A Morning at Red Rock Canyon, Nevada

The Calico Hills in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
The Calico Hills in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Although best known as a world class entertainment venue, Las Vegas, Nevada is surrounded by the beauty of the Mojave Desert.  A mere thirty minutes’ drive west of The Strip on West Charleston Boulevard (Nevada State Route 159) sits a spectacular park rich in both natural splendor and wildlife.  Red Rock Canyon has the peculiar designation of “Natural Conservation Area.”  This is because the park is administrated by the Bureau of Land Management, rather than the National Park Service.  According to the “Red Rock Canyon Visitor Guide” by Tom Moulin, various groups pushed for Red Rock to become a National Monument but for reasons unknown, the NPS wasn’t interested in administering it.  (Their loss!)

I visited Red Rock Canyon for the second time while I was in Las Vegas for the EMS World Expo two weeks ago.  My first visit in February had been brief, just a quick loop on the Scenic Drive.  In September, since I had a free day before the conference started, I was eager to see more of the park and do some hiking this time.

The Red Rock Escarpment is on the west side of Red Rock Canyon
The Red Rock Escarpment is on the west side of Red Rock Canyon

I drove out to Red Rock just after sunrise.  Daytime highs in Vegas in September run into the 90s, so I thought it wise to get started when it was as cool as possible.  Traveling by myself and inexperienced in desert hiking, I approached the visit cautiously.  I decided to take short hikes and drive between various parts of the park.  This turned out to be wise, although not for the reasons I had anticipated.  The BLM recommends each visitor arriving at Red Rock in the summer have access to a gallon (3.8L) of water.  I had two 27oz (800mL) Klean Kanteen water bottles and a spare 3L worth of water in plastic bottles in the car.  Overkill, in my particular case, considering I drank about half a liter during my visit.

Entrance to Red Rock Canyon
Entrance to Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon’s name comes from the formations of rock known as Aztec Sandstone which makes up the Calico Hills and Red Rock Escarpment.  Not all Aztec Sandstone is red: There are rocks in both formations as well as the park’s White Rock Hills that have more subdued colors.  Despite what the BLM calls it, it seems there is no particular geological feature named Red Rock Canyon.  Tom Moulin explains:

“The name Red Rock Canyon, used by many organizations and government agencies, is rather misleading.  It suggests that there is only one canyon, when in fact, there are some nine major canyons.  Therefore, many outdoor recreational groups refer to the place simply as Red Rocks.”

Scenic Drive
Scenic Drive

Much of Red Rock Canyon’s sights are visible from the 13-mile long (20.9km) Scenic Drive, a horseshoe-shaped road that starts and finishes on Nevada State Route 159.  The park opens at 6am.  Arriving around 7am, I paid the $7 per vehicle entrance fee at the booth off of Nevada 159 and began the Scenic Drive.  Be sure to hold on to your receipt.  The Scenic Drive is one-way, so if you decide to backtrack by car for any reason, you will have to finish the loop and then re-enter the park.  If arriving early, ask for a map at the entrance booth, since the visitor center doesn’t open until 8am.

The sun just beginning to catch the Calico Hills, with Turtlehead Peak looming beyond at right
The sun just beginning to catch the Calico Hills, with Turtlehead Peak looming beyond at right

My first stop was the Calico Hills, the reddest formation of rock in Red Rock.  During my previous visit, the hills were alive with rock climbers, but there were just a handful of hikers visiting now.  There are three parking lots in this area along the Scenic Drive known as Calico I, Calico II, and Sandstone Quarry.  Each lot provides access to a network of trails that circles the park.  When I arrived, the sun was just beginning to illuminate the top of the Calico Hills.  Stopping at Calico I, I was captivated by the panoramic views to the west of the wall of rocks known as the Red Rock Escarpment.

Red Rock Escarpment. Click for larger view.
Red Rock Escarpment panorama. Click for larger view.

The Red Rock Escarpment is a rock formation running north-south at the west end of Red Rock Canyon.  The two most notable features on the escarpment are Bridge Mountain and Mount Wilson.  (As much as I would like to be able to identify a particular mountain in each photo, I have difficulty distinguishing the two…hence sticking to the catch-all escarpment label.)  The light was great for photography, with warm morning light illuminating the entire escarpment but with dark clouds beyond.  Reviewing the images on my camera’s LED screen, I found that auto white balance was recording the escarpment’s colors as somewhat cooler than what I was seeing.  I switched the WB to cloudy.  I briefly explored the rock formations near the parking lot before returning to the car.

White Rock Hills
White Rock Hills

I drove a short distance up the road to Calico II.  I photographed the White Rock Hills, dramatically illuminated by the sun even as the foreground desert and background La Madre Mountains sat in shadow.  I picked up the Calico Hills Trail and hiked towards the Sandstone Quarry, 1.2 miles away.

Calico Hills Trail
Calico Hills Trail

The trail parallels the Scenic Drive at lower elevation; the road isn’t actually visible until the quarry.  The trail is fairly easy.  Though there were some moderate ups and downs, it felt like a cakewalk after hiking the Inca Trail!  The trail is generally adequate condition, though not as wide or as well marked as trails in the larger parks out west.  At times the trail crosses an area of sandstone; there aren’t cairns or other markings so it’s sometimes necessary to search a bit for the trail on the other side of the rock.

Aztec Sandstone
Aztec Sandstone

The rock formations at Calico Hills come in a wondrous variety of shapes and colors.  Back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, great sand dunes of sand rich in hematite lay here.  The hematite rusted into a beautiful red.  Eventually the sand solidified into Aztec Sandstone.

15 Sandstone

The variations in color in the Calico Hills are attributed to groundwater, of all things
The variations in color in the Calico Hills are attributed to groundwater, of all things

Counterintuitively, water had a major role in shaping this desert landscape.  In certain places, groundwater dissolved the hematite, turning the rock white, while in other areas it concentrated the hematite, making for particularly intense color.  In the desert, the runoff from the occasional rain can gather considerable power, scouring odd shapes and even holes into the rock.

Water eroded holes in some rock formations
Water eroded holes in some rock formations

18 Stone and holesThe Mojave, and Red Rock Canyon in particular, is richer in life than one might expect.  Red Rock has several springs and basins referred to as tanks which fill with seasonal rains.  I encountered a wide variety of flora during my visit.  Some like cacti looked like they belonged in the desert; some, like the deciduous Fremont’s cottonwood, did not.

Green in the desert
Green in the desert
Cactus
Cactus
Beetle
Darkling beetle

I wasn’t quick enough to catch most of the wildlife I encountered (and my 24-105mm travel lens wasn’t really suited for wildlife photography anyway). In my brief visit I encountered numerous species of birds, including the rock wren and a hummingbird of some kind (despite the apparent lack of flowers this time of year).  Two well-camouflaged lizards poked their heads out of a bush before scampering back into cover as I approached.  A white-tailed antelope squirrel appeared briefly and a black-tailed jackrabbit with the biggest ears I’ve ever seen on a bunny scampered across the trail near the quarry.

I didn’t spot any during my visit but Red Rock has a large population of desert bighorn sheep, as well as the large, elusive reptile colorfully known as the Gila monster.  The only fauna I managed to photograph were the large darkling beetles (about 1″/2.5cm long) I frequently saw on the trail.  They have a strange habit of standing with their thorax elevated when disturbed.  Apparently they can make a stink as a defensive mechanism as well.

Yucca
Yucca
Roadside brush
Roadside brush
Near Sandstone Quarry
Rocks near the Sandstone Quarry

I arrived at the Sandstone Quarry at the north end of the Calico Hills, where the rock bears markings from abortive early 20th century efforts to exploit Red Rock’s natural resources.  I walked back to Calico II on the edge of the Scenic Drive.  The wind picked up, with gusts of maybe 30mph (48.2kph).  I was actually chilly…to think I hadn’t packed a jacket because Vegas temperatures were supposed to be in the 90s!

Petroglyphs
Petroglyphs

After returning to my car, I continued down the Scenic Drive past the High Point Overlook and turned right onto the road to Willow Springs Picnic Area.  (Don’t miss the turn or you’ll have to circle back all the way around the one-way Scenic Drive!)

From the picnic area, there’s a short trail to some apparently severely eroded petroglyphs.  The trail is indistinct while crossing a dry wash strewn with rocks, but it’s not too difficult to find it again on the other side.  Petroglyphs are rock art made by hammering or scratching a figure into a rock face (not by using paint…those would be referred to as pictographs) and are found in several locations in Red Rock Canyon.  I managed to miss some petroglyphs that are supposed to be 0.4 miles (0.6km) up the trail from Calico II.  The petroglyphs in Red Rock may be hundreds, even thousands of years old, and are attributed to groups known as the Desert Archaic people (a nebulous classification encompassing several native peoples who lived in the area prior to 500 CE) and the Southern Paiute.

White in Red Rock
La Madre Mountains I think, seen from near the White Rock Hills

The road is maintained only as far as the Willow Springs Picnic area.  A sign warns that you can continue (like if you have a truck or SUV with 4-wheel drive) at your own risk.  I’d declined the LDW on my rental, so I decided to walk rather than drive on the road.  I passed along the White Rock Hills (bleached Aztec Sandstone) as far as the sign for La Madre Mountain Wilderness area.  Next visit, I’d like to continue uphill to La Madre Springs, which is supposed to be a good place to spot desert big horn sheep.

White in Red Rock
White rock in Red Rock

Rain is very rare in Red Rock Canyon during summer.  Surprisingly, there was a 25% chance of rain in the forecast that morning.  Rachel joked that I should be wary of the forecast; in a place where the weather is always hot and sunny, even the sloppiest meteorologist can keep their job.  Indeed, I beat the odds when, as I walked back to my car, a storm blew in with little warning.  The rain wasn’t particularly intense, but without a raincoat it would have been unpleasant to continue hiking.  More importantly, if the rain intensified, there was a severe risk of flash flooding.

Even the Scenic Drive is vulnerable to floods, though during my visit I noticed a construction project to build a bridge over where the road passes through a wash.  Washes are dry most of the time, but fill with torrents of water during storms.  The large rocks in the washes are a reminder of the power of flash flooding in the desert.

Rain arrives
Rain arrives

I headed out of Red Rock around 11:30am, sad that my hiking was rather limited again.  After a stop at the visitor center (which has a well-stocked gift shop and outdoor exhibits about the Mojave) I headed back to Vegas to visit the shop from the History Channel TV show “Pawn Stars”.  Light rain continued for hours and didn’t clear until late afternoon.  The only silver lining to the unexpectedly poor weather was seeing a rainbow that evening when visiting the observation deck of The Stratosphere just before sunset.

Rainy Red Rock
Rainy Red Rock, with Turtlehead Peak at center

By the way, if you don’t have time to actually visit Red Rock Canyon while visiting Las Vegas, it is still possible to spot its features from The Strip.  Just look for the particularly colorful section of rock among the mountains that ring Las Vegas to the west.  The view is better in the morning and from a high vantage point.  Of course, an in-person visit is still best.  If you don’t have a car, consider a guided tour like Pink Jeep Tours.

Red Rock Canyon seen from the High Roller observation wheel just off the Las Vegas Strip
Red Rock Canyon seen from the High Roller observation wheel just off the Las Vegas Strip
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