By Len Wilcox
Author, Desert Dancing: The California Journal
East of Las Vegas, Nevada, some 50 miles away from the strip, is a natural wonder that makes the most glitzy casino seem tame and dull. Nevada's Valley of Fire State Park is a beautiful setting, brimming with geological and archeological sights that make these rocks an unforgettable stop.
Driving south from the I-15 freeway toward the west entrance of the Valley of Fire, the desert mountains seem unremarkable: typical gray hills, made of limestone and conglomerate, with a few caves and holes from weathering. After crossing the Muddy Mountains by winding through a trough between the hills, we came around a curve and the magnificent vista of the Valley of Fire engulfed us.
It was spellbinding: a string of red rock, stretched out in a valley, with Lake Mead and even the Grand Canyon beyond. These gnarly, twisted rock formations are a geological playground, a book with the messages of time written by the forces of water, chemistry and wind.
Eons ago, the limestone hills surrounding the Valley were the floor of a mighty ocean. They were lifted and twisted by tectonics and volcanic action, and the ocean receded. During the Jurassic period -- about 150 million years ago -- a vast desert developed. Here, where our mighty rocks now reside, great sand dunes grew. Through time and compaction these dunes became sandstone.
During this process the groundwater flowed through and carried iron oxide and various other minerals. As the water passed through these "petrified dunes," the iron oxide, lime, silica and other minerals painted the stones various hues of red, white, yellow, purple and more. The water also caused fractures in weak areas of the rock, which helped mold the unusual shapes and patterns.
All this happened long ago, and took thousands of years, but the result was spectacular and a startling contrast to the gray hills nearby.
Sandstone is a relatively fragile rock, and as the groundwater continues to flow through the rocks, they are continually changing and eroding. The wind does its part, too, in carving sculptures from old rock. As well, small, new sand dunes form downwind as the rocks erode; with each breeze, the sand forms a new page that records the ongoing drama of desert animal life. Following the tracks of roadrunners, lizards, ring tail cats and much more becomes as fascinating as viewing the red rocks and studying the geological story.
As interesting as the geological history is, the human history of the Valley of Fire is just as fascinating. Early Americans recorded their lives at many places in the park. Atlatl ("at-lat-l'') Rock is a pictorial record of migrations, hunts, early tools and weapons, carved in the black patina (desert varnish) of a large sandstone formation by Native American artists as much as 2,000 years ago. The rock is named for the pictograph of an atlatl, a notched stick used to add speed and distance to a thrown spear. It was a predecessor to the bow and arrow. Many more are found along the Petroglyph Canyon Self-Guiding Trail, which is a half-mile, round-trip walk to Mouse's Tank through a sandy canyon. Trail markers are placed to point out interesting features, including numerous prehistoric Indian rock writings.
These prehistoric visitors probably didn't live here; they would come to worship as well as to hunt and harvest. There is evidence that Basket Makers probably first used this valley. Later, an Anasazi settlement grew in the nearby Moapa Valley. There, in what is now known as Overton, a pueblo town grew on the bluff overlooking the valley, and the Anasazi farmed the fertile land near the river.
The Anasazi lived in a pueblo city that grew to be 30 miles long, with a complex society that included trade with the Anasazi cities to the east in the Four Corners area. The Anasazi occupied the area from around 300 BC to about 1150 AD, when they, along with their cousins to the east, vanished. The Moapa Indians, a part of the Paiute Nation, moved to the region later, and were occupying it when the Spanish passed through the region around 1800. About 300 Moapa Indians still live on a reservation north of the Park.
The Valley of Fire State Park is open during daylight hours year-round. There are two campgrounds in the park, but no motels or hotels. To get there, drive northwest on Interstate 15 from Las Vegas, then take Nevada Route 169 at Crystal, south to the park. The entrance fee is $5 per vehicle. There is a visitor center, but bring your own refreshments; the center does not sell sodas or food.