Leaving Las Vegas

guidedclimb.jpg“It’s a pity so much stays in Vegas. The mountainous desert viewable between the neon sphinxes, blinking towers and
roller-coasters is hauntingly scenic and peaceful. Frozen hosers and luckless gamblers can experience unspeakable beauty and intense heat nearby or with a short drive. Free!

Red Rock Canyon – closer than your next winning streak (and lovelier)

“I have friends who’ve lived in Vegas their whole lives and haven’t been here.” Bob is a rock-climbing guide from the Red Rock Climbing Center. A jaw-droppingly beautiful 3-D geography lesson, Red Rock Canyon is not even an hour’s bike ride from Caesar’s Palace. (About 10 miles as crow flies, 15 as the broke drunk staggers.)

Shaped like a titanic horseshoe, Red Rock Valley opens away from the city, so during the day you’d never know it’s as close as Harlem is from ground zero. Its geological formations beggar description – more impressive than the Niagara gorge but definitely better for climbing.

Bob looks like Kurt Russell with sunburn. A lifelong climber in his early 50s, he’s been hired to take me rappelling. That’s a polite way of saying they’ll drag me up and down the rock face. He kits me out in the gear he’s brought from the office.

I’m no athlete but after a single go, rappelling’s already too easy. After twice, I’m bored but we still have two hours to go. “Can you take me climbing instead?” Sadly, because I hadn’t requested climbing, he didn’t have all the right equipment.

“You’d have to use my shoes.”

Climbers don’t use socks. I’m not fastidious but the temperature is 34o centigrade. Then again, worse probably things happened this in day Vegas than a dose of athlete’s foot.

“Thank you. Let’s do it.” Though perpendicular, the rock was riddled with crevices and cracks. So it was almost like climbing a ladder designed by a drunk Antonio Gaudi. With each satisfying yard higher, the view became lovelier.

This was my favourite climbing experience ever and I’ve hiked the French Pyrenees, Swiss Alps and Canadian Rockies. Yet we’re so close to the insanity. Please share this secret.

Death Valley – 2 hours and a world away

Another tip for cold Canadians and low rollers: rent a car. Two hours outside of Vegas is the entry to Death Valley, California, the hottest, driest spot in North America.

Imagine being able to breathe on the moon – Death Valley is starkly beautiful and other worldly. Indeed, George Lucas shot here, depicting Luke Skywalker’s home planet. Death Valley’s name speaks volumes but there’s lots of life in this arid and hostile environment.

Its entire length is just over 100 miles; maximum width, 15 miles. You can drive through in a couple of hours and return by another highway, completing the round trip in a day. Bring a full tank of gas and water. There aren’t any shops here but the wonders are many and, again, FREE:

Badwater.jpgThe predictably named Badwater is a smudgy puddle at the lowest point in North America. Fields of ancient salt extend outward from here, desiccated remnants of an ocean, evaporated a million years ago. A huge chart painted on the perpendicular valley wall measures how far beneath sea level you are: 282 ft!

Now imagine being able to breathe underwater.

You can view similar acres of saltpans from a mile overhead at Dante’s View. It’s a 3-mile detour from the highway. Even this high up, it’s hot as an inferno (yes, Dante, I get it) but the valley floor looks to be covered with snow. How weird and wonderful!

Natural Bridge Canyon –
another obvious name – and the
windblown rock formations leading RoadrunnerCanyons.jpgto it look like they’re lifted from Roadrunner cartoons.

Perhaps these unimaginative titles are a reaction to the surreally lovely surroundings?

‘Sailing stones’
are rocks that mysteriously move by themselves
– I’m not making this up – at Racetrack Playa!

The Devil’s Golf Course isn’t a real golf course. It has salt pillars instead of grass and coyotes instead of caddies. Otherwise it’s lonely and deserted. (Tiger Woods would love it right now.)

Mesquite Sand Dunes are right out of Lawrence of Arabia and hundreds of other films, including the aforementioned Starwars.

We spent the night at the Furnace Creek Resort – a lovely spa at a gorgeous oasis towards the northern end of the valley. We felt blissfully isolated and lounged poolside for an hour after a day of hot, dry driving and sightseeing.

That night there were so many stars, the Milky Way looked like an upside down beach. Bliss! Not 10 hours before, I was having an anxiety attack in front a noisy slot machine. Now, we had left truly Las Vegas; relaxed, I finally felt like this was a vacation.

– by Steven Bochenek

Red Rock Canyon Photos courtesy of Red Rock Climbing Center

Death Valley photos courtesy of nps.gov