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Red Rock Canyon offers antidote to Vegas neon

The outdoor haven may not be as vast as the Grand Canyon or Death Valley, but it's got comparable beauty, and history, and it's a lot closer to hotels.
Two cyclists ride along the 13-mile-long scenic drive at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada, May 6, 2006.
Two cyclists ride along the 13-mile-long scenic drive at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada, May 6, 2006. Jae C. Hong / Ap File / AP File
/ Source: The Associated Press

Round a bend on a highway less than 30 minutes drive from the Las Vegas Strip, and a panorama of red rocks, green cactus, gray mountains, blue sky and white clouds opens before you.

It's even better at dawn, when rich yellow rays from the east cast a warm hue to the textured hills. Humans don't shape scenes like this. It smells of fresh mesquite, pinon, creosote and sage. This is nature, not neon.

Red Rock Canyon may not be as vast as the Grand Canyon or Death Valley, or as well-known as Zion, Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley or Yosemite. But it's got comparable beauty, and history, and it's a lot closer to hotels.

"The nice part is we're so close to the city," said Pat Williams, president of Friends of Red Rock Canyon and operations manager for the Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association. "It's like an urban park, but you're quickly into wilderness."

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, a federal Bureau of Land Management fee area, has for years quietly lured rock climbers, petroglyph photographers, bicyclists, long-distance runners and lunch-toting hikers.

Just driving the 13-mile one-way loop road -- which dips to cross dry washes, bends around hairpin turns and climbs to a commanding Mojave Desert view from a parking overlook at elevation 4,760 feet -- is enough to salve the soul after a night of ultralounging or doubling down at the blackjack table. It's also completely wheelchair-accessible, with toilets at parking areas.

The modern BLM visitor center just added a state-of-the-art interactive nature museum sure to dazzle and teach the kids. Got questions about the plants, wildlife or geology? The answers are here. Like lizards? They're here. Snakes? They're here, too.

You might see Mojave Max, a resident desert tortoise whose emergence from his burrow every spring -- maybe early, maybe late -- has a kind of a Groundhog Day significance for local schoolchildren trying to guess the date.

Bighorn sheep and waterfalls
Native burros, whose ancestors served miners plying the canyons for minerals, might show up at Max's low-walled pen to forage for his meal leftovers. They're not shy, but don't feed them. They don't wear reflectors, and familiarity can be fatal if they hang out next to the road.

The area gets 1.2 million visitors a year, which Williams said includes the adjacent Cottonwood Valley mountain biking and equestrian area and the Red Spring picnic area. A no-frills campground across the highway, state Route 159, offers neither shade nor ambiance.

Red Rock Canyon itself? The Web site may call it "the best kept secret in Las Vegas." But bicyclists abound. Rock climbers are common. Hikers can have it all to themselves if they pack a lunch for the challenging trek up Turtlehead Peak. Or they can greet other folks taking Fido along up the trail to Calico Tanks. Both yield stunning views of Las Vegas in the distance.

Friends of Red Rock Canyon spend 16,000 volunteer hours a year tending the 90 miles of trails, including an easy children's nature walk featuring explanatory signs and a boardwalk over a trickling spring feeding an amazingly lush natural garden.

Resident southern Nevadans escape scorching summer days with hikes into Pine Creek, Oak Creek or Ice Box canyons, where bighorn sheep dwell and waterfalls are fed by melting snow from the Spring Mountains above.

In centuries past, American Indians summered in these same canyons. They roasted agave in poker-table-sized open pits that can still be found, and carved petroglyphs depicting animals, maps and family histories into the rocks. Some sites are now marked with interpretive signs. Even the names of the plants tell tales: Spanish bayonet, Mormon tea, barrel cactus, cat's claw.

A century ago, miners quarried sandstone blocks and hauled them out with a huge tractor engine that became a story in itself. An interpretive sign tells that tale, too.

Fire scorched the open desert in 2005, sparked by lightning and leaving scars on both sides of the road not far from the visitor center. But look closer, and wispy grass is growing back. Wildfire is natural. So is Red Rock Canyon.

If you go:

  • Red Rock Canyon: or or 702-515-5350. The scenic drive is open generally from 6 a.m. to dusk. Closing hours depend on the season. Bicycles, hikers (and resident burros) free; cars, $5; motorcycles, $2.
  • Getting there: Red Rock Canyon is about 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip. Take Charleston Boulevard west; it becomes state Route 159 after crossing the 215 Beltway near Red Rock Station hotel-casino. Go about five miles and follow signs on the right to the entrance.
  • Tips: Be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat and plenty of water, and don't forget camera and binoculars. Sturdy shoes are best for hiking.