As the sun came up over the Paint Pot Hills we were preparing to leave on a day’s adventure. Swinging around Las Vegas, about 20 minutes west of the Strip was an area that promised spectacular scenery. After lounging around several days in camp, attending to daily chores and mundane activities, we were more than ready for a day out in nature. This particular Conservation Area appeared to be full of promise. We’d grab a bite of breakfast along the way.
Red rocks are a big part of the Southwest landscape, and at least four of states in this area have more than one Red Rock This-or-That. New Mexico, Arizona and California each have a Red Rock State Park. Nevada has at least three Red Rock Canyons and the most well-known one is the subject of this post. Lying along the east side of the Spring Mountains—one of the range of mountains that surround Las Vegas—the flat land of the Mojave Desert rises to a great colorful escarpment. As soon as the homes and businesses are disappearing in your rear view mirror, the rolling, colorful, irregular profile of mountains appears on the horizon. It won’t be long before you come to the entrance gate.
Red Rock Canyon is a network of impressive canyons and surreal rock formations inside the Red Rock National Conservation Area. If you’re looking for opportunities to hike, bike or rock climb within easy striking distance of Las Vegas, Red Rock Canyon is just what you’re looking for. From first sight I knew we had come to a worthwhile place.
Oh my gosh!!! Nothing prepares you for the color! Or the textures and patterns, for that matter. We bypassed the highly-rated Visitor Center (later, for sure!) in order to take the Scenic Drive Loop while the sun was casting good light.
The 13-mile Loop Drive offers sightseeing, vistas and overlooks. It also provides access to many of the natural features within the area, including most trailheads. Several side roads lead to many of the trails. The Loop is also a very popular route for bikers. Beginning with a moderate uphill climb, it then smooths out to become gently undulating thereafter.
Designated as Nevada’s first National Conservation Area, Red Rock Canyon is large (197,000 acres). The unique geologic features, plants and animals of Red Rock represent some of the best examples of the Mojave Desert. The scenery is spectacular with cliffs, buttes and rock formations lining up against the Spring Mountains which, as the name implies, have many springs and other water sources. With rock walls rising up to 3,000 feet above the desert floor, the highest point is La Madre Mountain, at slightly over 8,000 feet.
My enthusiasm for covering the Loop Drive in early morning quickly dissipated when we came to the Calico Hills. Whoa—now this just couldn’t be passed by!! What an incredible sight . . . the world on fire! You can’t conceive these colors exist in nature! With camera in hand, I was out of the car. This place deserved a close-up look!
This is the perfect place to experience the splendor of the Aztec sandstone rocks, the formations of this area were once at the bottom of a deep ocean. Water and winds shifted sands back and forth, and formed angled lines in the sand, known as cross-bedding. Over time, the layers of sand compressed together, forming hard Aztec sandstone. The iron in the sand is oxidized, which resulted in the swirls and curls of color. The high concentration of iron results in the deep red color that is here at Calico Hills.
A popular place, even at this early morning hour, plenty of people were milling around, cameras in hand. Not to be dissuaded, I saw a path leading out through the rocks. What luck—we had it to ourselves. We hurried on.
The rough, sand-papery surface of these sandstone rocks made it easy to clamber over. Climbing high afforded great views; descending immersed you in canyons of vivid red. The Calico Hills are riddled with natural water catchments called potholes or tinajas. After rains they fill up with water, providing life-giving fluid to a variety of insects, birds and mammals.
I’ll say it again—what incredible colors and patterns! Like nothing we’d experienced before.
With only one day to spend, I knew we shouldn’t linger. Back in the car, we continued down the Loop Drive.
During most of its history, Red Rock Canyon was below a warm, shallow sea. Massive fault action and volcanic eruptions caused this seabed to begin rising some 225 million years ago. As the waters receded, sea creatures died, and the calcium in their bodies combined with sea minerals to form limestone cliffs studded with ancient fossils. Some 45 million years later, the region was buried beneath thousands of feet of windblown sand. As time progressed, iron oxide and calcium carbonate infiltrated the sand, consolidating it into cross-bedded rock.
About 100 million years ago, massive fault action began dramatically shifting the rock landscape here, forming spectacular limestone and sandstone cliffs and rugged canyons punctuated by waterfalls, shallow streams, and serene oasis pools.
The Keystone Thrust is a spectacular example of a thrust fault. The Keystone Thrust earthquake fault is interesting because older limestone rock (gray) has been pushed up and over younger sandstone rock (red). It marks the intersection of great and colorful geologic eras. Sixty million to 65 million years ago, the Pacific and North American continental plates got into a shoving match. The conflict pushed p the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west. The same force pushed the deep limestone layers up and over the sand dunes in what is now Red Rock Canyon.
The highest elevation along the drive is the High Point Overlook, 4,771 feet in elevation, which affords one of the best panoramic views of the park.
Several short hikes offering a diversity of environments and scenery are accessible from the loop drive.
After driving the complete Loop, we started it over again. Time to access another trailhead, we selected one of the many canyon trails that cut in between the rocks.
Ice Box Canyon takes you through a cool, shady box canyon with waterfalls in the heart of this conservation area. The narrow canyon rarely sees sunlight, and the cool water and air pouring down from the mountains keep it significantly cooler than the open desert. First, you will have to cross the open desert for a mile to get there.
We forged on.
Flanked by steep rock walls, you must “boulder hop” to get through the canyon bottom.
Rock climbing is another sport you might observe here at Red Rock Canyon. Along the trail, we caught sight of two climbers working their way up a steep rock face. We paused in our hike to observe them working their way up a high wall of the canyon.
Afternoon light was dimming as we made our way out of Ice Box Canyon. The soft lights of dusk were tinting the sky, accentuating the Calico Hills.
If you’re ever in the neighborhood and like to be out-of-doors, then this is a place to check out. A fantastic drive full of photo opportunities, or just a pleasure for your eyes. I’m sure you’ll be impressed with what nature has created here—a network of interesting canyons and distinct rock formations. And if you linger long enough, which isn’t that hard, your day will be ending with one last breathtaking display. Wait for the sunset over jagged Spring Mountains. It will be a fitting end.
And this is just the beginning of our red rock encounters!
Melinda and Chris