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Bristlecone Loop Trail
Hiking Around Las Vegas, Spring Mountains (Mt. Charleston), Lee Canyon
Bristlecone Trail
Bristlecone Trail Upper Trailhead
Upper trailhead (view SW)

Overview

This is a delightful, moderately strenuous 6-mile loop trail. Starting from the end of Lee Canyon Road or from near McWilliams Campground, the trail winds around the upper reaches of Lee Canyon passing through Pine-Fir Forests, groves of Quaking Aspen, and a Bristlecone Pine forest. There are great views of the surrounding mountain peaks, the ski area, and down Lee Canyon. If you walk the entire 5-mile trail, it takes about 1 mile of paved road to close the loop (a use-trail can be used to short-cut the highway switchbacks).

A fence was built along the start of the trail at the upper trailhead in 2007 that is intended to protect rare plants and the rare butterfly species that lives on the plants. The plant grows here and only in a few other places around Mt. Charleston. Please respect the fence, stay on the trail, and help protect these rare species.

Bristlecone Trail
Trailhead information sign

This is a good trail to see all of the common higher-elevation conifer species in southern Nevada. Ponderosa Pine, White Fir, Bristlecone Pine, and Common Juniper are common, and there are a few Rocky Mountain Juniper and Limber Pine mixed in. If you just want to see Bristlecone Pines, there are several at the upper trailhead, but the twisted ones are at the top of the loop. At the trailhead, the second and fourth trees on the right side of the fence are Bristlecone Pines, and from the edge of the pavement, several more can be seen. Keep an eye out for Mount Charleston Chipmunks too, they live in the Spring Mountains and nowhere else.

A good, short trip (about 3 miles total) is to hike from the upper trailhead to the bristlecone ridge near the top of the loop, and then hike back to the upper trailhead.

Link to trail map.

Bristlecone Trail
The Sisters (view N from the trail)

Watch Out

Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert, ... this is a relatively safe hike. However, this is the only loop trail located entirely outside the Mt. Charleston Wilderness Area, so it is open to mountain bikes and you have to watch for bikers careening down the trail. There are some rocky spots near the top of the loop where a slip could prove hazardous, but they pass quickly. The trail is moderately strenuous, so take it easy at this elevation if you've just come up from the desert. This hike might be a little long, but otherwise it is fine for kids.

While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and try to Leave No Trace of your passage. Also, this hike isn't too long, so just bring what you need of the 10 Essentials.

Bristlecone Trail
Fence keep humans on the trail

Getting to the Trailhead

The trailhead is located up in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area (generally referred to as Mt. Charleston) in Lee Canyon, about 1-1/4 hours northwest of Las Vegas. From town, drive out to the Lower Bristlecone Trailhead or the Upper Bristlecone Trailhead.

The upper trailhead is located at the very end of Lee Canyon Road (Site 0556); past the ski area. The lower trailhead is located about 1 mile before the end of the road.

Even though the lower trailhead is about 200 feet lower in elevation, starting the loop hike here might be easier because most of the elevation gain is on the gentle grade of an old road. Then, when you get to the other Upper Trailhead, you can walk down the paved road (or take a short-cut down the steep hill below the helicopter landing zone) to the Lower Trailhead.

Bristlecone Trail
Information sign

The Hike

This hike is described starting from the upper trailhead at the end of the road, but it can be hiked in either direction.

From the upper trailhead (Table 2, Waypoint 1), the fenced trail runs up the little ridge above the paved road towards the ski area. The first group of trees on the right side of the trail includes two Bristlecone Pines (look for short needles arranged like a bottlebrush around the branchlets). At the edge of the ski area, the trail turns more to the west and starts up a canyon through a mixed forest consisting mostly of Ponderosa Pine, White Fir, and Quaking Aspen.

After about 15-20 minutes, the trail passes a small spring (Wpt. 2) on the south side of the trail. During wet years, the water attracts many birds because this is the only water in the area, but the spring is dry late in the summer and during dry years.

Bristlecone Trail

After the spring, two short switchbacks climb onto the south hillside before the trail continues up the canyon. The trail passes through aspen groves with a low-growing species of juniper (Common Juniper) that carpets the ground in places. Although Common Juniper seems "common" here, it is actually uncommon in southern Nevada. Common Juniper is a northern species, and some range maps don't even show it in southern Nevada.

When the canyon starts to open up in a nice aspen grove, a use-trail crosses the wash to the north and leads to backpacker campsites on the low hill above the trail.

Bristlecone Trail
Fence along trail to prevent habitat trampling

 

At the upper end of a big aspen grove, the trail crosses the wash and angles up and across a dry, pine-fir forested slope heading for a rocky ridge (Wpt. 3) to the northwest. The hillside is steep, making this a good place to watch for tree-top birds, which are closer to eye-level here.

The trail climbs onto the rocky ridge at an elevation of about 9,300 ft. There are great views of the surrounding mountains from a knob on the ridge (very short side trail), and the forest of ancient Bristlecone Pines is starkly beautiful. Be careful and don't trample the belly flowers.

Bristlecone Trail
Mixed forest and trail (view SW)

 

Following the ridgeline, the trail runs onto the steep north side of the ridge to the highest point on the trail (Wpt. 4). There are some narrow sections of trail on this slope, so keep an eye on the kids. The trail then curves north and drops down to meet the end of Scout Canyon Road, the old road (Wpt. 5) that comes up from McWilliams Campground.

The abrupt start of the road seems odd at first, but a story explains it. In 1940, the Works Progress Administration (known as the WPA), one of the government-funded public works programs that put people to work during the Great Depression, was building a logging and fire road over the mountains to Pahrump. In 1942, however, World War II began and the project was abruptly halted when the workers were reassigned to support the war effort.

Bristlecone Trail

A few minutes down the old road, about 2 miles out, the trail reaches the Bonanza Trail junction (Wpt. 6). The Bonanza Trail cuts up to the top of the ridge (the crest of the Spring Mountains) and heads north for about 13 miles to the old Bonanza Boy Scout Camp above Cold Creek town.

From the trail junction, the Bristlecone Trail continues down the old road and slowly descends about 3 miles back to Lee Canyon Road. The trail runs east along the sunny, south-facing side of a long ridge, then turns a corner and cuts back to the northwest while dropping into Scout Canyon on a shady, north-facing slope. In the bottom of the canyon, the trail turns back to the east and runs across slopes above Lee Meadow before finally curving south to the lower trailhead (Wpt. 7).

Bristlecone Trail
Hiker on the trail
From there, walk up the paved road (watch for cars) to the upper trailhead at the end of Lee Canyon Road. From the paved road below the helicopter landing zone, use-trails climb the steep hillside back to the upper trailhead. The best use-trail starts from the corner of the 90-degree curve and ends by the trailhead sign.
Bristlecone Trail
Bird watching along the trail
Bristlecone Trail
Bird watching along the trail
Bristlecone Trail
Bristlecone Pine near the highpoint
Bristlecone Trail
Bristlecone Pine near the highpoint
Bristlecone Trail
Bonanza Trail junction
Bristlecone Trail
Pine on hillside above trail
Bristlecone Trail
Scenery
Bristlecone Trail
Near the top of the loop, looking down the old road (view north)
Bristlecone Trail
Ski area from across Lee Canyon (view SW)
Bristlecone Trail
Looking back up the old road
Bristlecone Trail
Trail on the old road
Bristlecone Trail
Trail on the old road
Bristlecone Trail
Aspen along the old road
Bristlecone Trail
Hiker heading up the old road
Bristlecone Trail Bristlecone Trail
Bristlecone Trail
Lower Bristlecone Trailhead (view north)
more to come ...

Table 2. Hiking Coordinates Based on GPS Data (NAD27; UTM Zone 11S). Download hiking GPS Waypoints (*.gpx) file.

Wpt. Location UTM Easting UTM Northing Elevation (ft) Point-to-Point Distance (mi) Cumulative Distance (mi) Verified
01 Upper Bristlecone Trailhead 618755 4018566 8,690 0.00 0.00 Yes
02 Small Spring 618063 4017976 8,895 0.62 0.62 GPS
03 Rocky Ridge 617238 4018416 9,375 1.11 1.73 GPS
04 Highpoint on Trail 616940 4018506 9,400 0.22 1.95 GPS
05 End of Scout Canyon Road 616947 4018735 9,345 0.18 2.13 GPS
06 Bonanza Trail Junction 617104 4019061 9,276 0.24 2.37 GPS
07 Lower Bristlecone Trailhead 618806 4019182 8,479 2.93 5.30 Yes
01 Upper Bristlecone Trailhead 618755 4018566 8,690 0.53 5.83 Yes

Happy Hiking! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
© 2014 Jim Boone; Last updated 140206

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