Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Beautifuly-Dangerous Hike #5: Gold Strike Hot Springs (Nevada)

Gold Strike Canyon Trail hike
Five of the most-awesomest hikes in the world

I haven't been running much due to a prolonged injury as I mentioned in my previous blog postIn fact, I've even thought about changing the title of my blog from "Running John" to "Hiking John", "Hot-Yoga John" or "Stationary-Bike Spin-Class John". But none of those titles seem to have quite the same ring to them. 

However, since I have been doing quite a bit of hiking lately, much of it on spectacular trails, it gave me an idea. Why not write a series of posts about the "most awesomest" places I've hiked. Of course, "most awesomest" is high subjective. In my case it implies two things: 1) the scenery must be out of this world, and 2) there must be a reasonably high probability that someone will get injured, leave with a head full of stitches, or never be seen alive again.

So, without further ado, here's #5 in what I'm calling my top-five most beautifully-dangerous hikes...

The trail seems pretty tame at first...
Most-awesomest hike #5: Gold Strike Hot Springs (Nevada)

When you think of Las Vegas, Nevada, you probably picture smoke-filled casinos, fat-Elvis impersonators, and single mother's working through law school by dancing part-time on weekends. Umm, yeah sure. What you probably don't necessarily associate with Las Vegas is snow-capped mountain peaks or 110 degree hot-spring fed waterfalls.

Yet, if you drive 30 to 45 minutes outside Las Vegas in any direction, you'll encounter amazing places like Redrock Canyon and Calico Basin with their picturesque, almost alien-looking rock formations. You'll discover the 11,000 foot, snow-capped Mt. Charleston. And don't forget about Lake Mead, the Colorado River, and the Hoover Dam. There's even a series five abandoned old train tunnels you can hike above Lake Mead that cut right through the mountain to the dam.

Perhaps the coolest place of all is a three-mile long slot canyon leading down to the Colorado River that boasts several amazing hot-spring fed pools, and even a 100 degree heated waterfall! And if you get too hot soaking in the hot spring, you can hop into the adjacent cold spring just a few feet away (which of course, also has it's own waterfall which is refreshingly cool).

So... how do you find this place? When is the best time of the year to go, and when should you not go unless you want to die a terrible death and/or get arrested and pay a $600 to $5,000 fine? What should you wear and what kind of supplies should you bring? And most importantly, which is more likely to kill you: 120+ degree temps, monsoon-season flash floods, boiling-hot waterfalls, brain-eating amoebas, skin-eating algae, poisonous rattlesnakes, or carnivorous tarantula hawks? Read on my friends!

Then things start to get a bit more interesting.
Know before you go!

The best time to hike this trail is in the Winter or Spring. December through March are especially pleasant when the rivers and springs are flowing strong from the Fall monsoon season and the sun is out, but the temps are still pleasant and mild.

The worst time to hike this trail is in the summer... because, well... a) the trail is closed and violators are subject to hefty fines, and b) with average daily temperatures of 115 - 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the canyon you'll probably die of heat stroke long before the park rangers find your dead body and issue you a posthumous citation.

The trail used to be open year round, but after several people died in 2014 and dozens more hikers had to be rescued, the National Park Service decided to close the trail during the summer months. When I was there earlier this year in March 2016 the sign read, "Closed May 29 - September 8. Violators will be shot and feed to the rattlesnakes," or something like that.

Even though the trail re-opens in early September you might want to wait until at least October or November to plan your hike as the temps in canyon (which are generally 15 degrees hotter than the temperature in Las Vegas) can still be reach well over 100 degrees during September.

Regardless of the time of year you go, if at all possible, try to avoid getting completely shitfaced the night before your hike. Not only will this make your hike more enjoyable, but it will hopefully allow you to get up early and beat the crowds (and the heat). Gold Strike is an extremely popular trail, even during the Winter months, and getting an early starts gives you the best chance at having some alone time at the hot springs before the party crowd shows up with their loud music, beer pong tables, and Ed Hardy shorts.

Add then it gets really fun!
And finally, a word or two about dogs and baby strollers; and those words are: "WTF people!" Trust me, I don't care what kind of crazy after-market monster-truck off-road tires you put on your Bob Revolution Baby Jogger, you're not getting that thing over those boulders and through those narrow slot canyons. And while your dog might be able to make it down to the river, you're probably going to be carrying it on the way back up. That's cool if your dog is a 10 pound terrier, but do you really want to carry your 45 pound Collie while trying to climb up a 10 foot rock wall with a fixed rope? Probably not.

So you've made a terrible mistake: let's get started!

OK, so you woke up late, slightly hungover, and arrived at the Gold Strike Hot Springs Trail Head at noon on the hottest day of the season. You were running late, so you forgot to stop and pick up extra water and supplies at the gas station on the way. You've only got one bottle of water to share with your hiking party which includes your two toddlers in a double stroller and your dog Shiloh. "I'm sure everything will be fine," you think to yourself optimistically.

It's about a 6 mile round trip with about 1000 feet of descent on the 3 mile downhill hike/scramble from the trail head to the Colorado River. The way down is rather strenuous with a decent bit of class-3 scrambling including 8 or so fixed ropes. The way back up is, not surprisingly, also about 3 miles with around 1000 feet of elevation gain (funny how that works, huh?). But unbeknownst to you, the way back up will probably take you about twice as long.

The hike begins inauspiciously enough with some nice flat wide jeep road. It's pretty slow going due to the fact that you're basically walking in ankle deep gravel, but hey, at least you aren't climbing over any boulders or rappelling down rock walls with fixed ropes (not yet anyway). "I can do this," you say, giving yourself a little pep talk. You're already starting to sweat a little, but you're blown away by the amazing scenery of the striking canyon walls that look like they belong on an alien planet.

You made it to the hot springs!
After about a mile or so of relatively easy hiking and light scrambling you finally start to approach some of the more difficult obstacles. You don't need to be an experienced rock climber and you don't need any fancy gear (no ropes, crampons, helmet, etc.), but you may want to bring a pair of gloves to protect your hands while scrambling. You may also want to bring a pair of aqua socks or water shoes to wear in the Colorado River (if you make it that far) as the beach and river there are full or sharp, pointy rocks.

You will definitely want to bring a pair of hiking  boots or trail running shoes with good aggressive tread as the wet slick rocks can be surprisingly treacherous. You certainly don't want to attempt this hike in flip flops or any other ridiculous footwear such as ballet flats, platform wedges, ankle-strap sandals, or pumps. As a general rule of thumb, if it has heels, fur, or bedazzled jewels on it... save that crap for the dance club ladies.

Abridged list of things that might kill you...

So, assuming that you took my advice and left your gladiator heels and your chihuahua back at the hotel (and remembered to bring lots of water) you've got a 50/50 shot of getting out of this thing alive (which are better odds than you'll find at the blackjack table). You're not out of the canyon yet though. Below is a short, though certainly not exhaustive, list of some of the things that might still leave you full of fear and loathing in Las Vegas.
  • Dehydration, exposure, heatstroke: As mentioned previously, the most important thing to keep in mind is that, in general, the temperatures in Gold Strike canyon are usually about 15 degrees hotter than the weather in Las Vegas. Since this strenuous hike will likely take several hours (or longer) depending on your fitness level, make sure you plan accordingly.
  • Snakes: Gold Strike canyon in home to a variety of snakes including both California King snakes (completely harmless) and rattlesnakes (significantly less harmless). Here are some tips for avoiding getting bitten: 1) Leave the fucking thing alone! He probably just smoked a bowl of weed and is baking on a warm rock in the sun. The last thing he wants is some douche bag standing over him blocking his rays.  Don't harsh his buzz, bro! 2)  If you do happen to spot a rattlesnake, which is very unlikely, don't turn to your friends and say, "hold my beer and watch this..." Regardless of what dumb shit you have in mind, this probably won't end well. 3) Don't try and take a selfie with the snake. Rattlers are highly private creatures. If they even sense that you are trying to take an Instagram pic they will not hesitate to bite you in the nuts.
  • Tarantula Hawks: Imagine a giant six inch wasp bigger than your hand. Now imagine this thing is so powerful that it's sting can paralyze an adult tarantula. Now imagine how fucking fast you should probably run away if you ever see one. It probably goes without saying, but don't attempt to pet the tarantula hawk or pose for a selfie -- unless you have an spare hand whose services you no longer require. And if you do see a tarantula hawk, that means there are probably also tarantulas nearby, which is probably another good reason to run like fuck.
  • Deadly "brain-eating amoebas": Naegleria fowleri is a water-born amoeba that can enter your nose and swim up into your brain where it causes an infection called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). The good news is that it's extremely rare; the bad news is that it is nearly always fatal. So yeah, you might want to keep that little fucker out of your nose if at all possible. Go ahead and enjoy the hot springs; but its probably a good idea to keep your head above water.
  • Blue-green "skin eating" algae: Cyanobacteria won't kill you (though it might kill your dog if they eat it), but it can definitely give you a nasty rash. Stick to the clear deep pools and avoid shallow stagnant pools that have algae. Don't touch the algae; don't give yourself a mud-facial with the algae; don't eat the algae; don't smoke the algae. Just leave the fucking algae alone!
  • Flash floods: First, the good news. Las Vegas is a desert and it rarely ever rains in the desert. Typical rainfall for Las Vegas is only about 5 inches a year. And most of the rain falls during the so-called "Monsoon season" during the summer months... when the Goldstrike trail is closed. So you probably won't have to deal with rain on your hike. Now the bad news. If it does happen to rain, say during early September -- and in particular if it happens to rain hard -- you are pretty much fucked. Proper fucked. The entire hike is basically inside a deep slot canyon with vertical rock walls that are hundreds of feet high with only one way out at the trail head on top of the canyon. If you get caught deep inside the slot canyon during a flash flood it will likely be several days later before you dead mangled body washes up somewhere in Arizona at the bottom of the Hoover Dam. 

Entrance to the Cave of Wonders
OK, so that's about it. In summary, don't attempt to hike this trail in summer. Wear sensible shoes. Brings lots of water. Don't eat the algae. Don't drink the water or stick your head under the water. Don't piss off the snakes. Consider rescheduling your hike if it's raining hard. And run like fuck if you see tarantulas and/or giant tarantula-eating wasps!

But be sure to see the sights...

Hopefully I didn't scare you off with the list above of crazy shit that might kill you. It's important to know that hundreds of people hike this trail every day and almost none of them die. Sure, one person died in 2013 of heatstroke as did three others in 2014. But as long as you avoid the hot summer months (when the park is closed) and make sure to bring plenty of water with you, chances are you will be fine(ish).

This trail is so spectacular that it's worth the risk anyway. And as you lie back and relax in the majestic hot spring pools, surrounded by the beautiful canyon walls looking out at the peaceful Colorado River, you will think you've died and gone to Heaven.

View from Sauna Cave
The main attraction of this trail is, obviously, the series of hot spring pools located toward the bottom of the hike as you approach the Colorado River. The first couple of hot springs are fine. They are both rather small and nestled against the canyon wall, which affords you some privacy but not much view. The third hot spring however is quite spectacular with a heated waterfall and sweeping views of the canyon. The last hot spring, which is located right at the mouth of the Colorado provides a great view of the river and the new by-pass bridge.

If you are feeling daring you might also want to check out the "Cave of Wonders" and "Sauna Cave". The Cave of Wonders can be accessed by squeezing through a narrow crack in the canyon wall from inside the second hot spring. Once inside, you have your own private hot-spring cave... unless this guy shows up with his video camera. Sauna Cave is a little harder to find access and requires a bit of rock climbing to reach. I'm not going to spoil all the details, so I'll let you find this one on your own. But here's a glimpse of what awaits you in Sauna Cave if you manage to find it!

Good luck on your adventure! And stay tuned for my next post in this "Five most-awesomest hikes in the world" series as bring you #4, K√∂nigssee, Germany!

Other, far-more-useful resources

I hope you found this blog post mildly amusing. I tried to cover the basics, but if you still want more info on the Gold Strike Canyon Trail hike, here's a far more informative post with lots of great pics.


christi said...

I enjoyed reading your review of Gold Strike Hot Springs hike. Informative and humorous! Thank you!

christi said...

Thank you for the informative review of Gold Strike Hot Springs Canyon trail. Loved the humor!