Grand tour to the Red Rock Canyon

Forget Las Vegas. Next to the Grand Canyon, it’s the best reason to go to Nevada

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A SURREAL scene that seems straight out of Mars. PHOTO BY ALEX Y. VERGARA

It was perhaps the next best thing to the Grand Canyon. An afternoon tour of the Red Rock Canyon, some 40 minutes west of the fabulous Las Vegas strip, on a sturdy and comfortable hot pink Chrysler 4×4 Tour Trekker, didn’t disappoint.

True to its name, Red Rock Canyon—thanks to numerous rocky hills, yawning gaps and fossilized sand dunes in gradating shades of red, gold and bone—instantly conjures surreal images one associates with planet Mars.

As I learned later from Carol, our friendly and intrepid driver-tour guide, the place has indeed been a favorite among Hollywood directors and Madison Avenue scene scouts in search of ideal locations to shoot their latest films and commercials. Apart from offering a treasure trove of out-of-this-world images, Red Rock Canyon is readily accessible almost any time of the year.

“We haven’t had that many Westerns shot here recently, but I guess it all depends on what’s in,” she said while navigating a dry, narrow road.

And because of the Mojave Desert’s rocky topography, it’s quite expensive for homeowners in the Las Vegas area to have basements built, Carol added.

A LAND of extremes, the Mojave Desert is hot and dry in summer and freezing cold in winter. PHOTO BY ALEX Y. VERGARA

“Imagine digging through all that rock,” she said, while pointing to boulders of varying sizes and colors that line both sides of the freeway on our way to Red Rock Canyon.

Not a few Las Vegas residents may have balked at spending for a basement, but not for a swimming pool, which is quite understandable as people in this part of Nevada have had to endure extreme desert temperatures—dry, sizzling summers and cold, near freezing winters.

Unless they want to spend all their spare time gambling, shopping and watching shows inside temperature-controlled hotels and malls along the strip, wading in the pool is a cheap and ideal way to relieve themselves of the summer heat, which, as one Filipino travel agent aptly described, is like being stuck in a confined area with nothing but hot air coming from the back of a running bus engine trained on you.

“But water can be expensive,” said Carol. “The underground sprinkling of trees and other vegetation not native to this area is timed. All hotels and casinos are also required to have a filtration system to produce gray water, which end up being used in fountains and to water plants.”

THE PINK Jeep Tours offer several destinations in the Southwestern US. WWW.PINKJEEP.COM

Touring company

Carol is one of 35 drivers assigned to a 25-car fleet offering tours of the Las Vegas strip, parts of the Grand Canyon, Eldorado Canyon and Hoover Dam. Pink Jeep, which has been in business for a little over 50 years, also offers tours of Valley of Fire in Nevada, Zion National Park in Utah and Death Valley in California.

“The fact that I and a number of my colleagues are women has nothing to do with the color pink,” Carol, a former truck driver in Philadelphia, said with a laugh. The company also has male drivers.

Prices and duration of tours vary from one package to another. Certain tours like the 11-hour Grand Canyon West Rim allows guests to “drive, fly and float,” as the journey, apart from a Pink Jeep, also involves a helicopter and pontoon boat.

In fact, according to its brochure, the Pink Jeep Tours is the only company that offers three different types of Grand Canyon tours: Grand Canyon West Rim Classic, Grand Canyon/Hoover Dam Classic Combo, and Grand Canyon West Rim-Drive, Fly and Float.

HIKING these hills is an option best reserved for cooler months. PHOTO BY ALEX Y. VERGARA

The Red Rock Canyon experience, considered as Pink Jeep’s signature tour in the Las Vegas-Nevada area, lasts up to four hours and can set you back by $97 per person. Each air-conditioned jeep can accommodate 10 people, excluding the driver. (Call 702-895-6777, 888-9004480; or visit www.pinkjeep.com)

Thanks to the powerful car AC, everyone stayed cool despite outside temperatures almost breaching the 40s (in Celsius and not Fahrenheit, take note). Apart from a bottle of sunblock, there was no need to bring special clothing or extra sets of clothes. Carol even provided each guest with a snack pack and endless bottles of ice-cold mineral water.

“It’s important to rehydrate often by drinking lots of water,” Carol reminded. “That’s one thing about desert weather. Perspiration quickly dries up. You’re perspiring without you knowing it.”

But the trip allowed us to get off and take pictures at certain stops, including Red Rock Canyon’s visitor center for some souvenir shopping and quick immersions into bite-size information about the attraction.

CAROL, our driver and tour guide, shows us how to do a fake mountain climb for Instagram purposes. PHOTO BY ALEX Y. VERGARA

A tour of the Red Rock Canyon on a Pink Jeep spans 13 miles, but the entire area itself offers plenty of hiking trails for the fit and adventurous. They have a choice of terrain to hike on—from flat and rocky, to steep and sloping.

Weather within and outside the Las Vegas area these days is extremely hot and dry. The best time to hike and engage in purely outdoor activities is during cooler months starting late September.

Some couples have even ditched the numerous wedding chapels that line the strip by opting to get married somewhere in the Red Rock Canyon, said Carol.

No wedding chapel, no matter how lavishly spruced up, could hope to match the dramatic and expansive outdoors. But you would have to secure a permit from city hall to stage your brand of rock-garden wedding in the canyon.

Best part

The best part of our trip was reserved for our ascent to the Rocky Gap Road. It’s actually a misnomer to call it a road, as the Rocky Gap is more of a rough, zigzagging mountain trail with enough room for just one car. As we went up the summit, for instance, we encountered several cars slowly descending our way. Obviously, we’ve survived the experience!

RED Rock Canyon visitors’ center. PHOTO BY ALEX Y. VERGARA

Whoever has enough wiggle room to maneuver is expected to give way to the other vehicle. At certain points, Carol had to stop and park our Pink Jeep as close to the side as possible to allow oncoming cars to drive by. There were also a number of times when we were graciously allowed to pass.

The bumpy ride on a narrow strip of rocky road reminded us of the so-called desert safari we once experienced in the outskirts of Dubai.

But while our driver in the sprawling sand dunes of Arabia had to deflate our vehicle’s tires to maneuver the powdery terrain, Carol needed every ounce of air in her four wheels to be able to navigate the hill’s hard, jagged surface.

Our final destination, which offered a bird’s-eye view of three-dimensional crevices and protrusions of nearby hills and mountains, was as exhilarating as the earlier “workout” we had inside the Pink Jeep as it nimbly made its way to the top.

“Since we use the roads for our tours, we help the government maintain them,” said Carol. “In all my years as a driver, I’ve heard of only one case where a car and its driver ran off one of the cliffs. It didn’t involve us. The driver, who had a few drinks, survived it.”

As one of nearly 400 journalists who trooped to Las Vegas recently to cover IPW (formerly known as International Powwow), we received an advanced list of tours within and outside the city to choose from.

Now on its 45th edition, IPW is the biggest trade show of its kind devoted to anything and everything about travel to the US (more of IPW’s highlights next time). For four days each year, the event gathers buyers, sellers and journalists in one US city to discuss business, exchange ideas and generate story opportunities on a more personal level.

Delta Air Lines, chair of the International Airline Committee of IPW for the Philippine market, flies daily to Las Vegas via Narita, Japan.

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