Oak Creek Canyon North Branch to Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline | Rainbow Mountain Wilderness, Nevada
Overview | Oak Creek Canyon North Branch to Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline, Nevada
Slideshow by 12/9
Begin at Middle Oak Creek Trail in the Rainbow Mountain Wilderness of Nevada. Hike to Oak Creek Spring, and then explore the North branch of the canyon between Rainbow Mountain and Mt Wilson. See how far you can get toward the summit of The Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline.
Oak Creek Canyon is an amazing adventure on many levels:
- Terrain Technique: Once again I’m impressed with the unique technique one must master in order to safely and enjoyably navigate various types of terrain. Oak Creek Canyon is an example of brush and boulder terrain. More about this later.
- Towering Cliffs: To your right there are the cliffs of Rainbow Mountain; to your left the cliffs of Mt. Wilson; ahead, even higher, First Creek Overlook Cliffs on the Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline.
- Jurassic Era Aztec Red and Calico Frozen Sand Dunes: These not only form the cliffs, but are shaped into countless wonderful unique creations from pillars to giant slabs and even the boulders you traverse in the canyon.
- Incredibly Huge Boulder Rock Fall: The floor of the canyon is strewn with huge colorful Jurassic boulders, many as large as a house.
- A Scene That Dramatically Changes with the Advancing Sunlight: Moment by moment the colors, lights, shadows all transform making the scene at any given time entirely unique.
In Some Ways Oak Creek Canyon is Typical, in Other Ways Unique
Typical: Oak Creek Canyon is a typical Rainbow Mountain Wilderness Eastern canyon with brush, boulders and sometimes creek water to navigate as you pass between the towering Jurassic Era cliffs.
Unique: However, Oak Creek Canyon is unique in that the cliffs on either side are higher and you are likely to be the only person in the canyon. I did see 2 others, rock climbers, during my seven and a half hours in the canyon. Compare this to the crowd one might encounter, with some traffic jams, in Ice Box Canyon, Pine Creek Canyon and Juniper Canyon to the North and First Creek Canyon to the South.
Best Time To Visit Oak Creek Canyon
As with all the canyons on the East side of the Rainbow Mountains, I’d suggest Fall is the best time. Winter may threaten ice and snow, especially in the upper canyons; During Spring and early Summer there can be higher water levels to navigate; Summer temperatures can rise up to 110 degrees and possibly higher. During the later Fall months of October and November…possibly into December…the water level is low or dry, the mid-day temperature above 60 degrees and the boulders in the canyon more likely still dry.
Speaking of the dry boulders, I strongly recommend that you do not attempt any canyon in the Rainbow Mountains within less than 24 hours of rain. Those house-sized boulders, when wet, have a surface like ice. Imagine slipping off the roof of your house and falling onto a pile of rocks! Don’t risk it!
Trailhead Directions | Oak Creek Canyon North Branch to Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline, Nevada
Trailhead parking is at the Middle Oak Creek Trailhead located on the West (right) side of Highway 159 just a couple miles beyond the entrance to Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive. Take I-215 to the Charleston Exit in Summerlin, head West up Charleston Blvd. As you leave the Summerlin residential area Charleston Blvd. will become Highway 159/Blue Diamond Road heading toward Red Rock Canyon and to the Middle Oak Creek Trailhead.
Route Observations | Oak Creek Canyon North Branch to Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline, Nevada
From Middle Oak Creek Trailhead to the Mouth of Oak Creek Canyon
From the Middle Oak Creek Trailhead on Highway 159, set your sights on the canyon a couple miles directly to the East between Mt. Wilson on the left and Rainbow Mountain on the right. The reason I suggest making this big picture sighting is that in those 2 miles, even though you’re on a large relatively flat plain where most of your surroundings are visible, you’ll be confronted with a lot of “rabbit trails” branching off to the right and to the left. In many cases it will not be certain which branching trail is the main trail. You may need to make numerous course corrections along the way. And, on the return trip, there are two parking areas that look like your target trailhead. The one to the left is actually the parking area at the exit of Red Rock Park. The one to your right is the Middle Oak Creek Trailhead parking area. So, keep the big picture reference points in mind during the lower 2-mile trek between the parking area and Oak Creek Canyon entrance.
South Oak Creek Trail Round Trip Option
On this day, I shot for the North side of Oak Creek Canyon…the side skirting the base of Rainbow Mountain. Along the approach there will be trails heading down to the canyon to your left (South). As you near the mouth of Oak Creek Canyon, one of these trails is actually marked as South Oak Creek Canyon. South Oak Creek Canyon is a great destination in itself (round trip between 4-5 miles). In the canyon Oak Creek winds through a beautiful forested area. Spend some time, enjoy the scenery before returning to the trailhead. Most visitors to Oak Creek Canyon make this their destination.
North Oak Creek Trail into the Mouth of the Canyon
However, if you’re aiming to head up Oak Creek Canyon between Mt. Wilson and Rainbow Mountain, stay above the canyon, on the North side close to the base of Rainbow Mountain’s cliffs as long as you can. You want to avoid descending into the boulders and brush at the base of the canyon as long as possible. There’s an unmarked trail along the base of Rainbow Mountain that will get you into the canyon before the canyon narrows and you must descend. Numerous rabbit trails will tempt you to descend into the canyon early. Stay high until the terrain dictates that you must descend to the base of the canyon. That point will be pretty obvious.
Descending into the Base of Oak Creek Canyon
Once you descend into the base of the canyon the terrain dramatically changes to brush and boulders. The brush here is very different than the low brush on the 2-mile approach from the Middle Oak Creek Trailhead. In Oak Creek Canyon, the brush forms impenetrable 10-20 feet walls of vegetation. On the other hand, the boulders, many of which are the size of large houses…some even larger…form vertical walls of rock. Your challenge is to pick out a passage way that weaves between walls of brush and vertical rock walls as the canyon rises through a series of higher levels. It’s always a matter of ascending to the next level.
Various Terrain Techniques and the Stages of Mastery
My experience in encountering various types of terrain includes the ice and snow of glaciers in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the avalanche slopes of the Spring Mountains, especially around Mummy Mountain and running along rocky desert terrain. The experience of a new terrain usually begins with challenge, confusion, some headaches, some injuries (sprained ankles…etc.). Then there is the discovery and mastery of a technique that fits that particular terrain. Finally there is ease and joy. For the snowfields and glaciers, I found racing spiked track shoes with 1-inche spikes did the trick. No messing with crampons. In addition, there was the discovery of how to pick out the firmest snow along the route. For the avalanche slopes, sturdy yucca stalk trekking poles and knowing how to discover the firmer rock on a 45-degree + angle loose rock surface. Walking and running on rocky trails was a matter of subconscious awareness of the surface immediately ahead along with a larger big picture look into the distance. In all cases there came the ability to be aware of the big picture route while simultaneously drilling down to what was immediately ahead at every given moment. The headaches at first were due to absorbing all this information consciously. The ease and fun later came when all this became a sub-conscious process.
Challenges of Oak Creek Canyon’s Brush and Boulder Terrain
The reason I bring technique into the picture here is that canyons choked with brush and boulders require their own unique technique. At every moment there are multiple choices how to ascend to the next level. Head through the brush or ascend one of a series of possible rock ledges or some combination of both. There are even questions of whether to ascend through dim class 3 cave-like spaces between boulders. In many cases, only one of multiple choices pans out, so there is a lot of careful route experimentation. And the route choices are so numerous that on the return trip down the canyon, it can look like you’re in an entirely different canyon.
However, brush and boulder choked canyons are similar to other challenging terrains. As you get more experience, a lot of the route finding and climbing, squeezing, narrow ledge walking, cave diving…etc. become subconscious. It becomes easier to locate the most promising ledge ways to ascend and descend the house-sized boulders.
Safety and Pre-Conditioning Suggestions
One suggestion: Never lower yourself down something you cannot re-ascend. If you lower yourself onto a ledge and are faced with a larger drop-off below, while you cannot re-ascend, you may end up being trapped! Another suggestion: It’s not just a hike. It’s a full-body workout. You’ll have more fun if you have full body conditioning going into the canyon. The ideal is to have the leg strength and endurance of a distance hiker or trail runner and the upper body strength of a weight lifter. Finally, have a turn-around point that gives you time to get out of the canyon before dark. You don’t want to be navigating the brush and boulders while attempting to decide between a hundred route choices in the dark — even with a good headlamp!
Two Main Ascent Route Choices in Oak Creek Canyon
Beside the constant route-finding and brush and boulder navigation, the larger picture of Oak Creek Canyon is this: Once into the canyon between the cliffs of Mt. Wilson to your left and Rainbow Mountain to your right, the canyon narrows into a single channel. About a quarter to a half mile up the canyon there is a divide. The branch to the North (right) appears to be the main branch. There is also a branch to the South (left). I only explored the North branch on this day and made it about a quarter mile beyond the divide before hitting my turn-around point.
The brush and boulders were relatively new to me, sometimes fun and challenging, sometimes annoying, causing brain overload. However, I imagine with more practice in this terrain the fun will increase while the headaches disappear!
Cool discovery in the canyon: There was at least one huge field of wild grapes. They weren’t in season, this first Saturday in December, so I cannot vouch for their quality.