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Mini-marathon: grin city

Climb over it, bike around it, levitate above it, paddle past it. But don't hit the casino. This one-day jaunt is a whole other game.

October 14, 2007|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Las Vegas

Sorry, Bugsy.

In 1941, you came to this desert valley dreaming of building a gambling paradise to fleece tourists, celebrate excess and promote decadence. Now I drift into your town ignoring the exploding fountains, the blinding neon lights and the gaudy theme hotels. No offense, Mr. Siegel, but I'm here to snub your memory and disparage your dreams. I've come to get my thrills without dropping a dime in the casinos.

Now, you probably never noticed it, but the valley is actually green and the surrounding sandstone canyons are stunning. But who's to blame you? You were too busy launching a modern-day Sodom and laundering a lot of mob money in the process (or so I've heard). That's gotta be a lot of work. But trust me, beyond the glare of the Strip lies an outdoor playground -- a rock-climbing, mountain-biking, kayak-paddling amusement park, 225 million years in the making.

So don't mind me as I roll into town and unpack my lug-sole hiking boots, dual-suspension bike and weather-worn tent with plans to cram as much outdoor fun into 24 hours as I possibly can. Based on the crowd reports from Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and Mt. Charleston, I won't be alone.

And to think that it all takes place within an hour's drive of that bronze Siegfried and Roy statue on Las Vegas Boulevard. Why, it's enough to make me rethink the town's heroes. So, thanks Bugsy. I don't think I could have done it without you, but then again, maybe I could have. 9 a.m.: rock climbing

The Nevada desert stretches to the east under a bright blue morning sky. Chaparral, Joshua trees and creosote bushes freckle the flat honey-colored sand beyond the rust red and gray sandstone of the Calico Hills, 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip in the Red Rock National Conservation Area.

It's a gorgeous sight, but I'm in no position to soak it in. I'm 80 feet off the ground, clinging to a rock face, focused on the 2 feet around me. Somewhere near me on this blackened vertical wall is a crevice that will save me from a hairy fall, a belaying rope attached to my waist notwithstanding. I just have to find it.

And to think these canyons and boulders are just an accident of nature from 225 million years ago when the Earth's crust began to rise in what was then an ocean. Sand and mud hardened, and some of it, pushed up by thrusting faults, oxidized and turned red.

Now this stone empire is a world-renowned rock-climbing playing field, featuring more than 2,000 climbing routes from easy boulder hops to insane Spider-Man adventures. Best to avoid it on weekends and holidays, though. The parking lots are usually full of climbers, ropes and gear in tow, heading out to these monoliths.

My guide, Mike Ward, is a burly ball of energy with a soul patch and short gray hair. His hands are thick and calloused from about 30 years of rock climbing in the area. He has worked as a guide for bored tourists, twentysomething thrill seekers and even a few casino entertainers. And now he's working for me.

"Keep going. You're doing fine," he says. I don't respond because that would require looking down. Bad idea. Keep looking up, I think.

"There's a small ledge for your foot just below your right hand," Ward hollers as I scale the "Magic Bus." I'm about halfway to the top, and I see the ledge. It's little more than a dent, a pock, really, on the face of a red and black sandstone slab. Like I'll have any chance with that. Fear and loathing, indeed.

This is my third try, ever, at rock climbing, and Ward has started me on a 5.8. That's climber talk for a fairly gnarly scramble. On a scale of 5 to 5.15 (a scale that's not a numeric progression and thus seems illogical), 5 is an easy hike and 5.15 is the kind of vertical terrain that only a few experts might try.

"Trust the shoes," he tells me of the rubber-soled climbing shoes I'm wearing. "They were designed to grip the rock. It's called friction."

Friction. Yeah, right.

I make my move and scramble to the next hold. The rocks feel like 20-grit sandpaper.

Surprisingly, my shoes hold, and I make it to the top.

Ah, friction.

11 a.m.: mountain biking

I'm alone in the hot desert with no one to hear my cursing but the rocks, cactuses and the Joshuas. I drive to the tiny community of Blue Diamond, six miles south of Red Rock Canyon, to do some mountain biking through a series of single-track trails around sand-strewn desert canyons and foothills.

My ride starts at a tree-shaded burg of modest wood-frame homes. Blue Diamond took root in the 1800s when travelers on the Old Spanish Trail stopped at what was then called the Cottonwood Spring. The community of about 300 people later took the name from the town's mining company. The spring still flows, and the Old Spanish Trail is now a hiking and biking path.

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