When people think of Las Vegas, the first thing that comes to mind is the mega-resorts with their casinos, world-class restaurants, and “over-the-top” shows. But the “Entertainment Capital of the World” has much more to offer. Just a few miles out-of-town, locals and outdoor enthusiasts know that Southern Nevada has mind-blowing landscapes. Plunging canyons, sprawling Lake Mead, and jagged, stark mountains are a few topographical images that come to mind. It was in the midst of this grandioso portrait that two of my friends and I decided to take on one of Nevada’s most challenging yet spectacular trails, the Gold Strike Canyon Trail.
Located about 40 minutes southeast of Las Vegas, the trail descends rapidly towards the Black Canyon, where the Colorado River flows. The Gold Strike Canyon Trail is rated “very strenuous” by the National Park Service (the highest rating of difficulty). We weren’t looking for a challenge. Our curiosity was drawn to the hot springs the trail is known for. Natural thermal waters seep out of fractures and faults deep below the earth’s surface. Hikers seek out the thermal waters, soaking in pools that form on the canyon floor. We were thrilled to explore these hard-to-access springs.
Turning off Interstate 11 at the Hoover Dam exit, we parked in a dirt lot and walked over to a map posted by the Park Service. Information on the map said we had a mere 2.6 miles to the hot springs. There was a note that we would have an elevation change of 935 feet on the trail with some boulder scrambling. We were unconcerned.
We started along a wide track that skirted beside towering, concrete pillars that supported the nearby highway. The path veers away into a slotted canyon.
Red sandstone walls surrounded us, marked with deep, black holes large enough for animals and humans to shelter in. I wondered if something was watching us. We pushed forward, exuberate to be out in the fresh air. Chatting along the way, we suddenly grew quiet when we came upon pieces of wreckage. Parts of an old automobile laid along the slope, rusted and scattered. We could only guess what caused the decades old tragedy.
The trail had just opened for the fall and winter months, and we were excited to be one of the first hikers to reenter the canyon. Excessive heat during the summer was fatal for hikers, and many desert trails had been closed. We still brought plenty of water, sunscreen, and snacks. The temperature was going to reach a high of 90 degrees. That was still warm for October.
A sense of solitude surrounded us. Our voices were the only sound that broke the silence. We wondered if other hikers were on the trail. There had been cars parked at the trailhead, but we saw no one. As we meandered further into the canyon, two guys eventually appeared, walking out. We were surprised. It was mid-morning, yet they were leaving. Greeting them, I asked if they had, in fact, been to the hot springs. They had. Did they have any advice or tips for us? They nodded empathically. Keep to the far right on the trail. They had come across a rattlesnake on the left side.
We thanked them but grew concerned. If we were going to proceed, we needed something to alert us of the potential danger. We found a long stick and decided to use it, poking around rocks that we had to step over. We did this for some time. With no sign of the snake, we thought that it had moved on. We dropped the stick and walked a few more yards. Needing to catch our breath and take a drink of water, we stopped beside a clump of dried grass. To our surprise, the alarming sound of a rattle struck into our conversation. We froze like deer in headlights. The snake was hidden, and it was hard to ascertain where the noise was coming from. Suddenly, my girlfriend bolted past me, screaming. All I could do was follow, hoping I was out of striking distance. We were lucky. No one was bitten.
Snakes, lizards, bighorn sheep, and ravens are just a few animals occasionally seen in the canyon. Considered a “high-traffic” trail on the Park’s website, I felt it was unlikely that any animal would bother us. I was wrong. Our encounter with the rattlesnake shook us up, but we were surprised later when a raven suddenly took flight above us and dropped a stone close to our heads. Could it be that these animals, used to their undisturbed environment all summer, weren’t happy to see us?
Undeterred, we continued until the trail disappeared into a blockade of boulders. We had come to a dead-end. We looked between the boulders only to see that there was a 20-foot drop. Below the path began again.
Searching around, we felt like mice in a maze. How would we get down there? Concealed in a crevice, we found a rope set up to repel down. With knots and large loops to grip onto, we carefully lowered ourselves to the next level. The boulders were tricky. Smoothed over the years by foot traffic, they were slippery. Trying to grip our hiking shoes to the side of the rock was almost impossible. We used our hands and legs to wedge ourselves between rock walls. There were seven more ropes along the trail as we made our way to the hot springs.
A few spray-painted arrows are strategically placed to help guide hikers when the trail disappears into rock and rubble. However, we found sections that were unmarked and difficult to interpret. It was the kindness of other hikers that helped us navigate the terrain. One stretch was counterintuitive. When we sought a downward path against a barrier of stacked boulders, it was actually upward that we needed to go to continue on the trail. We were grateful that a husband and wife team happened to show up and point us in the right direction!
About two-thirds into the trail, we came across the first sign of water seeping out of the canyon floor. A long strip filled with green algae broke up the reds and browns that painted the dry ground.
As we continued further, the water became more abundant, cascading over rocks. The canyon turned into an oasis, and we were surprised and delighted to see the towering walls turn into a watery kaleidoscope of color. Algae grew in a range of colors and shapes. A hanging garden made up of leafy plants clung to the walls. We walked up to pencil-thin streams that trickled out of the rocks, tentatively reaching our hands under the water only to discover that it was hot.
We enjoyed a pool nearby where someone had placed sandbags to dam up the water. Taking our boots off, we submerged our tired feet. We called it Nature’s spa as we relaxed. We found that the pool had different temperatures of heat as we explored it. Near two small waterfalls where stacking boulders influenced the course of the springs, the water was hot. As it fanned out into the pool, it became a comfortable “bathtub-warm” temperature.
After our break, we continued further along the canyon and finally came out at the Colorado River. The views were spectacular. The walls of the Black Canyon rose high above us. A bright blue sky was in stark contrast against the dark canyon. We saw the soaring arch of the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, spanning the chasm. Another hot water pool formed by the river, and a few hikers were enjoying its relaxing warmth.
It wasn’t easy climbing out of the canyon. Where we had to use ropes was especially difficult. Slippery conditions, along with our limited stride to reach footholds, were challenging (we were women with an average height of 5 foot 3 inches, and in some places, a foothold spanned three feet apart). The kindness and thoughtfulness of hikers once again came to the rescue as they helped boost us up over boulders. We were glad that we had hiked this beautiful trail, but when we arrived back at our car, I glanced at my friends and announced, “once and done!”
Below are a few links for more information about the trail. Enjoy!