Turtlehead Peak (view north from the trailhead).
Turtlehead Peak is fairly difficult hike. The route climbs about 2,000 feet in 2.15 miles, which is steep enough, but the hard part is climbing the 800 vertical-feet in the gully and chute system that leads to the summit ridge in only 0.4 miles. There are unmaintained use-trails all the way to the top. The trail is signed near Sandstone Quarry, so hikers can tell where to start, but the signs end after 0.6 miles. After that, hikers can always see where to go, but there is a lot of multiple-trailing, and finding the optimal route can be more challenging than might be expected. Even so, the only difficulty in finding a way to the top is deciding which trails to follow, and hikers can always change their mind and switch trails.
Link to map or elevation profile. See also Summit Views and the Hike Back Down.
Trail runs to Quarry, then exits left (view N)
Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert, ...this is a very strenuous hike that requires some 2nd-class or 3rd-class scrambling over and around boulders. Falls from some places along the trail would result in serious injuries. This route probably is not appropriate for children.
While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and try to Leave No Trace of your passage. Also, even though this is a short hike, be sure to bring what you need of the 10 Essentials.
Getting to the Trailhead
This hike is located along the Scenic Loop Road in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, about 45 minutes west of Las Vegas. Drive out to Red Rocks, pay the entrance fee, and drive up the Scenic Loop Road for about 3 miles to the Sandstone Quarry Trailhead. Park here; this is the trailhead.
Exiting left from the quarry area (view N)
From the trailhead (Table 1, Waypoint 01), the trail runs north into the Sandstone Quarry historic area. The trail passes to the west of the actual quarry, passes a trail sign (Wpt. 02), drops into the big wash, and continues northward. About 2 minutes beyond the historic area, the trail forks (Wpt. 03). The Turtlehead Trail continues straight (left; north), while the Calico Tanks Trail bends right (east).
The Turtlehead Trail continues north between fins of white sandstone rock. The trail climbs onto a little ridge in the wash with nice singleleaf pinyon and canyon live oaks along the western cliff. The trail eventually drops off the ridge, crosses a small wash (Wpt. 04), wanders up the main wash, and eventually turns right (Wpt. 05) and climbs out of the main wash angling northeast towards the peak.
Turning towards the peak, the trail crosses between sandstone crags (Wpt. 06) and heads toward the big gully on the northwest side of the peak.
Take note of the two huge boulders on the skyline above the main gully: these are the initial goal.
Turtlehead-Calico Tanks trail junction (view N; route goes left)
After crossing the sandstone, the trail runs across blackbrush flats, ascends the steep toe of a bluff (Wpt. 07), and then continues up the hillside on the north side of the big gully. The trail eventually drops into the gully (Wpt. 08) and becomes steep and rocky. Many use-trails diverge and converge in the gully. The main use-trail stays on the north side of the gully, others wander up the south side, and many stay in the center. The main use-trail provides a reasonable route until even it ends in the wash.
The main gully splits about half way up (Wpt. 09), and most use-trails converge into the southern fork. Just above the split, one route requires a few feet of minimal 3rd-class scrambling to climb some pour-overs (if you can get this far, the scrambling won't deter you), but other routes bypass this obstacle on steep dirt slopes to the right.
Eventually, most use-trail curve left onto the steep ridge between the two forks of the gully. Staying more-or-less to the left of the various routes, the route passes between two huge boulders (Wpt. 10) that can be seen from the bottom of the mountain. From below, the rocks look like they are on the top of the ridge, but alas, it is not so.
Trail on bench above wash (view N)
Near the top of the gully, the south-most use-trails lead directly to the summit ridge (Wpt. 12), but angling to the left and cutting up and across the slope provides an easier final ascent to a saddle (Wpt. 11) on the summit ridge.
At the saddle (Wpt. 11), there are several large boulders perched on the ridge, but use-trails lead around them and south towards the summit. On the ridge, hikers quickly pass the top of the south-most use-trails (Wpt. 12) that climb more directly to the summit ridge.
The summit ridge quickly becomes a steep summit slope. As in the gully below, and there is a lot of multiple-trailing, but staying on use-trails as far to the west as possible seems to provide a reasonable and direct route. The west edge is the cliff, so don't get too extreme in staying far to the west. Because of the lay of the land, the summit (Wpt. 13) sneaks up quickly.
Turtlehead Peak above sandstone crags (view NW)
The summit is large and provides many options for resting, eating lunch, signing the summit register, and hanging your feet over the cliff. The summit views are grand. The view to the south overlooks Sandstone Quarry and most of the route to the summit. Las Vegas lies to the southeast; I can even see my house. Seeing the city and the traffic makes one appreciate the peace and quiet of the summit. To the north lies the La Madre Range and the grand south face of La Madre peak. To the west lies the red and white sandstone of the Wilson Cliffs and their overlying limestone ridges.
The easiest way hike down is to retrace your steps, again staying close on the ridgeline on the summit slopes and to the middle through the gully. The gully is steep and hard on the knees, so be sure to stop and rest on the way down.
Table 1. Hiking Coordinates Based on GPS Data (NAD27; UTM Zone 11S). Download Hiking GPS waypoints (*.gpx) file.
||Real Time (AM)
||Point-to-Point Distance (mi)
||Cumulative Distance (mi)
||Leaving Sandstone Quarry
||Crossing out of Wash
||Crossing out of Main Wash
||Toe of Bluff
||Bottom of Gully
||Between two Huge Rocks
||Top of the Ridge, northern
||Top of the Ridge, southern