Upper Bristlecone Trail: A magical day with wild horses & mountains

Mt Charleston
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The Bristlecone Loop Trail is located in the heart of the Mt Charleston wilderness area in Nevada near the Lee Canyon ski resort.  This easy to moderate hike is around 6.3 miles to complete and offers expansive views, pleasantly cooler temperatures than the Las Vegas valley and yes, the chance to glimpse wild horses frolicking in the hills.

Mt Charleston Wilderness area

Hiking stats for the Upper Bristlecone Trail to Lower Bristlecone Trail

Trail DescriptionLoop
Trail LocationBristlecone Trail, Las Vegas NV, 89124
Parking Lot36.30678, -115.67803
Round Trip Mileage6.3 miles
Average Time2 – 3 hours
DifficultyEasy/Moderate
Elevation Gain~931 feet
Best time to visitMay – October
Entrance FeeNone – parking is free in the summer
Lee Canyon Resorthttps://www.leecanyonlv.com/
Rating4.5 Mooses
Upper Bristlecone and Lower Bristlecone Trail Map
Trail map for Upper Bristlecone Trail & Lower Bristlecone Trail

Our experience on the Bristlecone Loop Trail

We arrived at the Lee Canyon ski resort around 10:30 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday with perfect temperatures (the forecast was 85 for the day).  We planned on completing the entire loop and wanted to start at the Upper Bristlecone trail so we could end on Lower Bristlecone in a clockwise fashion.  We knew based on our research that the two trails were very different, but after completion we feel like there are three distinct pieces of the loop.

  • Upper Bristlecone Trail
  • Lower Bristlecone Trail
  • Remainder of the loop
Upper Bristlecone Trail Start
Helipcopter landing area and start of the trail

Upper Bristlecone Trail

We snagged a spot in the mostly empty parking area in the Upper Bristlecone lot and made our way to the helicopter landing area which marks the beginning of the trail.

Upper Bristlecone Trail beginning
Fenced area of Upper Bristlecone Trail

As you start hiking, you’ll notice a fence lining the first 0.3 miles up the trail.  The fence was constructed to protect the fragile plants in the area that are used by the Mt Charleston blue butterfly. 

Bristlecone Trail Fence

This endangered species can only be found in one area of the world, the Spring Mountains in Nevada.  It is a uniquely adapted butterfly that lives at high altitudes up to 11,500 feet.  The butterfly can only be seen in the summer months (approximately mid-June to mid-September), when the adults have their flight period.  Unfortunately, we were not lucky enough to see one of these lovely creatures on the day we visited, but keep your eyes peeled when you’re there.

Mt Charleston Blue Butterfly
Mt Charleston blue butterfly

After traversing the fenced, we continued on the trail as it meanders through the forest on a single-track path.  There are bristlecone trees, beautiful birch trees and many other types of plant life flanking the trail as you climb gently up.  Once you reach the top of the ridge line, you’ll be met with panoramic views of the valley and the rocky face of Mt Charleston.  There are several great vantage points to stop along the side of the trail and have a relaxing lunch or snap a few pictures. 

Lower Bristlecone Trail

Not long after reaching the ridge line, the Upper Bristlecone Trail ceases and turns into the Lower Bristlecone trail.  It is easily distinguishable as the trail opens up from single-track to a wide gravel path that doubles as a forest service road.  It traverses in a semi-circle around the valley, extending views of Mt Charleston for a good mile before it gradually descends into the trees.  

Gravel service road
Lower Bristlecone Trail

The trail continues along the service road and gently drops in elevation.  As we were coming down the lower trail, we ran into a mountain biker that was headed up hill. We applauded his efforts as it didn’t look easy. 

While we had read some reviews that people preferred the upper trail to the lower, we didn’t mind either one.  The upper trail is a more traditional hiking trail with a single-track feel and more trees, whereas the lower trail is wider and offers a better (and longer) view of the valley and surrounding mountains. 

Lower Bristlecone gravel service road
Gravel service road seen on the Lower Bristlecone trail

Remainder of the loop

We came to the end of the Lower Bristlecone Trail and arrived at the parking area for the lower lot.  We had a feeling it was going to be a little strange getting back to the upper lot where we parked and we were right. 

Lower bristlecone trail head sign
Trailhead for Lower Bristlecone

After the lower trail officially ends, there isn’t a great way to get back to the other parking lot and this was our least favorite portion of the loop.  You have to traverse parts of the Lee Canyon Road (NV 156) and there are no sidewalks.  If you’re following the Alltrails map, it shows the trail hugging the NV 156 most of the way back up.  There are a couple short cuts you can take (basically forging your own trail), that is a more direct route. 

Below is a map of the route we ended up taking.  While Lee Canyon Road isn’t incredibly busy during the summer, you’ll need to keep a close eye for cars coming up the road as a lot of drivers in Nevada seem to travel at excessive speeds. 

Completing the Bristlecone Loop Trail
Our path on the unofficial trail between the two trailheads

We hope at some point a new connector trail is made to join the two trailheads as it wasn’t very enjoyable.

Large tree on Bristlecone trail
Tree seen along the Upper Bristlecone Trail

Should you hike the Bristlecone Loop Trail?

Rating:  4.0 Mooses

What we liked

  • The views of the surrounding areas are superb.
  • The trail was lightly trafficked and the weather was beautiful the day we went.
  • The official trails are well marked and easy to follow without a map. 

What we didn’t like

  • There is a dead space between the Upper Bristlecone and Lower Bristlecone Trails.  The dead space is awkward and you have to traverse parts of the NV 156 highway.  It’s a lightly trafficked mountain road in the summer so it wasn’t a huge deal.
  • Quite a few folks weren’t honoring the leash laws for their pets and we saw a couple dogs get in a tussle (luckily those two were leashed). 

Verdict:  Mt Charleston is a great getaway from the heat of the Las Vegas sun.  Highly recommend checking out the area.

Wyoming Indian Paintbrush flower
Wyoming Indian Paintbrush flower seen on the trail

Ready to visit?

Trail location

The Upper Bristlecone Trail is located at:  Bristlecone Trail, Las Vegas, NV 89124.

Parking

Parking at either the Upper or Lower Bristlecone lots was abundant and free during the summer.  We were there on a weekday, but there is plenty of overflow parking if it gets busy on the weekend.

Lee Canyon Parking
Parking area at Upper Bristlecone Trail
Upper Bristlecone Parking lot
Map of Upper Bristlecone trail parking lot
Map of Lower Bristlecone Parking Lot
Map of Lower Bristlecone trail parking lot

Bristlecone trail rules

  • Mountain bikes are permitted.
  • Dogs on leashes are permitted.
  • Overnight camping, fires, fireworks and charcoal BBQs are prohibited. 
  • Small propane cooking stoves are ok.
Bristlecone trail rules
Posting at start of trailhead

Special Warnings

There is a warning sign along the Upper Bristlecone trail to watch out for non-detonated explosives used in avalanche control.  We didn’t see any (we stayed on the trail).  They request you call the US Forest service at 702-872-5486 if you locate one.

Avalanche control warning sign

Lee Canyon Resort Amenities

  • The Lee Canyon resort is only open on the weekends during the summer, Friday – Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.  
  • Scenic chair rides, disc golf, archery, axe throwing and youth adventure days are available when the resort is open. 
  • The Bighorn Grill and Brewing Burro have delicious eats and cool drinks available for purchase on the weekends.
  • There were no services available during the week (restrooms, water, food, etc)

Wildlife

Wild horses roam freely around the Mt Charleston area and are often seen on the Bristlecone Trail and surrounding areas.  We’ve seen them on all of our trips to the area (sometimes close, sometimes far). 

Wildhorse at Lee Canyon

More Information for your trip to Mt. Charleston:

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The information contained on this website is for entertainment purposes only and references only opinions of the author. Nothing contained within should be considered professional advice, including but not limited to, health, safety, financial, legal, or psychological advice.

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