Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Spring Mountain Ranch State Park
Text and Photos by Sandra Scott
In the southern corner of Nevada is a place where the colors are brilliant, the entertainment varied, the development impressive, and the activities many. And, it is not Las Vegas! In Red Rock Canyon Recreation area the reds of the land brighten under the deep-blue, cloudless sky. Here, Mother Nature worked 600 million years to create a uniquely beautiful land. You can hike, rock scramble, visit a desert museum, see a play, watch a "shoot-out at high noon" and do so much more.
Red Rock, less 20 miles from Vegas, is nature's stunning playground. Land that was forged under a shallow sea, then buried for eons beneath sand dunes, is now an awe-inspiring desert sculpted by the winds and the rains. As the land changed, so did the plants and animals that live and thrive in this environment. Man, too, learned how to live in the desert, surviving in spite of the extreme dryness and heat. Today, visitors can explore the desert habitat while learning about the geological and human history of the area.
Evidence of the various phases of development is everywhere. The limestone deposits come from the time when the Red Rock area was a warm, shallow sea. Stone logs remain from a time when the area was covered by large trees. As the area became increasingly arid, massive dunes covered the land, forming the Calico Hills area of the park. Each area holds clues to the park's developmental history for those who take the time to understand what they are looking at; and understand the symbiotic relationship between the land, the plants and the animals.
A 13-mile one-way loop through Red Rock, with overlooks, gives visitors a chance to view the diversity and beauty of the region from the comfort of their car. Watch out for the burros that roam freely and are protected under the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971. The burros are a living reminder of the settlers who passed this way. Burros survive well in the hottest deserts. After losing 30 percent of their body moisture, they can drink enough to restore it in only a few minutes.
The first stop on the loop should be the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Visitor Center where displays and videos explain the evolution of the area and desert diversity. The Visitor Center has brochures highlighting trails of varying distance and difficulty. More than a dozen trails are suitable for family hiking. Many trails require a little conditioning and experience, while a few of the advanced hikes lead to peaks that only see a few visitors each year.
Several of the trails have been adopted by local organizations. The Las Vegas Penn State Alumni Association maintains the Keystone Thrust Trail. Thrust faults occur in many locations, but here the absence of vegetation makes the phenomenon easy to see. The older Paleozoic limestone is clearly visible where it was thrust on top of the younger Mesozoic sandstone. Whether an hour scrambling over the rocks, or few hours hiking into cool Ice Box Canyon or an overnight hike into one of the more secluded canyons, everyone will find the their own perfect adventure.
For thousands of years humans have explored Red Rock. Prehistoric nomadic cultures left their mark on canyon walls in the form of petroglyphs. Roasting pits, such as the one near the entrance to the Keystone Thrust Trail, were constructed by Native Americans who made the canyons a more permanent home. They built the pits, up to 27 feet across, lined them with limestone, built a fire, and placed meat a top the heated rock to cook for a day or two.
The word "desert" is defined as an extremely dry place; but, amazingly, springs are abundant, if you know where to look. Three miles after exiting the loop, is Spring Mountain State Park and working ranch. Spring Mountain Ranch holds the water rights to 52 springs. It was once a wagon train stop where, undoubtedly, pioneers spent the evening around a campfire listening to stories. Today you can spread your blanket, get out the cheese, uncork the wine, and as dark settles in, spend the evening at a performance produced by a local, non-profit theatrical group.
The 520-acre oasis changed hands several times in the last 150 years, but the most famous and interesting owner was another one of those entranced by the desert. Vera Krupp, wife of the German industrialist, Alfred Krupp made it her principal residence until she sold the property to Howard Hughes in 1967. At that time, Hughes was buying up everything he could in the Las Vegas area. The Nevada State Parks purchased it in 1974.
One mile beyond Spring Mountain, mosey into the restaurant at Bonnie Spring/Old Nevada, put your feet up on the fireplace and sit a spell. Bonnie Springs was built in 1843 as a stopover for the wagon trains on the Spanish Trail. General John C. Fremont, the frontiersman who fought for California's independence, was one of the more famous guests. While you are waiting for your meal to be served, visit the free petting zoo.
Refreshed, amble over to Old Nevada, where they advertise, "You don't look at the Old West, you live it." There are shoot-outs, hangin's, displays, museums and an admission charge. It is the only private commercial land in Red Rock. Bonnie, herself, was a professional ice skater who, like many others, fell in love with the mountains, and, with her husband, proceeded to develop the area. If the scenery looks familiar, perhaps you saw it in an episode of the TV series "Bonanza."
Dryness is the most significant environmental factor affecting both plants and animals. One of the most impressive trees is the hydra-looking Joshua Tree. It grows to an impressive 40 feet and lives for 200 years. Native Americans ground the seeds into a meal, and the roots supplied a red dye used in coloring baskets.
There is an incredible variety of plant life in the desert just awaiting the infrequent rains. Watching an approaching summer storm is to watch nature at its most dynamic. Massive thunderheads rise over the hills, the skies darken, the reds of the rocks deepen, lightening flashes, thunder cracks and the rains arrive bringing new life to the desert. Bone-dry creeks become torrents. Dormant seeds, some for as long as 10 years, are brought to life for a brief explosion of color. The desert is a dynamic place.
Any time is a good time to visit Red Rock. Summertime temperatures soar to well over 100° F., while the nights remain relatively cool. The winters are mild and pleasant and are the best time for climbing and hiking. The skies are mostly clear blue and the sunshine is warm. Regardless of the season or personal interests, there is bound to be something in this 67,500-acre playland for everyone.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
is 20 miles west of Las Vegas, NV via state highways 159 or 160.
- Fee: Per private vehicle. A fee campground is also available.
- Open daily, year-round except Thanksgiving and Christmas
- Scenic Loop Road open 7:00am to dusk daily
- Visitor Center hours 8:30am to 4:30pm daily.
- Phone: 702-363-1921
Managed by the Bureau of Land Management
Las Vegas BLM Field Office
4765 West Vegas Drive
Las Vegas, Nevada 89108
Spring Mountain Ranch State Park
is 15 miles west of Las Vegas, NV, via state highway 159. Facilities include a picnic area, drinking water, toilets, group areas. Pets are Allowed,
- Hours are daily 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, year round
- Phone: 702-875-4141
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