By Tom Pfaendler
They were the wrong shoes. I really didn’t intend to hike to the Calico Tank on this particular day, so I wasn’t wearing my hundred-dollar, high-tech, waterproof, ankle-hugging hiking boots.
Nope, I was just standing there in my old scruffy Reeboks and official BLM volunteer wear, inspecting some fresh graffiti near the Sandstone Quarry parking lot, when a nice couple visiting from the Twin Cities struck up a conversation.
They were both teachers and keenly interested in everything Red Rock. The old hike leader instinct fired up and I started telling them the whole story beginning with the ancient sand dunes and ending with the modern graffiti we were standing on. From the parking lot we walked a short distance to the old sandstone quarry to see a big pile of 10-ton blocks that were quarried here in the early 1900’s.
There are beautiful red and white sandstone mountains, scented green pines and hardy desert oak surrounding the quarry. I discovered that this is really an excellent place to bring first time visitors because it’s easy to access, the scenery is gorgeous, the rocks are fun to climb and there is an abundance of horticultural, historical and cultural areas of interest. The Sandstone Quarry offers a terrific interpretive opportunity for a long-winded desert rat like me.
Of course I had to show my new friends the “prehistoric kitchen”, which is just northwest of the quarry. This is a well preserved agave roasting pit used centuries ago by the Native Americans. I explained how the large bowl-shaped pit was similar to the natural Tinaja’s (water tanks) in the Calico Hills just one mile to the east… and up a little bit. I did have plenty of water with me, so I thought it would be nice to lead them along the Calico Tank trail, which begins in the wash and heads east along a pine tree lined path directly into the heart of the Calico’s. After all, I didn’t want them to get lost!
This portion of the trail is well marked and incredibly beautiful with constantly changing colors and textures. The gravel path gives way to white sand, which eventually becomes red sand and finally leads to the deep red stones that serve as steps up to the tanks. If you were wearing the wrong shoes like me, this would be a pretty good spot to turn around, unless you were being encouraged by a couple of insatiable mid-westerners to “get to the tank”. It probably didn’t help that I had told them about a particularly nice petroglyph “up there”.
From this point on, the navigation of the hike can be a little tricky, but that’s a big part of the fun. If you take some time and use your best route-finding skills, you’ll be able to follow carefully crafted stone steps all the way to the top. If you happen to miss the “official” trail, it’s easy enough to pick your way along the sandstone toward the top of the hill. You’ll eventually wind up back on the proper route. Keep a sharp eye on the north wall about halfway to the top and you might spot the “sun” petroglyph. There’s something about a petroglyph that is magical to me. When I stop and study one, I always imagine the ancient artist standing in the same spot. He reaches out over time and space to look directly at me, and I just stand there looking back.
The persistent steps that are beginning to feel like a StairMaster workout, take you past the “Holiday Wall”. This is a shear and overhanging rock formation that is popular with the “ropes & bolts” set. You’ll know it by the various chalk marks all over its face. Lacing my sneakers up nice and tight, I lead my “group” on the final push toward the summit. Once at the top, the trail drops sharply down into a huge tinaja, which can be full of water, so enter and explore this area with caution. Alternatively, there is a high, wide shelf just above you and to the south that provides an easy walk to an overlook of Red Springs and the entire Las Vegas valley. This might be the perfect spot for a backpack picnic; plenty of room to stretch out, a great view, Turtlehead Peak looming overhead, and the knowledge that it’s all downhill from here!
I love the Calico Tank trail and hike here often in spite of the 15% to 20% grades. You don’t even need your fancy boots to do it. In fact, I have good information that the Native Americans came up here wearing only moccasins. This is a great outing and fully deserves a seven-boot (or seven-sneaker) rating!