Snow Season Wild Horses at Mt Charleston!

Snow Season Wild Horses at Mt Charleston!

Many people have a hard time believing that sunny warm Las Vegas is also a ski resort community.  Many people can only imagine a vast desert in this region of southern Nevada.  The ski resort on Mt Charleston is less than a one hour drive from anywhere in the Las Vegas Valley, yet one will see relatively few people packing skis with their baggage at the airport. In a way this is not surprising, because it is so easy to be mesmerized by the bright lights of the big city.  

It can be dry as a bone in the Las Vegas Valley and at the same time there can be blizzard conditions on Mt Charleston.  On the other hand, when it is 120º in the valley, the temperature on Mt Charleston can be a comfortable 80º degrees. The environment is lush up around 7,000 feet and the pine forests are thick. Sitting in the shade while enjoying the cool temperatures on the mountain is a local Las Vegas pastime and when winter rolls around, the snow covered mountain is a winter sports playground.  

There are two roads that go up Mt Charleston and both can be dangerous, especially during the winter season. The roads on this mountain are rarely clear of snow and ice above 6,000 feet when storms pass through. Snow chains are required above the mile high level when the roads are not cleared and for good reason. There are some steep grades on this mountain and guard rails are a rarity in this region. A car that starts to slide can quickly disappear into a ravine, so it pays to heed the warnings.  

Mt Charleston has an elevation of 11,916 feet above sea level.  Mt Charleston offers the 8th most prominent view of all mountain peaks in America.  The crest of Mt Charleston can easily be seen from the Las Vegas Valley, even on The Strip!  The summit is usually capped with snow during the winter and that makes Mt Charleston easy to distinguish from the other nearby Spring Mountain Range peaks.

The name Mount Charleston was given to this mountain in 1840’s.  It was named after the wife of John C. Fremont’s home town Charleston, South Carolina.  The town of Mt Charleston is located at the base of the summit at an elevation of about 7,700 feet on the Kyle Canyon side of the mountain. The ski resort is just north of the town on the Lee Canyon side of the mountain.  There is a connecting road in between that offers spectacular views of the valley below. The connecting road is also where a historic site called Robber’s Roost is located.  The hike to Robber’s Roost is only about 70 yards long, so it is worth checking out when passing through.

Driving uphill on either Kyle Canyon Road or Lee Canyon Road from Highway 95 North will lead to the mountain summit access points.  The photos in the slideshow going up the mountain were from the Kyle Canyon route. The changes in the flora happens in stages as the elevation gets higher on the way uphill.  Joshua Trees thrive well into the 5,000 foot level.  Juniper Trees start to become more frequent about another few hundred feet up and at about 7,000 feet the Ponderosa Pine forest is thick and lush. The 8,000 foot level is where the Bristlecone Pine elevation begins.  Bristlecone Pines are the world’s oldest trees.  There are Bristlecone Pines on Mt Charleston that are actually thousands of years old.  Bristlecone Pines have almost no bark and they can look barren and dead for long periods of time, yet these trees are very much alive.  They do sprout leaves on cycles of their own making.  The Bristlecone Trail is located next to the Las Vegas Ski Resort and that trail is the best for viewing the ancient Bristlecone Pines. I did that six mile hike many years ago and the views are as majestic as can be!

The summit of Mt Charleston can only be reached by hiking and the trail requires one full day to get to the top of the mountain.  A campout near the peak is necessary, before doing the downhill trek back to civilization.  The air at the 11,000 foot elevation is crystal clear.  The view of the stars at night from the summit is what dreams are made of!

There are plenty of great hiking trails on the mountain that vary from 60 yards to several miles.  Many trails are closed during the winter months due to the threat of avalanches.  Spring through fall is the best time for hiking the mountain trails.  Mountain bikes are permitted on some trails.  Horseback trail riding is also a great option and there are rentals nearby.  Some of the trails offer spectacular views of mountain waterfalls while others lead to unique rock formations.

My favorite trail at Mt Charleston is the 1.3 mile hike to the top of Cathedral Rock.  The Cathedral Rock Trail is the longest mile that a person could possibly ever wish to hike!  This trail seems a lot longer than one mile and it causes people to stop and wonder if the distance on the trail map was correct. The reason why is the ascent is pretty close to being vertical on this challenging trail.  The view from the top of Cathedral Rock is nothing less than awesome!  The houses in the town of Mt Charleston below actually look like ants!  While on top of the towering rock, you can even see the old Nevada Test Site in the distance.

Mt Charleston is a great place to view wildlife.  during a recent trip I watched an eagle capture a fair size snake while driving along in the lower elevations.  This all happened so fast, that there was no time to take the lens cap off of the camera, so I just took the fleeting glimpse in.

At the 7000 foot elevation in Lee Canyon, I spotted two Nevada wild horses that were grazing in the Ponderosa Pine forest.  Wild horses usually do not stick around when humans are present, especially horses that spend their entire lives hiding in the mountain forest. I was able to get very close to the two wild horses and take some great pictures without scaring them away, which is an accomplishment in itself.  The brown mare looked like she was going to give birth to a foal this spring.  Her black stallion mate kept an eye on me from behind a ponderosa pine branch.  Pictures like these are a photographers dream, especially when there is some snow on the ground. Evidently these horses were looking for any food they could find in the pine needles, because feed is scarce when the slopes are covered with snow.

The breed of the wild horses in the photos are the descendants of the wild horses that were cut loose by the Spanish over 150 years ago, when the Spanish occupation of Nevada ended.  Those two wild horses literally are living history and they look far different than the usual mustangs that are seen out in the desert. These horses were short, stocky and they had rounded nose. These attributes fit the kind of horses that the Spanish explorers brought from overseas.  

Tourists always seek a place to get some good grub, while doing a sight seeing excursion or after a day of playing in the snow.  There are a few good places to get a bite to eat on top of the mountain and one of the local favorites is The Mt Charleston Lodge. This place is well known for serving oversize portions that are big enough to satisfy a mountain of an appetite! The Mt Charleston Lodge is located at the base of Cathedral Rock and the views from the dining room are spectacular.  Old fashioned cabin lodges are available, but it is best to make reservations ahead of time.  There is also a nice wedding gazebo that overlooks Kyle Canyon, just in case you wish book a romantic wedding event!

It is easy to spend an entire day on Mt Charleston, especially during the winter sports season. During the summer, this mountain offers a chance to escape from the extreme heat down in the Las Vegas Valley. The fresh clean crisp mountain air is inspiration enough to visit this place. Just be sure to keep a good camera handy, because one never knows when some wild horses will step into the limelight at this destination!


Author: wildwestdestinations

I worked as a chef in remote resorts and National Parks, which provided the time to explore western travel destinations. I have a BA Degree in Culinary Management with high honors and currently I am working on a Masters Degree in Adult Education. My food and travel blog writing began as a means to generate income during college and now photo journalism has become my lifestyle.

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