The Classics: Rock Climbing, Red Rock Canyon NCA

By Fitz Cahall, 19 November 2012

  • DATE

    19 November 2012


    Fitz Cahall


    Rock Climbing

Location: Red Rock Canyon National Conversation Area, Nevada Season: The Rainbow Wall can be climbed any time of year, but spring and fall bring the best climbing conditions.  Route(s): Original Route, Rainbow Wall (V 5.12- 14 pitches) 

Getting There: From Las Vegas, head west on Charleston Boulevard (Hwy 159) toward the mountains. Just before you reach the mountains the road bends slightly left, and after a few more miles you will see prominent signs telling you that you have entered Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (RRCNCA). If you're not camping, follow signs for the RRCNCA Scenic Loop Road and continue about 10 miles on the Loop Road until you reach the Pine Creek Canyon turn-out.

Entering the Loop Road requires a $5 daily fee, but you can also use an Interagency National Parks Annual Pass – a Dirtbag prerequisite. It is critical to know and remember that the Loop Road is only open each day from 6am to 5pm, and you will receive a hefty citation if your car is not out before then. If you expect to be out past 5pm, you can receive a free late exit permit by calling the BLM at 702-515-5050 and leaving your name, address and phone number, vehicle license number and description, type of pass (late exit or overnight), intended date of climb, route name, and parking area. You will not receive a permit if you do not include all of this information. For long climbs like the Rainbow Wall, it is a very good idea to call ahead for a permit.

To get to the Rainbow Wall from the Pine Creek Canyon parking area, follow a trail north toward the entrance to Pine Creek Canyon. After a mile or so, keep an eye out for the foundation of an old homestead on your left. Look for a fork in the trail at the homestead and take the left fork, crossing over Pine Creek and following the Arnight Trail south toward the mouth of Juniper Canyon. Follow the path of least resistance to the back of Juniper Canyon, where you will find the Rainbow Wall on your left.

If you're looking to camp, the Red Rock Canyon Campground is your best option, located two miles east of the RRCNCA entrance station on Moenkopi Road. Camping fees are $15/night per site (two vehicles allowed) and the rangers are strict on payment. Group sites are a good way to save money. Though not the most beautiful place to stay - many frequent residents often refer to the campground as "Afghanistan" for its scenic quality and full exposure to the wind - the campground is close to the climbing and preferable to the lights and noise of Sin City. If you want a little more comfort or to be closer to the city itself, there are a large number of cheap motels and hotels in Vegas. 

What You Need: Most guidebooks call for a full set of nuts and a double rack to 4" for the Original Route, but many parties will find it helpful to bring triples of small cams to 1" and leave multiples of the bigger cams at home. A 70m rope will make it easier to rappel the route after you've finished. The Rainbow Wall receives approximately zero sun and many climbers have found themselves shivering at belays on this route, wishing they had brought warmer clothes. This is all the more important to remember in late fall and early spring, when temperatures can be perfect in the sun but downright frigid in the shade.

History: Red Rocks was still a quiet and lonely backwater when Larry Hamilton and Joe Herbst showed up in 1972. Few climbs had been established at the time, and the majestic Rainbow Wall beckoned the young climbers as an obvious choice. As things turned out, however, they wouldn't nab the first ascent of the wall's classic Original Route until the following year. On their first attempt in 1972, an interesting experience with some loose blocks on the initial pitches left their ropes and haul bags in tatters at the base of the route, prompting the duo to tuck tails and scurry back to Yosemite to climb the "less fearsome" Salathe Wall. Returning the next year, the pair moved smoothly up the wall, requiring only one bivouac en route to the summit. The route went at V 5.9 A4, but it wasn't until the 1980s that it saw a successful second ascent and more than two decades would pass before Leo Henson freed the climb in 1994. Today the Original Route stands as one of the most classic routes of its type in the country, and many consider it the best climb in all of Red Rocks.

Local Beta: There are several popular variations to the Original Route on the Rainbow Wall. Rainbow Country (V 5.12d) provides a quality 5.11+ variation to the first two pitches before taking a harder line higher up. If you arrive at Red Rocks and need to pick up any climbing or camping gear, head down Charleston Boulevard to Desert Rock Sports where you can find all the essentials and a staff that provide good beta for climbing in the canyons. There is also a small rock gym located next door if you absolutely need to climb on rainy days. Water in the campground tastes pretty terrible, so some Gatorade powder or other drink mix is a good idea. If you're hungry and on a budget, the Red Rock Casino located just down Charleston Boulevard from the campground offers a $5 breakfast buffet for "game club members," which only requires five minutes of your time to sign up.

Extra Time: If you finish the Rainbow Wall and are looking for other classic climbs in the area, Cloud Tower (IV 5.12- 6 pitches) and Levitation 29 (III 5.11 9 pitches) are two of the best, the latter being Lynn Hill's favorite route of all time. Try linking either of these routes with the Rainbow Wall for a seriously badass day in the canyons.

Athlete's Perspective: "The Rainbow Wall is the route to do in Vegas. It is one of the most classic climbs in Red Rocks." – Jason Nelson

Fitz Cahall