, using the trail where you can, until you reach the falls, only 1.5 miles from the trailhead.

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The way: Drive Kyle Canyon Road past the fire station to Echo Road. Follow Echo Road about one-third of a mile and turn left on the signed Mary Jane Falls Road. Park in the large lot at the end of the road.

Tip: Even into June, come prepared for snow. Once the snow disappears, the falls disappear with it.

La Madre Springs

2. La Madre Spring

The prize: Spring into spring with this trip to a spring. La Madre Spring is a permanent source of water critical to wildlife at Red Rock National Conservation Area. Its water is backed up into a pond created by a concrete dam that settlers built in the 1960s for their cattle. Adjacent to the pond is the foundation of their original homestead. Continuing upstream, hikers will find an old miners’ cabin dating to the 1920s.

 The hike: Starting at the Willow Springs Picnic Area, hike alongside occasional 4x4 traffic on Rocky Gap Road about a half mile to a fork. Bear right onto the closed road and head up this fairly steep and gravelly avenue for another mile until you reach the pond and homestead. Enjoy the cold, emerald water and then, as Thoreau would say, gird up your loins once more, and continue your pilgrimage toward its fountainhead. A small trail continues upstream through thickets and over rocks for another mile, finally reaching the miners’ cabin. Once destroyed by vandals, the cabin has been rebuilt and now provides a shady respite for a quiet lunch in the wilderness.

The way: The Willow Springs parking area is a signed turnoff near the halfway point of the Red Rock Scenic Loop.

Tip: Keep your eyes open. The hills around La Madre Spring are one of the best places to spot bighorn sheep.

Hidden Forest

3. Hidden Forest

The prize: Amid the arid and untrammeled lands of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge lies a small cabin, nestled among ponderosa pines, next to a flowing spring. Hidden Forest’s prospector/hunter/moonshiner cabin dates back to the 19th century, and still makes a welcome redoubt for weary wanderers. A nearby side canyon holds the remains of an old military plane crash, while three miles north is 9,900-foot Hayford Peak.

The hike: Getting to Hidden Forest couldn’t be simpler. Just follow the wash from the trailhead all the way to the cabin. Of course, simple doesn’t mean easy. The rocky, gravelly arroyo that defines this hike drags on for six miles as it climbs 2,000 feet. Make the trip worthwhile and stay a night or two. Intrepid backpackers wanting to bag Hayford Peak should bring a daypack and a GPS. When getting away from it all, it’s always good to be able to get back.

The way: Drive US-93 north to Corn Creek Road and the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. From the ranger station, turn left on Alamo Road, then right on Hidden Forest Road.

Tip: The cabin comes complete with supplies, but rodents love warm blankets as much as hikers do. Bring your own.

Skull Canyon4. Skull Canyon

The prize: A true visual treasure hunt, with literally thousands of fossils embedded in the rocks along the trail. The limestone that forms Blue Diamond Hill, and this canyon in particular, holds the remains of countless extinct sea creatures, their trails and tracks — even their waste. If you venture out the full three miles, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Las Vegas.

The hike: Mosey down the dirt road from the trailhead to its end at the cowboy picnic area. Turn left and follow a wide, ambling path along the base of Blue Diamond Hill — and watch your step! This is a horse trail. The trail bends south, crosses a wash, and climbs steeply up a set of switchbacks. Near the eighth switchback is a fork, with Skull Canyon to the right. Continue steeply up the canyon, crossing the wash multiple times, keeping a sharp eye out for fossils in the exposed rock. At canyon’s end, turn left and head to the Las Vegas Overlook, a breathtaking viewpoint.

The way: Heading west on Charleston/Highway 159, the Cowboy Trail Rides parking area is one mile past the entrance to the Red Rock Scenic Loop.

Tip: To see the fossils, look for textures on the flat surfaces where the limestone has cleaved. (The one time it's acceptable to stare at cleavage.)

Willow Springs5. Willow Springs

The prize: You name it, Willow Springs has it. First are the pictographs, ancient rock paintings recently made famous by an act of vandalism. (Don’t worry, they’ve been restored.) Next, the springs themselves, flowing from beneath the Spring Mountains, create a lush riparian zone that spills out into the desert. Finally, during the spring melt, a cascading waterfall appears above the spring. For a non-hiker, this flat, easily accessed area simply can’t be beat.

The hike: Once you find a parking spot at the Willow Springs Picnic Area (it can get crowded this time of year), get off your butt and start enjoying. To the southeast are the pictographs, painted on two large boulders the natives conveniently placed next to the bathroom. Across the road is the discovery trail that leads to the springs. Nearer to the mountain, the trail turns to boardwalk, which meanders above the spring. Turn off your iPod and listen for gurgling water from a small stream, and the roar of the seasonal waterfall.

The way: Willow Springs is a signed parking area near the halfway point of the Red Rock Scenic Loop.

Tip: Petroglyphs are etched into the rocks. Pictographs, like those at Willow Springs, are painted on to the rock. In both cases, look — but don't touch.

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