What is Fossil Falls: It is an area with unique geologic features. The area was part of the Coso Volcanic Range, which was an active volcanic area thousands of years ago. Some of the remnants of this volcanic activity can be seen in the form of a cinder cone, Red Hill, which is next to Fossil Falls. The other remnants of this volcanic activity are the “falls” themselves, which is a large area of basalt (hardened lava). This large sheet of basalt blocked portions of ancient Owens River, and probably portions of the Owens Lake. The significance of this is that during the last ice age, water from receding glaciers (and the river and lake) flowed over this basalt, smoothing it, eroding it, and forming the canyons and holes that remain today over a period of thousands of years. Today, what remains is smooth basalt that has eroded into a distinctive geologic area. (For more information click here and here).
In Southwestern Nevada, there’s a place where some of the purest, clearest, cleanest and most pristine water bubbles to the surface. Shocked? You shouldn’t be. As I’ve discussed before, large swathes of Eastern California used to be glacial lakes, such as where present day Trona and the Trona Pinnacles are located. There’s also an oasis in the former town of Zzyzx, and groundwater at Salt Creek in Death Valley and Badwater. Even cooler, Death Valley has salt pools that randomly appear and disappear across the Valley floor proper in random locations (one of the more accessible pools is currently located by the Devil’s Golf Course, but it is closing – slowly!). When you look at it like this, through the lens of time, geologic change, as well as the interconnected nature of the environment, crystal clear desert oases really aren’t that surprising.
Las Vegas. A city that’s home to every kind of strange phenomenon in North America. And, perhaps surprisingly enough, a city that’s has some great natural resources and places to get away from all the things one initially came to Las Vegas to experience. To the West of Las Vegas is the Mojave National Preserve, which has some interesting sights (Zzyzxx: http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2012/1/13/zzyzx-mojave-national-preserve.html) and some great trails (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2012/1/10/ring-loop-trail-mojave-national-preserve.html). However, if you don’t want to drive an hour or two outside the city, there’s a better, closer option: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
Red Rock Canyon is one of those places that everyone seems to have heard about in the wilderness community when you mention Las Vegas, but a place that few people have actually visited (other than locals, of course). For years, I heard about how it had great climbing, great hiking, and great geologic features. But, when I asked tough questions like: “What kind of climbing routes?”, “How long are the hikes?”, and “What kind of geologic features are we discussing?” I usually received blank stares. Simply put, everyone has heard of Red Rock, but few people actually know Red Rock (aside from locals). The other day, I finally had the time to head out there, and I now can say that all the speculation about the park is true: it is an amazing place. Even better, I can tell you that there is all types of climbing, from scrambling, bouldering, and aid assisted; that there are short and long distance hikes; and that there are many interesting geologic features out there, including the red Aztec Sandstone bands. (http://www.redrockcanyonlv.org/geology.html). I went on a couple hikes out there, and was struck by how this hike, Calico Hills was a great introduction to the park for all ages and experience levels.
Directions: Red Rock Canyon NCA is located off of Highway 159, and is approximately a half hour drive from downtown Las Vegas (the strip). The park is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and at this point in time, if you are going to enter the park through the Scenic Drive entrance (where this hike is located), there is a $7.00 day use fee. From the park entrance, it is approximately a mile (1) to the first Calico Hills parking area; and a mile and a half (1.5) to the second Calico Hills parking area. A word to the wise: while both of these parking areas are well signed, and impossible to miss, they are quite popular. It is likely that you will not find parking at either of these locations; and will have to continue up the road to the third Calico Hills parking area. During my visit, there was no room in the first Calico lot, despite it being mid-day on a weekday, and I ended up parking at the second parking area.
From any of the trailheads, the Calico Hills trail runs a whopping 3.2 miles from the entrance station to the Sandstone Quarry. (http://www.redrockcanyonlv.org/hikes_map.html) The trail additionally links up to a number of other trails that can be used to make the hike longer. (http://www.birdandhike.com/Hike/Red_Rocks/Calico_Hills/CHTrail_Map-O.htm). The trail is mostly flat and not challenging, and in my opinion, is suitable for all ages. The real attraction of this trail, to me, and from what I observed, was its proximity to the Calico Hills themselves, which are a brilliant red formation of rocks made out of – you guessed it – Aztec Sandstone! In fact, I would say that the majority of the time spent by me and my hiking group was up in the Calico Hills, scrambling around on the rocks. And honestly, why not? If you’re at Red Rock, this is what you should be doing – getting up close and personal with time traveling rocks. Depending on how long you spend on and about the Calico Hills, this trail can take you anywhere from an hour to a day.
Tips: The other day I was talking about Good Mountaineering Karma (“GMK”), and the Calico Hills is yet another place where this concept applies. When my group and I were scrambling around on the rocks, we came across a father with a very distraught daughter “trapped” on a ledge ten feet above us. While they weren’t in a spot where they couldn’t descend on their own, the girl’s fear had trapped them both. Naturally, I climbed up a little and helped them down to an area that was less steep – GMK, pass it on. The lesson to take from this though is that the Calico Hills are deceptively steep in spots. While most of this area is nothing but simple bouldering/scrambling routes, there are some areas where it is possible to get stuck, and should you not be paying attention, plenty of spots where you can take a nasty fall. As always, be mindful of the terrain around you and your ability. Finally, it is the desert: be prepared with water, food, sun protection, and should you be headed deeper into the Calico Hills, a map or GPS.
More Information: http://www.lasvegasoutdooradventure.com/2012/03/las-vegas-hiking-red-rock-canyon-calicohills/, http://www.blm.gov/nv/st/en/fo/lvfo/blm_programs/blm_special_areas/red_rock_nca/planning_your_visit.html, http://www.redrockcanyonlv.org/hikes_trails.php#, http://www.birdandhike.com/Hike/Red_Rocks/Calico_Hills/_CH.htm
Zzyzx! It sounds like a species or planet from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It also sounds like a dread sickness, “After Bart got the zzyzx, he only lived one minute!” Or, if you’re heading North on the I-15 to Las Vegas, and it’s late at night, the word and exit (the last exit before Baker) makes you think, “Zzyzx – man, I wish I was in Vegas so I could get zome zzzzzzzyzx of my own”(even though everyone knows that no one sleeps in Vegas!). Or, if you’re on your way back from Vegas, the word sounds like the best curse ever, because you’ve been stuck in 110 degree traffic for the last hour on the I-15 South, and you lost all of your money, and the girl/guy you were with. In this case, you’re probably thinking, “I got your ZZYZX right here you son of a sea monkey!!!”
However, if you’re a true desert wanderer, you’re not thinking any of these things. You’re thinking, “Hey, that’s a mighty strange term – I wonder what exactly is off Zzyzx???” And, since I am a true desert wanderer, let me tell you what’s off Zzyzx road (just in case you elect not to stop). To the North, there’s desert, and desert tortoises. To the South, there’s more desert – Mojave National Preserve desert, to be exact, and if you follow the road down, you’ll see a sign that says this “Zzyzx, 6 miles”. If you continue following the road, you’ll wind along some salt flat, and the road will go from paved to graded gravel, to paved again, and then to gravel, and then you’ll be in a parking lot outside of the town of Zzyzx.
Astute observers and readers are now likely muttering at their screens, “What? You’re telling me there’s a town in the middle of the Mojave called Zzyzx? Yeah, right. I’d have heard of this before. Nice try!” To this, let me assure you that had you been alive in say, 1944, you would have definitely heard of Zzyzx – on a little box called the radio. Back then, it was developed by Curtis Howe Springer, who had his own radio show promoting the water (yes, there’s water – and lots of it there), selling the water, and promoting his own health spa and yes, radio evangelism. Prior to that, it was called Soda Springs, and inhabited thousands of years ago by prehistoric man. Today, what remains is pretty much all of the town built by Springer, which is now the California State University Desert Studies center. While classes are held there regularly, every time I’ve been there, the place has been empty and deserted. This brings me to my last point about Zzyzx – it’s eerie. When its high noon, and you’re standing by the abandoned swing set on the Boulevard of Dreams (actual street name), you start to wonder where the inhabitants are, and what happened to them. Then you start to wonder, “Are they coming to get me? Is this a horror movie? Is what got them going to get me??” Or maybe that’s just me. Horror movie qualities aside, the town has a cute art deco feel and interesting street names, so if you’ve been stuck in traffic, or want to see a part of America that’s disappeared, check it out – Zzyzx.
Directions: See above, but first exit after Baker, or first exist before Baker. Zzyzx exit, of course.
Tips:What, you need more? I mean, really, I think this whole post is a giant tip. How many of you knew there was a town out in the Mojave also called Zzyzx? I thought not. Ok, ok. I say, wait for a starry night, and drive out to the town while listening to a little Blue Moon by ol’ blue eyes himself, Frank Sinatra to get a feel for how Zzyzx was in its heyday. That, and don’t drink the water out there: Springer may have sold it, but was ultimately busted for being the “King of Quacks”! (There’s also a good recording of Springer at the Kelso NPS Museum, should you wish to listen to his radio claims).
More Information:http://www.nps.gov/moja/planyourvisit/zzyzx.htm, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zzyzx,_California, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curtis_Howe_Springer, http://www.weirdus.com/states/california/fabled_people_and_places/zzyyxxzz/index.php