Some think of Nevada as a desert state. The Mojave, our smallest of 4 deserts, is mostly in California but about ¹⁄3 of it is also found in southern Nevada and northwestern Arizona. I, however, think of Nevada as a mountain state. If you drive across it, you experience many mountain ranges at either end of broad valleys. This is a characteristic of the Mojave Desert. Nevada’s Boundary Peak is over 13,000 feet, and there are 8 mountains over 11,000 feet here including Charleston Peak, which is close enough to Las Vegas to be considered its high elevation playground. Another attraction west of town with high mountains is Red Rock Canyon. More than a million people visit these fossilized sand dunes each year.
Ruth and I have been to Red Rock Canyon twice. The 2nd time was recent. We drove through its southern end on our way to Front Sight and enjoyed seeing Potosi Mountain and many snowballed Joshua trees along the way. Then we returned to it and spent most of the rest of a day in the canyon where a running event was in progress. This canyon is far more than uplifted, red-banded rocks. It’s home to federally protected golden eagles, the beloved desert turtle, and, oddly, wild burros. I had never seen a road sign warning me of them crossing the highway until I returned to Red Rock Canyon.
Horseback riders and mountain bikers are frequently seen here as are rock climbers who appreciate its red sandstone cliffs, photographers, off roaders, and hikers. This exercising humanity is a bit of a shock when I consider that I’m only 15 miles from The Las Vegas Strip in a canyon bigger than Bryce with many trails but few buildings.
The quickest way to get to know Red Rock Canyon is to start at its great visitor center and get a trial and road map and then take its 13 mile scenic drive. Fossil Ridge and the center’s displays told me that these red rocks were once under a warm, tropical sea. During one period they became the place where Octopodichnuses roamed. These 3 to 4 feet tall meat-eating dinosaurs lived here and left tracks. Natives left petroglyphs. Later, Spaniards imported burros from Africa to breed with their horses to get mules. The signs suggested they were common, so I was surprised when a ranger told me there were only about 25 of them in the canyon.
Winter, fall, and spring are the best times to visit Red Rock Canyon, especially if you plan to hike. I like the way its visitor guide divides hikes into easy, moderate, difficult, and beyond the scenic drive. Only 6 of the many walking trails are easy, and the well-named Turtlehead Peak Trail was shown to be a five-mile loop that was scenic but difficult.
My brother Tim used to live in Las Vegas. When he died there many years ago, we scattered some of his ashes in Red Rock Canyon because he so loved this area. This was during Ruth and my first visit to this National Conservation Area that is visible from the Las Vegas Strip if you know where to look.