From towering peaks and deep canyons to seasonal waterfalls and wild burros, Red Rock National Conservation Area is a premier destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Hikers have found some of the best rock scrambling hikes in the country here. Families enjoy picnics and easy hikes while admiring the spectacular scenery. Rock climbers come from all over the world to climb the 1,000-foot plus vertical walls.
It sounds perfect — maybe too perfect.
The Bureau of Land Management must limit the number of people hiking in a group at Red Rock. Setting a limit isn’t new to many BLM-managed lands. But why Red Rock, and why now? Because a certain hiking group occasionally brought more than 80 hikers on a single hike. Although I — and others — warned them this was a bad idea, the head of this group did not listen. To make matters worse, they encouraged drinking beer on certain hikes, which only drew attention to them. The BLM had to react.
On February 23, the BLM had an open house to get public input on how many people should be able to hike together as a group before they need to apply for a special recreational permit. Applying for the permit is no walk in the park. While the BLM says it’s trying to streamline the process, it currently takes about 180 days for BLM officials to do the permit paperwork — and hikers can be hit with a recovery cost for the work. The BLM will give out only 10 of these permits a year. This will have serious consequences on groups hiking in Red Rock. Groups rejected for a special recreation permit will have to split into smaller groups. Groups must be at least 20 minutes apart from each other on the trail. It’s a poorly thought-out solution, and it might be impossible to accomplish.
So what’s the magic number? Five? Ten? Forty? The magic number is 21.
A group of 20 hikers or fewer shouldn’t need a permit to hike at Red Rock. Small group hikes in this range promote safety, raise environmental awareness and help protect Red Rock’s natural resources.
First, safety: People shouldn’t hike alone. The rule is at least four people should hike together, although more is better. The chance that there’s a doctor, nurse, or someone with special skills in the group increases with its size. If one person is hurt, two hikers can go for help, while others stay with the injured person.
Groups of this size also contribute to raising awareness. Experienced hikers can teach beginning hikers "leave no trace" principles and how to navigate trails and routes, many of which are poorly signed. This number would also allow most church groups, families, and the Boy and Girl Scouts to hike as a group in Red Rock.
Finally, encouraging groups in this range is good for Red Rock — and the rest of us. For example, 20 individual hikers will take up 20 parking spots at a trailhead. Anyone who visits Red Rock knows there’s a lack of parking at most trailheads. If those 20 hikers were together, they’d most likely carpool and only take up four or five parking spots. That’s less roadside parking and less air pollution.
The BLM is supposed to announce the final number soon — but we, the public, can approve or reject that number. The BLM manages the land, but the land belongs to the public, and ultimately the BLM must answer to us.
Branch Whitney is a 27-year resident of Las Vegas, author of several hiking guides and operator of the website www.hikinglasvegas.com