After some innocuous banter (nice day; nope, can’t believe how hot it is) the two middle-aged bikers reported traffic on the route was lighter than usual — an indication this was not the first time they had pedaled the River Mountains Trail (rivermountainstrail.com), a 35-mile ribbon outside Las Vegas that circumscribes the River Mountains, connecting Boulder City, Henderson and the wilderness between.
Then the chat took a turn.
“How hard did you train for the Three Sisters?” one of the riders asked, referring to a stretch where the trail gains about 500 feet of elevation in less than a mile.
“Maybe a couple of spin classes here and there,” I responded.
“Well that part should be lots of fun for you,” the second bicyclist said.
Before I could muster a volley, he continued. “The map calls those three hills the Three Sisters, but locals have a different name,” he said, and used a coarser version of the name that can’t be reprinted here. “You’ll see why. Just wait.”
Las Vegas, of course, is a town built on risk. But here, out in the Las Vegas Valley, I was apparently headed for risk of a different sort. Instead of my usual routine — poker benders, overpriced dinners and table service at nightclubs — I had scheduled a day of physical duress. The River Mountains Trail, the final segment of which was completed in October, offered me just that opportunity. But it seemed that perhaps I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been.
I was drawn to the trail for two main reasons. First, location: A third of the route winds through Lake Mead National Recreation Area, a sprawling desert wilderness with rumpled mountains and a huge artificial lake. Second, history: A spur trail that ends near the Hoover Dam follows an old railroad right-of-way used to build the dam itself. And all just a day trip from the Vegas Strip.
My journey began in Boulder City, a W.P.A.-era community about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas. In a strip mall on the outskirts of town, at All Mountain Cyclery, I rented a Specialized Hardrock mountain bike ($40 for one-day rental; allmountaincyclery.com). Five minutes later, I was on the trail.
Plans for this trail were born 16 years ago, when the National Park Service (which operates the Lake Mead recreation area), the local utility company Southwest Gas and a variety of nonprofit entities teamed up to develop a recreational trail that would link local communities to the area’s most prized natural treasures. Construction on the route began in 2000; 11 years later, the loop was completed.
Today, the River Mountains Trail exists as a self-contained thoroughfare, a 10-foot-wide swath of asphalt and concrete dotted with yellow divider lines. Stone posts tick off mileage, while speed-limit signs on sharp turns keep any Lance Armstrong types in check. Trail rules prohibit motorized vehicles of any kind, and there are only a handful of spots where cyclists must cross roads.
From where I joined the trail, near Bootleg Canyon Park, it descended sharply past red-rock foothills and cookie-cutter residential neighborhoods toward U.S. Highway 93. There, it hopped into a drainage channel for an even steeper drop. The descent was fast and terrifying, like a luge run on a bike.
So I was happy when the trail crossed the boundary into Lake Mead National Recreation Area and veered onto a more gradual slope with unobstructed vistas of the lake on one side and the barren hills of the Pinto Valley Wilderness and the peaks of the Muddy Mountains Wilderness on the other.
The trail made a hard left at Lake Mead’s Alan Bible Visitor Center (under renovation until September), but I continued straight onto the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail, the 3.7-mile dirt spur that leads toward the dam. Tracks and ties were removed in the 1960s, but five oversize railroad tunnels remain, amid a red-rock landscape.
I backtracked to the visitor center parking lot to meet a friend, Craig. As I waited for him, I was accosted by the smack-talking riders. Craig soon arrived, and I recounted our exchange. I asked if we should be worried.
“Dude, how bad could it be?” he replied. With some concerns, we continued on. And thank goodness we did: the next 10 miles of the trail followed the western shores of Lake Mead and Las Vegas Bay, running parallel to Lakeshore Drive, the park’s main access road.
We meandered over rolling hills, engaging in a glorious game of peekaboo with the lake. Tiny lizards scurried across the trail in front us. Save for the occasional gusts of wind, the only sounds came from above: airplanes descending into McCarran International Airport. Later in the day, after our packed lunch at a stone picnic table with commanding views of the entire Boulder Basin, we followed the trail southwest, toward Lake Las Vegas and the suburban city of Henderson, marveling at colonies of pink and yellow wildflowers.
By the time we crossed under Lake Mead Parkway, outside Lake Las Vegas, we had achieved such a Zen-like focus on nature that we barely stopped to size up the Las Vegas skyline in the distance.
Then we arrived at the Sisters.
We spotted them from about a mile away — successive spikes, each one steeper than its predecessor. Riding slowly side by side, we decided to climb steadily, rising from the saddle where necessary.
The first Sister was a quadriceps-burning warm-up; we geared down, but managed to stay seated until the last 50 yards.
Sister No. 2 proved more challenging. I climbed out of the saddle early and churned my legs for most of the way. Craig ended up dismounting and walking the rest of the hill.
The last was the most challenging. I stood the whole time, grunting like a beast. If only those two riders could have seen me reach the top.
Craig, back on his bike, summited a few minutes later. We high-fived and hooted in a mix of excitement and relief. Then we raided the bike bags for water and snacks.
Following this accomplishment, the last 10 or so miles of the trail seemed almost anticlimactic. Most of these miles — especially a long stretch along the east side of Henderson — were relatively flat, enabling our aching legs and lower backs to recover. As we came into Boulder City, parts of the trail tilted downhill, thankfully enabling us to coast into town.
The River Mountains Trail is exceptional for its vistas, history and wilderness. But what makes the trail truly special is everything it is not. In a region rife with automatic card shufflers and crowded clubs, it offers a more rugged kind of fun. And unlike in the casinos, visitors always come out on top.