One of the things I like to do when traveling is run in different climates and biomes than I can experience back home. Since we’re in the desert I wanted to spend some time running in the desert, and we selected Red Rocks Canyon on the west edge of Vegas. My wife planned a smaller run/hike, but I was going to do the full Grand Circle Loop. The full Grand Circle Loop is just over 11 miles and is classified as a difficult hike. I found out why today, but maybe not for the reason I had thought.
I started out the run at the visitor’s center and started down our respective trails. We walked together for a short bit, and then I took off to start my run. I ran the Grand Circle Loop in a counter clockwise direction, and so I was tackling the majority of the climb on the east side of the loop. Within a short while I started to tackle some challenging terrain with steady climbs. When I reached the first parking lot I ran into my recurring issue with this trail, which was finding the trail when it got broken. I didn’t see where the trail headed off to the right and ended up running the next section along the road, when I was supposed to be climbing up and down the east side of the canyon walls. By the time I realized my mistake and saw the trail on the opposite side of the canyon it figured it was for the best as I should be able to pick up the trail again at the next parking lot, which I did.
Once I was safe and secure on the trail, and away from the road, the trail began to show it’s difficult side with a great deal of running up and down rocky cliff faces and running on top of smooth red stone flows. There was a lot of walking in this section, I’m not going to lie, because of how difficult it was to keep up a running pace safely. The path often consisted of lots of rocks, some of which were shifting, and when there is a long drop off to your right, you tend to slow down to make sure your footing remains secure.
I was feeling pretty good about the trail as I passed the Sandstone parking lot, however it was after Sandstone that I ran into my first serious issue. There are natural rainwater culverts along the sides of the mountain where rain water flows down. Most of the time they are dry, and today was no exception. However, it’s difficult to maintain a trail across these culverts, as it would wash away. So I found myself dumped into one of these with zero clue as to where the trail picked up again. The first time this happened I decided to run up the culvert a bit to see if that was the right direction, and I happened to luckily spot where the trail continued a few hundred feet up the culvert. However, the second time I encountered this I couldn’t find the trail again. I ran around in circles a bit looking for it, but couldn’t find it. So I decided to run down the culvert again, and since I had been heading somewhat south-westerly, I headed down in that direction. That turned out to be the wrong direction, and as can be seen in the photo of my GPS track, I should have turned right at the culvert and I would have come across the path again. There were zero markings on this trail, so a lesson for next time is to study the satellite data much more closely.
Eventually I came to a severe drop in the gully and figured that wasn’t the right direction and so I stopped to take stock of the situation. I had zero idea where to pick up the trail again, and was getting frustrated trying to find it, so I made an executive decision that heading across-country was my best bet to get to the road that I saw off in the distance. This involved running through scrub brush and trying to dodge cactus as I made my way. I ended up scraping up my legs pretty good, and later at lunch even found a cactus thorn still stuck in my leg.
It took me over a mile of cross-country running, including navigating more rain gullies, some with sharp drops, to make to a road. I ran along the road for a bit before stopping a cyclist to ask if they could help me determine where I was on the rudimentary park map. It turns out my shortcut actually was a short cut, as I had come out not too far from where the trail picks up again off the road. At this point I was on the south western leg of the loop, and for this portion, it’s all nice easy downhill running on an almost perfectly straight trail. Where I had been doing 14-15 minute miles up the mountain, I clicked in an easy 10 minute mile pace for the last three miles.
I arrived back at the visitor’s center and met up with my wife after her run and shared with her the tale of my adventure. From a challenge perspective, this was probably one of the hardest runs I’ve ever done. The terrain was difficult and the elevation certainly got the blood flowing. The lack of trail markings was very frustrating, but this was made up for in the amazing scenery. I’m sharing a few photos below, but pictures don’t seem to do it justice just how amazing this place looked.
A few tips for people who want to run this loop.
- Run the route in the direction that I did, going counter-clockwise. The final straightaway is a great way to end a hard run and you’ll feel really good coming down the mountain without having to navigate a lot of rolling terrain. Plus, the view is better.
- Study, study study. Look over the entire loop’s satellite imagery on Google Maps and make notes of where all the rain gullies are and how to pick up the patch from each break. I would even suggest printing some maps of certain sections on the north end of the loop to keep you on track.
- Water. Our run today was completely overcast, which made for amazing weather conditions, but if you’re out there in the sun there is zero protection from it. I brought two water bottles, and even with an overcast day, managed to make my way through one of them.
- Enjoy the view. For anyone running this, it’s going to be a training run, so don’t worry about the pace and stop and take a photo every now and then. If you’re like me, and come from an environment so completely different than this you’ll be amazed at the beauty of the desert and mountains.
After we arrived back at where we are staying we started on our second adventure of the day with a couple more taproom visits, but I’ll save that for another post. For now, enjoy the view from Red Rock Canyon.