By Tom Pfaendler
During the winter months when the days are short, it’s nice to have a few small hikes available that can be enjoyed in just a couple of hours. One of these is the Keystone Thrust Trail. It’s easily accessible, packed with interesting history and a pretty good workout, too!
To find this trail, drive about six miles around the scenic loop until you see a sign announcing White Rock. From here, a rocky dirt road leads north another mile to a fenced parking area that serves the White Rock and Keystone Thrust trails. This will be at least a three-mile hike, depending on the return route that you decide to take, so don’t forget to pack a bottle of water for each person. Even in these cooler winter months it’s important to stay hydrated while you’re in the desert.
At the north end of the parking lot you’ll find an interpretive sign briefly explaining the Keystone Thrust trail. As it turns out, this is a unique and important area for geologists, and they come from all over the world to study this thrust fault.
You’ll discover why as we get a little farther up the trail. Follow the rock-lined path north across the wash until you come to a sign directing you up a picturesque little hill with railroad-tie steps. At the top of the hill the trail intersects an old road. Turn left and follow the road around Hogback Ridge and toward the La Madre Mountains.
Legend has it; in the early days of Las Vegas this remote desert road was a popular place for stolen cars to be stripped. Those old vehicles were removed long ago, but if you look carefully you may be able to spot some small metal parts slowly rusting away among the rocks and shrubs.
Once you’ve passed Hogback Ridge you’ll come to another sign directing you toward the Keystone Thrust. This is the highest point of the trail and the views are really nice with Turtlehead Peak and the Calicos to the east, the La Madre Mountains to the north, and White Rock Mountain to the west.
The trail now leaves the old road, turns sharply east and descends into a wide red and gray canyon. This is what the geologists go bonkers over. Two exposed tectonic plates! These are gigantic slabs of the earth’s crust that move around to create earthquakes, mountains and continents. It’s actually possible to stand with a foot on each plate. Keystone Thrust Fault is one of the only places on earth where this can be done!
Normally, this kind of exciting rock action is taking place miles underground. Even for the non-geologist, it’s interesting to see the red sandstone on the west side of the canyon smashing into the grey limestone on the east side forming new mountains before our very eyes. Try to think in rock-years to get the big picture.
For most people, this is the grand finale. Time to turn around, hike back the way you came in and call it a day. But as a Boot Tracks reader, you’ll want to know that there are some hidden treasures to be found just a little farther south and deeper into the canyon.
The rocks become very dramatic and in the winter you’ll find pools of water reflecting the sky and trees. The jagged east side of the Hogback looms darkly overhead. Pick your way around a high waterfall area and carefully follow the canyon through dense shrubs and colorful boulders until the canyon slowly gives way to the open desert. The wash eventually leads back to the scenic loop drive, depositing you about a mile east of the White Rock turnoff.
If you decide to take this route, please stay in the wash and avoid shortcutting across the desert to your car. This is sensitive ground with areas of active cryptobiotic (living) soils. Use your tread lightly skills and be sure to leave no trace!
The three-mile round trip to the Keystone Thrust is a fun outing and a good workout with a major educational bonus at the end. It deserves six boots all on its own, but if you have the extra time and inclination, exploring the canyon a little deeper “thrusts” the overall rating to seven boots!
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