A native of St. Louis, Branch Whitney wanted to move west since his family took a vacation in Colorado when he was 7. His wish came true in 1983, when he left the flatlands for Las Vegas, lured by the bright lights of the Strip and the majestic mountains surrounding it. After a stint as a serious blackjack player and working in sales in the health-club industry, Whitney turned his focus outdoors, exploring his first mountain in 1995. It was the first of hundreds of hikes that have covered—by his estimate—about 3,000 miles of terrain.
Shortly after he found his new passion, Whitney realized there wasn’t a comprehensive guidebook for hikers, so he seized an opportunity, publishing the first edition of Hiking Las Vegas in 1997 (Huntington Press, $25). The book was reprinted three times, and was completely revised recently with 83 hikes (including 43 new ones), color photos and GPS waypoints.
Whitney, 49, has also written two regional hiking guidebooks for Huntington Press—Hiking the Southwest and Hiking the High Sierra—and he maintains a website (HikingLasVegas.com).
So is hiking your job?
Yes, anything concerning hiking. I have a huge website, I have a Meetup.com site, and then I write the books. I also have a membership area of the website where if you become a member you can download 400 hikes from all over the Southwest. Instead of people buying different guidebooks and getting used to different authors and their styles of writing, you have one website where you can download all the hikes.
Hiking seems pretty simple. You put on your shoes and go for a walk. Why does someone need a guidebook?
If you are just going to hike trails, you are somewhat right, depending on the time of year. The weather is a big factor because you are in the mountains and it can turn cold, it can rain, you can really get yourself in trouble. But 95 percent of the time, no problem. But that 5 percent can really be bad. I do more off-trail hiking, called peak bagging. There is a lot of climbing involved … where if you fall you could be seriously injured or worse. There is a lot of stuff there you need to know, the right shoes, how to climb, how to evaluate the rocks. Like anything else, when you really get into it, there is a lot more than what appears on the surface.
Do you worry that after you find and publicize new routes they will get too popular?
Not really. Ninty-nine percent of people in Vegas couldn’t do them; they are just not in good enough shape. For the people that can do them, I am about the only source. People aren’t going to find them; they are just too complex. … My philosophy is if you only had 10 hikes at Red Rock and you have 10,000 people hiking, things are going to be extremely crowded. But if you have 150 hikes, then people have way more choices, and it isn’t going to be as crowded. I am all for having more hikes, not less.
Did you see yourself as an author when you were younger?
No, not at all. I hated English. I thought it was stupid. I never would have thought in a million years I would write a book, or books. I kind of liked math, I loved science, but English had too many rules.
What’s unique about hiking in Las Vegas?
We have year-round hiking, which is very rare. Most cities don’t have that. We have a huge change in elevation, over 10,000 feet, so you want to hike the correct area at the correct time. Like right now you wouldn’t want to hike Mount Charleston’s peak because there is snow on it. Conversely, if it is the summer, you don’t want to hike out at Lake Mead. You’d probably die [because] it is too hot. As far as danger from animals, it is pretty much nonexistent. There are no bears. I have never seen a mountain lion, I’ve never heard of anyone getting attacked by a mountain lion, so basically it is no big deal. I’ve seen 10 rattlesnakes in 15 years, and never heard of anyone bitten by a rattlesnake. The odds are better [that] you will get hit by a car driving to the trailhead than you will get bitten by a snake.
What do you do when you’re not hiking? Do you still gamble?
I used to play blackjack seriously, but I haven’t placed a bet since 1990. I have no desire to sit in a smoky casino and lose money. We are lucky because Las Vegas does have so much outdoor activity—nice mountain-biking trails; Red Rock is one of the top rock-climbing destinations in the world; some fishing at Lake Mead; off-road [activities]. It is a good outdoor destination. And overall the climate is pretty nice, especially in the winter.
Have you ever been lost?
No, not really. I’ve been fooled a little bit, but I haven’t really had any close calls. I always have rope with me so if I somehow couldn’t find the chute or whatever and climbed up, I would sling a tree and rappel down. I have taken a couple of falls, one that I should have gotten severely hurt and I didn’t. That was when a rock broke [unexpectedly].
Once it broke, there was no shot; I was leaning out over the cliff. I fell about 18 feet onto my back. Luckily it wasn’t on sandstone; [I went] through brush, which broke my fall. I kept my head up so I didn’t hit my head. I had a trampoline in my backyard for 10 years, so I kind of knew how to take a fall.