Take an award winning, phenomenal visitor center, over 197,349 acres of natural beauty, add in a 13 mile one way scenic drive with spectacular panoramic viewing spots highlighting the vivid red Aztec sandstone peaks towering thousands of feet high, Native American petroglyphs, tracks of dinosaurs and other creatures, 30 miles of hiking trails, over 2000 climbing trails and what do you have? A masterpiece that has been created over a span of millions of years known as Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area!
The Red Rock Canyon Recreation Lands were established in 1967 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) but then in 1990, special legislation supported by the Nevada congressional delegation, changed the status. making it a National Conservation Area, the seventh to be designated nationally. This status provides funds to maintain and protect it.
Since it is located about 22 miles from where we were staying at the Oasis Las Vegas Resort, it would be an easy day trip. The night before our planned visit, we discovered an important piece of information. During the more popular tourist months, to keep the crowds to a minimum during the busier and more popular tourist months and to protect the natural and cultural resources, the Bureau of Land Management had implemented a timed entry reservation system for the 13 mile scenic loop from October 1 to May 31 between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Reservations can be made on-line at recreation.gov. For more information, on the timed entry reservations, see this FAQ page. Beginning in 2023, the entrance fee has been increased to $20 per vehicle. Since this is a National Park, the fee will be waived for anyone with a National Park Senior Pass. Luckily there were times available for us to visit. Whew!
From Oasis Las Vegas RV Resort, we would wind our way through the suburban area to the more scenic State Route 159 (Red Rock Canyon Road) which would take us directly to the park entrance.
First there was the Visitor Center….
After checking in at the entrance gate for our 10 a.m. reservation, our first stop was at the very modernistic Visitor Center which has exhibits on the geology, ecology, prehistory and history of the park and the nearby region. Wow, it turned out to be one of the best Visitor Centers we’ve ever been too! It was unbelievable!
On the wall in the photo above, it says: “In Red Rock Canyon, the elements of Earth, Fire, Air and Water weave together to create a dynamic tapestry of life to which you belong. Your thoughtful respect of these lands, the plants and animals that live on them helps hold these threads together.” What we really enjoyed about the center was that the majority of the exhibits were outside, allowing us to enjoy the beautiful, sunny day while enhancing our knowledge about the Mojave Desert and the Canyon. Might not be the best place to visit during the hot, summer months but on a fairly cool, mild day it was perfect!
Trust me, that’s just a few of our photos – we have lots more, way too many to clutter up this post. But no worries, later in this post, we’ll provide a link to an album with both the photos from the Visitor Center as well as the drive.
For general information about the park, see their visitor guide here.
And then there was the drive…
After spending well over an hour exploring the Visitor Center, it was time to continue on so we could explore the canyon. Besides the scenic drive, Red Rock Canyon offers enticements to its two million visitors every year with its miles of hiking trails, over 2000 rock climbing routes, horseback riding, mountain biking, road biking, picnic areas and nature observing.
Note you can also find the map here.
Below is a satellite view of the area with the actual route we traveled highlighted by our dash camera, the line colors represent relative speed:
And to actually experience the drive, take a look at our video!
There were a lot of overlooks along the 13 mile drive. How long the drive takes is dependent on how many stops you make and how long you spend at each one. There are over 80 hiking trails within the park so that could increase your time in the park as well. It took us well over two hours.
Here are some of the highlights of the drive.
Our first stop was at Calico Hills, a sizeable outcrop of richly-colored Aztec sandstone and one of the most popular hiking trails in the canyon. Interesting that the southern half of the hills (Calico I on the map) are uniformly deep red, due to the presence of iron oxide, while the northern section (Calico II) is mostly white or cream.
What an interesting history this area has! From 1905 to 1912, Sandstone Quarry within Red Rock Canyon was used by various owners & companies to extract large pieces, some weighing over 10 tons, of high quality beige & orange sandstone which were used as decorative building facades in Los Angeles & San Francisco.
Laborers used drills, metal wires, and bolts to cut rectangular pieces out of the Calico Hills. The blocks were then loaded onto wagons and pulled with a 17 ton steam traction engine known as “Big Devil” to the railroad in Las Vegas along primitive rocky roads, roughly a 20 mile one-way journey. The business & transportation operations proved to be quite costly and never provided the profit owners were seeking, causing the commercial mining of Sandstone Quarry to end in 1912.
Turtlehead Peak is a detached summit of the La Madre Mountains, formed of greyish limestone, and rising 2,000 feet above the flattish desert below. According to what I’ve read, it is one of the most strenuous hikes within Red Rock Canyon.
High Point Overlook
Located five miles into the loop is one of the highest points in the park at 4,771 feet, High Point Overlook. From here you can see Turtlehead Peak to the northeast, Calico Hills to the east, and the Rainbow Wilderness to the southwest.
White Rock & Keystone Thrust
As mentioned above, there are numerous hiking trails in Red Rock Canyon. Located a short distance after the High Point Overlook is White Rock Road, a dirt spur road (.6 mile) that connects the Scenic Loop Road with the Lower White Rock Trailhead (just off the highway) and the Upper White Rock Trailhead, which is at the southeast toe of the White Rock Hills and a few minutes walk from White Rock Spring.
There is also the Keystone Thrust Trail, a 2.4 mile trail. According to the Red Rock Canyon website, “Keystone Thrust is one of a series of faults that formed an estimated 65 million years ago, near the end of the Mesozoic geologic era – about the same time that the dinosaurs went extinct. At this time, the Pacific plate began moving under the North American plate. This caused compressional forces to push up older limestone rock layers over younger sandstone rock layers. At Red Rock Canyon, this is visible as grayish carbonate or limestone layers over red- and buff-colored sandstone.”
Willow Spring & Petroglyph Wall
Near the Willow Spring Picnic Area is the Petroglyph Wall Trail, a short .2 easy trail which leads across a wash, towards a cliff-side that features historical rock art, estimated to be at least 800 years old.
Red Rock Wash Overlook
With only six parking spaces, luckily this is a quiet place to stop. Here you can sit on a park bench and gaze out across Red Rock Wash towards the Red Rock Cliffs to the left, the La Madre Mountains to the north, and the Calico Hills to the east.
Red Rock Overlook
This was the last stop before we exited the scenic drive. Large parking lot, restrooms and picnic tables make this a perfect spot to relax before heading back to Las Vegas.
If you are ever in the Las Vegas area and feel the urge to leave the neon lights, casinos and craziness behind and replace it with beautiful scenes of nature, Red Rock Canyon should be at the top of your must see list!
As promised click here to see more photos from the day.