By Greg Aragon
Las Vegas is an exciting place, full of incredible and luxurious hotels and casinos. But, a few miles off The Strip, there is a natural wonderland with a visual payoff that no slot machine or glitzy show can match. It is called Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and it is a must-see for any nature-lover who finds themselves in the area.
A friend and I discovered Red Rock while driving down a street called Charleston Boulevard. When we stopped at a light, we looked up and saw a sign for it. We then looked the spot up in our AAA Guide Book and knew we had to explore.
Located about 12 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip, Red Rock Canyon spans 195,819 acres. Its awe-inspiring geologic features, along with unique animals and plants, make it a perfect example of the diverse Mojave Desert ecosystem. When we got to the reserve, we paid the $15 car fee, got a map of the park, and then entered a different world.
Our journey began at the visitor’s center, where we learned about the rock formations, which are literally very red in color, and about harsh desert life. The massive learning center, which welcomes more than 1 million visitors per year, features innovative interpretive exhibits, highlighted by four themed elements: earth, air, fire and water. The exhibits cover things such as local animals, ancient geology, weather and dust devils, and Native American agave roasting pits and petroglyphs.
At the facility we also learned that the Red Rock mountains were formed by a number of geological forces including fractured faults where the earth’s crust collided over millions of years and created fossilized sand dunes and cliffs standing up to 3,000 ft high. The sandstone rocks get their color from iron oxide, which built up over centuries to produce the canyon’s vibrant, crimson color.
The center, which is staffed by a couple humans and eight tortoises, also boasts a gift shop and showcases native animals, including deer, sheep, squirrels, burros, kangaroo rats, kit foxes, rabbits, roadrunners, mountain lions wild horses and more. If you come on the right day, you might also get to meet Jackson, a formerly-wild burro who helps Southern Nevada Conservancy with their education and outreach programs.
From the visitors center we embarked on a 13-mile scenic loop through the mysterious canyon. Along the way we past more than 30 miles of hiking trails, including numerous areas for rock climbing, horseback riding, mountain biking, road biking, picnicking and nature viewing. And no matter where we looked, we saw giant towering cliffs and boulders, or valleys full of cactus, Joshua tree, wildflowers, sage brush and desert marigolds.
Our first stop along the road was Calico Hills Trail, where we parked and explored. While hiking about the colorful sandstone and limestone rocks, we saw people of all ages climbing and posing for pictures. We even saw a sheep scaling the steep mountain face.
One thing we really liked about the trip through Red Rock was that the other drivers seemed to be respectful and patient. We didn’t encounter any rude tailgaters on my visit, which made it easy to cruise and enjoy the scenery, while sharing the road with bikers and the occasional wild tortoise. There are also lots of turn-outs and scenic spots along the way to pull over and get a closer look at the natural wonders.
For hikers, the area is a maze of canyons and peaks, ledges and chimneys, chutes and gullies leading to surprises around every wall. There are 26 different hikes and trails that take visitors from the deep canyons to the highest points of Red Rock canyon. The place is also great for rock climbers and bicyclists.
And for campers, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area has one developed campground. Opened in 1998, The Red Rock Canyon Campground is located two miles east of the visitor center on W. Charleston Blvd (State Route 159), one mile south on Moenkopi Road from the junction with W. Charleston Blvd.
Red Rock Canyon is located 12 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip on Charleston Boulevard/State Route 159. The park is open daily at 6am until sundown. For more information, call (702) 515-5350 or visit redrockcanyonlv.org.