Swatch Tower
The Orphan 2x P300 RS
Balanced Rock 4x
Red Baron

Feb 18, 2024

With: Tom Becht
Iris Ma
Tom Grundy
Bob Cable

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile
Orphan, The previously climbed Feb 20, 2018
Balanced Rock previously climbed Feb 12, 2022


Today was scheduled for a rock climbing adventure in Valley of Fire State Park. Swatch Tower (Peak 2395 on PB, 2411 on LoJ) is located in the northwest part of the park, west of the popular White Domes parking area. Stav Basis and I had been to the peak on separate occasions, both getting stymied and guessing this one would be a class 5 effort. We had both explored approaches from the south and west, ultimately stopped by a cliff on the west side. It had been late in the day when I was there, so I didn't have time to explore a possible route up from the SE side, but that seemed to have the most promise. There were no recorded ascents of this summit on PB or LoJ. I had contacted a number of Las Vegas locals to join us, Bob Cable being the only one able to take us up on the offer. Meeting up outside the west entrance of the park, we piled into my Jeep and BobC's truck around 7:30a and headed into the park with a large selection of climbing gear and high hopes.

Swatch Tower - The Orphan

I paid the $15 non-resident fee (BobC got the NV resident $5 discount) at the west entrance and drove to the White Domes parking area at the end of the road heading north from the Visitor Center. The area wasn't yet busy at 8:15a, but it would be packed by the time we returned in the afternoon. We got on the White Domes Trail heading counter-clockwise, leaving it after only 100yds, continuing in a generally westward direction towards Magnesite Wash. We reached the wash near the base of The Orphan, then following the wash upstream in a meandering path to get us further west. The wash quickly became a scrambling effort with plenty of class 3 sandstone to play around on. This pretty much characterizes most all the hiking in Valley of Fire once one leaves the trail. It can be somewhat slow progress, and it often takes an hour to go only a mile. I somehow had the wrong point entered into my GPSr, getting us off-track somewhere on our westward journey, and we climbed partway out of the drainage before I recognized this wasn't the right direction. In fact, I could see our target well to the NNW, having seen if from several directions the previous day. We returned to the wash and got on the right track, now fairly smooth travel across rolling terrain to the base of Swatch Tower. We got strung out in a line as we approached the peak from the east, Iris in front and nicely leading us around a minor obstacle and then up the class 2 debris slope leading to the East Face. It was after 9:30a when we ran out of the easy stuff and started eyeing options for getting up the sandstone face we were presented with.

At this point, I expected it to be several hours before we would get our party of five up with rope and gear that we carried with us. We talked about several options, and while TomG was sizing things up more thoroughly, I decided to go up what looked like the easier start to "have a look." It was a bit exposed but class 4, some of the handholds a little thin for my liking. Above this the slope rolls off to an intermediate ramp that we'd seen from below. The others were out of view, so I went up this ramp looking for something to get me to the upper slopes. I found this about halfway up the wide ramp, a short, hidden class 3 break in the cliff that would work nicely. I went back and called to the others that the crux was right at the beginning. If they could get past that, it was a scramble the rest of the way. I went back up the ramp and left my pack below the break (so the others might guess where I went from there) and scrambled up, then on to the summit in just a few minutes. I phoned one of the others and told them I was at the summit, helping confirm the route would go. They decided to bring the climbing gear up with them to facilitate a rappel for that crux section at the beginning. Iris was only two minutes behind me, and in only five minutes more we had all five of us up there. We found a small cairn, but no register, so left one. TomG suggested we call it Swatch Peak, for Stav Wasn't Able To Climb Here. We all thought it was pretty funny and figured Stav would get a laugh as well. Later we settled on "Swatch Tower," a play on several well-known Watchtowers.

After reversing most of the route, Using some rather large cams on an undercling, TomG set up a rappel which most of us used to get back down to the base of the East Face. After then tossing the rope down, TomG collected the gear and reversed the moves at the crux, finishing the tricky part by 11a. The gear was redistributed before we headed back down to the bottom.

On the way back, I suggested we should visit The Orphan, an enjoyable summit found in Purcell's Rambles & Scrambles that Iris and I had climbed with Scott Barnes back in 2018. It had taken us two attempts, TomB with us on the failed effort the day before. It was another bit of adventuring just getting between the two summits, but eventually we had worked our way through the low saddle on the west side where the massive vertical West Face of The Orpan presents itself. From the saddle we dropped down and around the north side, past the huge amphitheater on that side to reach the key starting point on the NE side. There is a small cairn here to mark the start, but we didn't see it until the return. The five of us went up the route, choosing upon various options that presented themselves - notably, TomB and Iris went through a long, narrow groove with much stemming, while the other three of us took the high road on the ridge to the east of the groove. It was a little under 30min from the start of the route to the summit. After taking a nice break and leaving a register, we reversed the route back to the start on the NE side. From there it was another mini-adventure to extract ourselves to the northeast to reach Magnesite Wash, then more rambling to the southeast to return to the trailhead. Our group broke up into three different parties with different ideas on how best to execute the return, but we ended up back at White Domes at pretty much the same time.

Balanced Rock

This seems to be my go-to quick summit while in Valley of Fire. The well-named feature is found just east of the Visitor Center and maybe 200ft from the park road. The feature is mostly a class 3 scramble with a single class 4 move that requires some serious stretching to pull off, but there is a good hold for the left hand that allows an old guy the possibility to make it up. I had already been to the summit on three previous occasions, the first time with Iris and TomB in the party. TomB had chosen not to climb it, and we hoped with a handline this time, maybe he'd give it another consideration. And it seemed only fair to give BobC and TomG the chance to climb it.

We parked off the side of the road and took the few minutes to walk around to the north side that offers the only possible scramble route. Since we'd brought climbing gear, we used climbing shoes this time and carried up a roll of webbing for use as a handline. TomG headed up first, waltzing past the crux with only passing hesitation. I followed him with more grunting than I'd used previously, happy to let Tom carry my pack with the webbing aboard. I took a photo of Tom immitating a few visitors on the ground below doing an Instagram pose in front of Balanced Rock, then retreated off the summit. The handline was secured and dropped down. BobC was happy to take advantage of it, though I doubt he really needed to - he still climbs far better than I. Being shorter, Iris had to stretch further for the hold but she managed nicely, and soon there were three at the summit. TomB still refused, and had gone back to the truck to get a beer as a way to emphasize that he had no interest in this nonsense. The others then retreated off the summit block, we changed out of the climbing shoes, and headed off for one last summit.

Red Baron

Red Baron is located in the eastern part of the park, north of The 5-Arch and Elephant Rock. The name comes from The Valley of Fire: From Trails to Summits by Derek Wolfe and used on LoJ. It was one of the few LoJ summits I had left to do in the park, with just a few ascents noted online and no TRs, just a class 5.3 rating. Our starting point was at the east entrance lot for Elephant Rock, Red Baron about a mile to the NNW. Most of the distance is covered across rolling terrain, unusually easy for the park. If one curves more to the right (east), there is less rolling terrain, making things even easier. Once at the base of the peak, it's a standard class 3 effort on slabs and broken ramps until just below the summit. Around on the west side of the summit is the short crux, the final move to the top. A handline may be helpful for those less trusting of the rock or their skills as it is a bit unnerving. It took about 45min to get our party to the summit. After descending the crux, I headed off to the east in search of an alternate route off Red Baron, because well, it was the last summit of the day and I wanted a bit more adventure. The others would join me for various segments of this extra credit which proved about the same fun as the ascent had been. It would be 4:30p by the time we got back to the parking lot and were enjoying some beverages in the late afternoon sun.

BobC had to head home and decided exiting the east entrance would be more scenic than driving back through Las Vegas, so we bade him good-bye and piled into my Jeep for the drive back to camp. I dropped them off outside the west side of the park and then headed back to Las Vegas where I was spending a few nights with my wife who was reffing a VB tournament in town. Traffic was pretty awful because they had Interstate 15 closed in both directions in the busiest part of The Strip this weekend. Seems the Tropicana overpass needed to be decommissioned to make way for improvements that will allow packing even more folks into Sin City. Go Las Vegas.


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