My brother Tim used to live in Las Vegas. During those years Las Vegas moved up from infrequently-there to often-visited for Ruth & me. Since we now reside in The Northwest, we get to Las Vegas at least once a year and now prefer exploring the “other side”, the many attractions with local appeal–neighborhood casino/resorts, the Southern Nevada Museum of Fine Art, the Pinball Hall of Fame, etc.–that visitors usually don’t find.
My brother used to talk about Mount Charleston a lot, and we always wanted to go there but somehow never did until February, 2013, on our last day in town.
What you may not realize about Nevada is that it’s surprisingly mountainous. Nevada has 11 peaks over 10,000 feet. It’s tallest is Wheeler, 13,000+ feet of mountain majesty. #11 is 10,560 feet Middle Sister–Northwest Ridge, which could use a better name. Probably one reason why Nevada isn’t better known for its mountains is that they’re scattered all over the state. The 11 peaks, for example, are in 11 different counties.
At 11, 916 feet, Mount Charleston ranks #8. It’s a beloved, year round, mostly local attraction in the Spring Mountains. In desert-heat summer it’s a cool getaway and in winter an opportunity to ski. There’s snow up there about half of any year. If you know where to look, on a clear day you can see Mount Charleston from The Las Vegas Strip, 35 miles away. Ask a local to point it out.
There was abundant snow when Ruth and I finally scaled Mt.Charleston because 9 inches had fallen the night before. From the time we arrived at the Spring Mountains Visitor Center until the time we left, Highway 158, the connector between 157 and 156, had been plowed and opened.
The ride up on 157 and back down on 156 was thrilling. Unlike other mountains, Charleston rises from desert so travelers pass through 7 distinctly different vegetation zones from sagebrush to Bristlecone pine, the oldest tree on the planet. My favorite was the zone where Joshua trees shared the landscape with pines and other higher elevation trees.
Browsing the Visitor Center, I found a stack of Silent Heroes of the Cold War, Kyril D. Plaskon’s book that tells an unbelievable yet true tale. On a winter day in 1955, a C54 bound for New Mexico crashed on Mount Charleston and 14 men died, but not ordinary guys. Involved in covert Cold War operations, their misson was so secret that the U.S. Government kept the crash classified for 40 years, lied to the men’s families about what had happened, etc. The plane is still up there and visible if you know where to look. Ask a local.
After lunch at the rustic, packed Mt. Charleston Lodge at the very end of highway 157, we drove to the top of 156 as far as the ski area. Along the road were lines of cars haphazardly parked, families throwing snowballs, and kids on sleds. Local Las Vegas was up from the city for a day in the snow.