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Cave Canyon
Hiking Around Las Vegas, Red Rocks National Conservation Area,
Blue Diamond Hill

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Cave Canyon (view SE)

Overview

This is a short and interesting, but sometimes steep and exposed, 0.82-mile (one way) hike and scramble up a steep-sided canyon to a pair of limestone caves: Desert Cave and Upper Desert Cave. There are many cave formations, but the caves have a long history of use and abuse by modern humans. Most of the cave formations are broken, and the only rock art is spray paint and soot. The caves are fairly large and deep (about 80- and 70-yards deep, respectively), and they are cool in summer and warm in winter. There are few places like this around Las Vegas.

Link to map

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Desert Cave high in the canyon (view SE)

Watch Out

Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert, ...this hike requires a steep and sometimes exposed, 3rd-class scramble from the end of the trail up to the cave. Inside the caves, well..., caves are inherently dangerous and it is hard to rescue injured people from caves. If you don't take at least three lights per person into the cave, don't go any deeper than where you can still see using natural light. After a few minutes underground, eyes adjust to the dim light and hikers can to go pretty deep without flashlights. If you want to go deeper, get some training and always carry at least three sources of light. Getting around inside the caves requires some 3rd-class scrambling. The floors are uneven, and things hang down from the ceiling to bash your head. Be sure to review the standard warnings about going into holes in the ground.

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Packrat Midden Cave (view southwest)

While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and try to Leave No Trace of your passage. Also, even though this is a short hike, be sure to bring what you need of the 10 Essentials.

Getting to the Trailhead

This hike is located in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, about 30 minutes from town, but not on the Scenic Loop Road. Drive out West Charleston Blvd to the Cowboy Trail Rides Trailhead. Park here; this is the trailhead.

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Entrance to Desert Cave (view southeast)

The Hike

From the trailhead (Table 1, Waypoint 1), the route runs southeast, on the dirt road or on the foot trail, towards a deep canyon on the flanks of Blue Diamond Hill. The route passes the first corrals and then the second corrals (Wpt. 02), which are at the end of the dirt road in the canyon. The route passes the second corrals to the east (left). Please don't disturb the cowboys or their horses, at least not too much. Just beyond the corrals, the trail drops into the main wash and crosses to the other side.

The wide trail runs up the canyon for a few hundred yards to where the canyon splits (Wpt. 03). The caves are in the main canyon to the left. A smaller use-trail, the Fossil Canyon Trail, goes up the canyon to the right where hikers who look carefully can find interesting paleozoic fossils.

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Tasteful artwork

The wide trail continues up the main canyon for a few more yards, then crosses the wash to the south side. Across the wash, the trail becomes steep, narrow, and rocky as it climbs high onto the south wall of the canyon.

The trail ends when it drops back into the wash (Wpt. 04). Immediately before the end of the trail, there is a large opening to a shallow cave on the south (right) side of the trail. The dusty flowstone on the floor of this cave is surprisingly slick.

This cave isn't deep, but it is interesting because it contains some nice flowstone and an enormous packrat midden. A "midden" or "midden pile" is a fancy name for a trash heap. When ancient people made middens, they left behind things for archaeologists to dig through. From the trash, archaeologists determine how the ancients lived, what they used for tools, and what they ate. When packrats (specifically Desert Woodrats) make midden piles, which are mostly solidified urine, feces, plant material, and bones, biologists can dig through the midden to determine the same things.

Scientists use packrat middens these days to study climate change by excavating the middens and identifying plant fragments in the layers. Different species of plants grow under different climate conditions, so using the plants and carbon-14 dating, scientists determine when the plants were alive, and thereby date the changes in climate. Using midden piles from the Las Vegas area, biologists have determined that much of our desert was covered with singleleaf pinyon pines and Utah juniper trees at the end of the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago). So, take a look at the enormous midden and contemplate its age, but leave it alone, and thank the packrats for their contribution to our knowledge of the changing desert ecosystem.

At the end of the trail, just before the wash, the routes to Desert Cave and Upper Desert Cave diverge. Desert Cave is directly above the trail, high on the northeastern (opposite) wall, while Upper Desert Cave is about 100 yards farther up the canyon on the left.

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Colorful gnomes
For Desert Cave, the route crosses the wash and scrambles up the steep broken hillside. The cave is high on the side of the canyon, just below the vertical cliffs. Probably the easiest route is to follow a use-trail that makes a big zig-zag up the hillside. From the end of the main trail, the route goes up the right-most use-trail and climbs 3rd-class onto a ledge system. The ledges lead down and left to the extreme downstream end of the use-trails, then the route cuts back up and right on ledges that lead directly to the cave entrance (Wpt. 05). From below, a large boulder blocks the view of the cave entrance. The boulder often is sprayed with paint.
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Entrance to Upper Desert Cave (view east)

The cave entrance is relatively small, but easy to get through. Inside, the cave opens up into a wide cavern with a low ceiling. There is a lot of broken glass, trash, spray paint, and candle wax inside the cave, but the darkness hides most of it. Hikers can enter this big room without lights after letting the eyes adjust. For experienced cavers, work back into the mountain. The explored cave is about 80 yards deep, and the back of the cave is about 40 feet lower than the entrance; I don't know how much of this cave is unexplored.

There are nice, if elaborately painted, cave formations in the cave. There are several stalagmites in the center of the main room, and there are many smaller ones around the edges. There once were nice stalactites and cave bacon too, but all of the bigger pieces have been broken and removed. There are a few nice little soda straws tucked around in the corners. Farther back in the cave where the ceiling is low, there are lots of columns and some nice flowstone.

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Another interesting hole in the ground

For Upper Desert Cave, from the end of the main trail, the route drops into the wash and continues up the canyon for 40 yards to a pour-over. The pour-over requires a short bit of 4th-class climbing and 3rd-class scrambling. A pile of boulders at the base of the pour-over makes the first step easier, but the pile can be unstable; consider climbing back down before climbing up -- it is always easier to climb up than to climb down. Above the pour-over, the route continues up the canyon for another 40 yards to a small cave on the left that is right along the edge of the wash and has a horizontal entrance. This cave is shallower and smaller than it looks. Upper Desert Cave (Wpt. 06) is just above and left of this shallow cave.

Upper Desert Cave is about 70 yards deep and the back of the cave is about 10 yards lower than the entrance. This cave isn't as nicely painted as Desert Cave, but otherwise they are similar. There are lots of small cave formations around the edges and in the back of the cave. Be sure to check the ceiling for fossils.

Return to the trailhead by following your footprints. Be careful down climbing the pour-over. Hikers might consider carrying out some of the trash.

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Approaching the end of the main trail
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Climbing towards Desert Cave
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Traversing ledges below Desert Cave
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At entrance to Desert Cave
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In entrance to Desert Cave
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Descending from Desert Cave
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Hikers inside Desert Cave
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Tasteful artwork
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Well painted stalagmites
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Unpainted column
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Cave Canyon more to come ...

 
Table 1. Hiking Coordinates Based on GPS Data (NAD27; UTM Zone 11S). Download Hiking GPS Waypoints (*.gpx) file.

Wpt. Location Easting Northing Elevation (ft) Point-to-Point Distance Cumulative Distance Verified
01 Trailhead 641040 3998366 3,705 0.00 0.00 Yes
02 End of Dirt Road 641403 3998050 3,720 0.34 0.34 GPS
03 Canyon Splits 641672 3997788 3,795 0.23 0.57 GPS
04 Trail Ends at Wash 641952 3997674 3,969 0.21 0.78 GPS
05 Desert Cave Entrance 641978 3997704 4,038 0.04 0.82 GPS
06 Upper Desert Cave 642022 3997653 4,044 . . GPS
01 Trailhead 641040 3998366 3,705 0.82 1.64 Yes

 
Note: All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
Thanks for coming to visit!
© 2014 Jim Boone; Last updated 130128

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