It was a scene out of a movie. Sitting at the top of a Nevada mountain with a 18-year-old cowboy looking down at the tiny glittering Las Vegas strip while listening to the wind rustle tree leaves was the quietest lunch I`ve eaten in days, a welcome reprieve from the crazy but awesome pulse of Sin City far below. Most people come here to gamble their money; but I’ve bet on a day trekking into the wilderness with a horse and guide.
“Do you go there much?” I ask, gesturing toward the lights around the iconic MGM Grand pyramid.
“No ma`am,” was all he said. (I’m still getting used to the ma’am thing).
We finish our boxed lunch in silence, staring at the Nevada desert punctuated by the city of Las Vegas strangely out-of-place in an otherwise arid expansive landscape. There’s a light breeze today, thankfully. Every few moments we take turns glancing at the two grazing horses nearby who brought us here. We`re half way through our three-and-a-half hour ride and are preparing to head back down the slopping trails to the stable at the bottom of this steep ride, inside the boundaries of the Red Rock Canyon conservation area.
Usually, if you`re awake at 6:30 am in Las Vegas it`s because you haven`t been to bed yet. Not me, three years ago, almost to the date, I`m intentionally up and anxious to meet the car arranged to pick me up outside the Excalibur hotel lobby at 7:30 am. I`ve signed up for Red Rock Overlook Sunrise* trail adventure from Cowboy Trail Rides at Red Rock Canyon Stables.
Despite how much I love the throb and haze of Las Vegas decadence, this is the experience I`m most looking forward to. The moment I discovered it was possible, it made my list.
The first person I meet is Big Jim … that`s what he told me to call him. He`s here to drive me to the stables because that service is included in the $250 fee it costs to go on this half-day group trail ride. (If you book the more affordable and more popular one-hour ride, you have to get yourself there).
Well, it`s supposed to be a group ride, but I`m the only one who`s signed up this early in the morning so I`m getting a bargain not paying the private rate. It`s about a 45-minute drive there, which gives me a chance to see parts of the city most tourist don`t get to. I also learn that Big Jim has been friends with the stable`s owner for 30 years, is single and has been helping out at Cowboy Trail Rides for almost 20 years since it opened.
The company leases the stables and the access to narrow gravelly trails from the federal conservation authority, and it`s the only company to do so. If you want to see via horseback, this rocky brush and tree-covered oasis of cliffs and caverns in the middle of a desert, this is the operation to call. If you want to cycle the black scorching hot paved road around the base of the Red River Canyon mountain, you`ll have to bring your bike. But why would you?
The next person I meet is Mike, a born and bred cowboy from Montana who moved here to take this job. He assures me he’s been in a saddle since he was six. (That’s only 12 years – less than me. I don’t point this out). Like many American guys his age, he’s hoping to join the military.
Mike`s been on the job for five days and has never been on this route before. Neither has the new horse he`s riding. I don`t learn this until half way up the mountain, when the horse I`m on clearly has little respect for the lead horse he`s supposed to follow.
But we`ll get to that part soon. Right now I`m on the cusp of learning this lesson: when you`re about to ride up a craggy uneven mountain trail in Nevada and you are offered a mule, take the mule. Don`t let your horse pride well up and then say, “No, I`d rather ride this one,” and point to the biggest mount in the pack: 16-hand 25-year-old quarter horse cross named Truck. Not unless you`re open to more view – and more horse – than you bargained for.
Truck is huge, which makes me even higher than the ridge of the mountain path I’m riding along and I resist looking down, way down. First, because I don`t want to lose balance and second, because I really don`t want to lose balance. Before we left I said to Mike, “I think this girth is loose.” (I said girth. I meant cinch. These are Western saddles, not English. Already, I’m marked).
“No, that`s about right,” he says.
Turns out, I was right. Half way up the mountain my saddle starts slipping sideways while on an upward trail. Mike grabs a rope and pulls it back level. This was after Truck turned around on the trail, twice.
“I tightened your saddle,” was the second thing Mike said to me during our mountain top lunch.
It was an amazing ride, after I convinced Truck I was in charge and that yes he was walking to the top of the mountain today. The first time he turned around was at the point where the one-hour version usually heads down not up the hill. It took a while for me to convince Truck to head back up in the correct direction because he was not responding to neck reigning – at all.
“Just do it the way you know how,” Mike calls to me as I`m struggling to get control of Truck. So I grabbed a reign in each hand and maneuvered him via bit contact. The next time he tried to turn back, further up on an extra narrow point of the trail, I took charge immediately, and pulled his big bulk back around … then I listened to his back foot scrape the edge of the mountain sending a rock down, down, down over the edge. Like in the cartoons, I didn’t hear it land.
The look on Mike`s face gave away how close to the edge of the ridge Truck`s back foot had come. My heart was thumping.
“Ok, let`s keep going,” Mike says. And I resolve to trust Truck`s judgment for the rest of the ride.
It`s a beautiful climb, even steep in some places and I`m actually having to concentrate, sit correctly and remind myself to relax for the first time on a trail ride. The soil in the area is red due to mineral content, which allows more plant growth than the rest of the desert. Small prairie dog-like animals scamper about and apparently, so do endangered land tortoise that are not to be bothered if encountered. (In fact, you have to sign a form to that effect). The trails are rocky and significant forward and back leaning is mandatory. It`s not a ride for beginners.
“We`ve taken people with little or no riding experience on this ride,” Mike says.
“Well,” I think “you`ve created people afraid of riding.”
Yet for those who love to do it, this is a dream ride on North American soil. There’s a saddle bag for your camera so you can take all the photos you want at the top and maybe along the way, though it’s a riding adventure you work up to not start here. One, because it is harder to sit the incline for hours and two, most trail riding experiences after this is will be, well, downhill … and easier (which I’d never suggest is a bad thing).
Speaking of downhill. After our boxed lunch of a sandwich, apple, potato salad and chips, we head back down the mountain, a little faster than up, and Truck picks up a trot when he senses home is near. At that point, I let him take the lead. He knows his way better than I do.
*According to the website, the Red Rock Outlook option is no longer available. However, check out the WOW ride option – it adds a trek down a former mining road for a five-hour adventure – which is what I plan to do next visit.
If you liked this adventure, check out another in Hawaii.
There’s no shortage of travel guides available for Sin City (and it’s in travel guides I find most of my riding leads). One of my favourite versions are DK Eyewitness Travel Guides: Las Vegas or Fodor’s Las Vegas 2015 or Frommer’s Easy Guide Las Vegas 2015.