Just 17 miles west of the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas strip lay a vast scenic and recreational treasure: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
Facts and Figures
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area comprises 195,819 acres. It is located within the Mojave Desert and is under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management. The most popular way to access the Conservation Area is via the 13-mile Scenic Drive, a paved, one-way loop through the park that opens at 6 a.m. daily and closes around sunset.
Sally O’Neal at Red Rock Canyon.
Elevations in the park range from about 3,800 feet at the Visitor Center to peaks over 7,000 feet, with a correspondingly wide range of microclimates, flora, and fauna. Within the park are two designated wilderness areas, the 47,180-acre La Madre Mountain Wilderness and the 24,997-acre Rainbow Mountain Wilderness.
Red and buff-colored sandstone contrasts with dark gray-brown limestone in craggy peaks, smooth mounds, and fascinating shapes carved by wind and water erosion.
The desert is constantly being destroyed and rebuilt through action of fire and water. Burn areas can be seen in the process of regeneration, and flash floods are not uncommon; use caution when traveling in wash areas, particularly during spring rains.
The sandstone masses you see around you are essentially petrified sand dunes. They are both red (with a high concentration of iron oxide) and tan, contrasting with the darker brown of the sedimentary limestone. Red Rock Canyon is one of the rare places where you can see ocean-bottom limestone atop sandstone, resulting from the upward thrust of seismic action.
Things To Do
Hiking, obviously, is a big attraction. About two dozen of the most popular day hike trails are easily accessed from the 13-mile Scenic Drive. These trails range from 1/4-mile and wheelchair accessible to over 10 miles and strenuous. The area is also popular with rock climbers, offering hundreds of established routes ranging from Grade I to Grade VI. Climbers need to understand and appreciate the friable nature of the predominately sandstone faces; the BLM provides information on its website.
Bicycling is allowed on the Scenic Drive and a variety of other paved and unpaved roads. Bikes are not permitted on the footpaths off the Scenic Drive nor in designated wilderness areas, but there are mountain bike trail systems that can be accessed from two specific trailheads described on the website. Horseback riding is encouraged, but likewise limited to designated equestrian trails. Several tour companies have permits to offer horseback riding within the Conservation Area. A few areas are designated for off-road vehicle use as well.
Photography is a “can’t-miss” activity here — the variety of scenery ensures successful Kodak moments.
The park has four picnic areas and one campground. Backcountry camping is allowed by permit.
The Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association also hosts a variety of events for visitors.
Flora And Fauna
A wide variety of plant life thrives in this sere and rocky landscape. Yuccas, agave, Manzanita (known by its red bark), scrub oak, sagebrush, desert trumpet, and many types of cactus are commonly seen. Most spectacular of all, particularly for those of us who have never seen one, is the Joshua tree, so named by Mormon settlers when passing through the Mojave Desert in the 1800s. The plant’s upright branches and anthropomorphic aspect reminded the Mormons of the biblical story of Joshua reaching heavenward. For the rest of us, the trees look like something out of a Dr. Seuss cartoon.
Good example of all three colors of rock: red (sandstone with iron oxide), tan (sandstone), and gray-brown (limestone).
While you are less likely to see the wildlife of the area (only a small fraction of the nearly 200,000 acres is frequented by man), Red Rock is home to a diversity of species including mountain lions, bighorn sheep, mule deer, wild horses, wild burros, coyotes, desert foxes, snakes, lizards, and the endangered desert tortoise. Tortoises hibernate in winter, but when they are active, it is illegal to approach them or disturb them in any way.
For more information, including driving directions, go to the Bureau of Land Management’s official Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area website athttp://blm.gov/9kkd or the Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association at http://www.redrockcanyonlv.org. A recommended tour company is Red Rock Canyon Tours at http://www.redrockcanyon-tours.com.
Sally O’Neal is a travel and outdoor writer who visited Red Rock Canyon in 2014.