Switchbacks, a half mile snow field, ice bridges, and crevasses – all in the desert less than an hour from Las Vegas!
About an hour west of Las Vegas lies the Spring Mountain range home to the Mt Charleston Wilderness. It’s the summer hangout for day hikers and backpackers looking to escape the heat of the desert. Temps are usually 20-25 degrees cooler than on the Strip below.
My friend Christafa and I decided to tackle a new route at Mt Charleston but weather this time of year can be a bit dynamic. As we made our way up the mountain clouds rolled in and the promise of rain was evident. There was no way we were turning back so we decided to do a waterfall loop instead.
We pulled into the Mary Jane Falls trailhead parking lot as the first drops of rain fell. Mary Jane Falls and Big Falls share a trailhead but Mary Jane Falls gets most of the traffic thanks to tourists. Big Falls isn’t a “maintained” trail and the Visitor’s Center rarely mentions it to out-of-towners for that reason. We decided to shoot up the switchbacks to Mary Jane Falls first then head across the canyon to Big Falls.
The trail to Mary Jane Falls is essentially an easy half mile or so approach on wide well groomed trail and then a long series of switchbacks up the falls. At the beginning of the switchbacks a less obvious trail veers off to the left and makes its way to Big Falls.
We started the switchbacks gaining elevation with every turn. There were tons of kids on the trail screaming as loud as they could impressed with the echo response of the canyon. I wanted to tackle this section of trail quickly, get the photos we were after, and move on to Big Falls to escape the crowds. I just prefer solitude more than a busy trail to be honest. But Chris hadn’t done either of these hikes before so I wanted him to get the full experience.
At Mary Jane Falls there are ample photo opportunities. The falls cascade down a few levels of rock falling more than 100 feet. The trail continues on for another 100 yards to a large cave that provides a great view down canyon. We both took shots of the wildflowers that seemed to be everywhere and spent a few minutes talking with a couple that were doing the trail for the first time. This is the most popular trail in the Mt Charleston Wilderness because of the views and its accessibility. I was anxious to distance myself from the crowds so we began our descent.
At the bottom of the switchbacks we made the right turn on the Big Falls Trail hoping not to bring attention to ourselves or to attract any curious followers. The first section of the trail skirts the opposing canyon rise and moves into the ponderosa pines. The smells changes, the air gets cooler, and the excitement begins to build. That’s what I was here for!
We cut the corner where the Big Falls canyon meets the main canyon and we descended into the wash. We could hear water but couldn’t see it yet. I was rambling on to Chris about my last trip up this canyon with my friend Brian and was trying to paint the picture of what to expect.
This trip would be different, very different.
As we made out way up canyon we began to see running water, clear and ice cold. Then the water simply disappeared under ground. It took a few minutes but we discovered that the water actually was running out from under the massive snow field that still blanketed the canyon. At first, it was just a cool thing to discover so late in July…in the desert! But as we made our way up canyon we could see that the snow field spanned the entire width of the canyon and at points in the middle could easily be 1-15 feet thick.
We were already on the left side of the canyon and decided to continue on that path rather than backtracking to cross to the other side. That plan failed at a point that the bushwacking just made the experience too much of a chore. We retraced our steps to a point where we could evaluate the snow field and found that it was still 4-5 feet think. The sounds of the water running underneath the snow we noticeably absent and we tested to see if it would hold. It seemed safe enough and more so than the spot we checked below so we decided to cross.
As we crossed, we were able to look down into the snowfield at a hole that had formed in the middle. It was 3 feet wide revealing 4-5 foot of thickness in the snow field and also the 10 feet of space below the snow and ice into the running water. A break through or fall here in this crevasse, or anywhere that lacked the integrity to hold you, would be disastrous. I had no idea how to hike on these conditions and it gave me some concern. We didn’t hang around.
On the other side a faint trail made its way up to the viewing area with a perfect view of the 100 foot Big Falls. This is the most spectacular waterfall in the Mt Charleston Wilderness and the water was flowing better than I had ever seen it before. We snapped pics and said a few words to another couple that caught up to us.
Thunder, lightening, rain.
All this work and we got 45 seconds at Big Falls before Mother Nature announced “last call”. With thousands of dollars of camera equipment between the four of us, we quickly packed up and began the descent. Wet rocks and muddy downhill slides made for an interesting return. Chris sported his poncho but I embraced the rain. It had been years since I walked in the rain I didn’t want to miss the opportunity – I live in the desert.
I can’t remember another day hike that I enjoyed more than this one. It was only 5-6 miles with less than 2000 feet of elevation gain. I felt no lingering muscle pain in the following days. I would even say it was a test physically. But it was one of the best trail experiences I can remember. Rain, new conditions on the trail that challenged my thinking, the excitement of a potentially dangerous situation. Yeah, I want more of that!