Red Rock Canyon: A Desert Retreat Near Las VegasNovember 10, 2011 No Comments
I have always thought of myself as a city girl. New Orleans, Anchorage, New York City and Washington, DC rank at the top of my all-time favorites list. Yet when Dad and I headed to the American Southwest this summer, I discovered a new passion for wide-open spaces and tiny rural communities.
Still, when we got to Las Vegas, Nevada, I felt an odd sense of homecoming. The flashing neon lights, heavy traffic and 24-hour excitement were a marked contrast to the “middle of nowhere” towns where we had spent most of the summer. Life was good, as we strolled the concrete sidewalks and indulged in a whirlwind of sightseeing.
I was more surprised than anyone when, just a few days into our extended Las Vegas stay, I found myself missing the quiet desert air. I adored Las Vegas, but my thoughts kept returning to the sights and sounds of the undeveloped West.
Fortunately, I soon learned that I could have the best of both worlds. Red Rock Canyon is less than 30 minutes from Vegas, but it is truly a world apart. Dad and I visited on a brilliantly sunny afternoon in late August.
About Red Rock Canyon
The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is a nearly 200,000 acre protected area in the eastern Mojave Desert. The park is operated by the nonprofit Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management. As of 2011, the visitor center is open daily from 8 am until 4:30 pm and closed on major holidays. The scenic drive is open extended hours that vary by season. Admission is $7 per carload or $3 per person for those arriving on foot, bicycle or motorcycle. National Park Service passes are honored.
The park offers an extensive network of hiking trails and rock climbing opportunities, but due to the extreme August heat, we opted to focus on the 13-mile scenic drive. We began our visit at the surprisingly expansive Visitor Center, located just inside the park entrance.
Most of the Visitor Center displays are arranged in a massive outdoor exhibit, which is divided into sections that celebrate the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. There are a seemingly endless number of artifacts and informational signs, each providing details about the ways in which the Mojave Desert provides and utilizes that particular element.
Inside, the park rangers are full of helpful tips. Free maps are available, and the park rangers are happy to help you plan your day. Water is available here, so load up before beginning your adventure, especially if you plan to do any hiking.
After about two hours exploring the Visitor Center displays, we headed out on the scenic drive. The drive is a 13-mile loop that encompasses a dozen scenic overlooks and trailheads. We visited each overlook, but did not venture out on the trails. The hikes range from easy to strenuous, and from less than one mile to six miles in length.
Red Rock Canyon takes its name from the brilliant red sandstone of its mountains. The red color comes from the oxidized iron contained in the rock. One of the most famous elements of Red Rock Canyon is the Keystone Thrust Fault. To understand the peculiarity of the thrust fault, it is necessary to know a little about how the region was formed.
Roughly 600 million years ago, the region was covered by a massive ocean. The sea bed was comprised primarily of limestone approximately 9,000 feet thick. Massive tectonic shifts occurred 250 million years ago, forcing out most of the water and dramatically raising the sea bed. Salt and gypsum coated the now-exposed rock in some areas, which oxidized on exposure to the air. Meanwhile, the oldest portions of rock at the base of the former sea bed retained their natural gray color.
As the climate shifted again 180 million years ago, the region became a desert filled with massive sand dunes. The constantly shifting sand eventually fossilized into Aztec sandstone, its heavy iron concentration creating a brilliant red color. This process occurred throughout the Southwest, creating numerous examples of red rock.
But in Red Rock Canyon and some spots further north, a geologic anomaly occurred. Roughly 65 million years ago, continued tectonic shifting created compression forces that cracked open the Earth’s crust. Due to the shallow angle of the fault, the older gray limestone rocks were forced to slide across and on top of the younger sandstone rock. This created a visually stunning effect in which a red line can be seen across many of the rocks, with gray stone above. Although thrust faults have occurred in other places, it was our first experience with one.
We spent approximately two hours exploring the scenic drive. Had we taken any of the hiking trails, we could easily have spent the better part of a day. Back at the Visitor Center, we had just enough time to check out the gift shop before the park closed for the day. The Red Rock Overlook, located along State Road 159 just outside the park, is open one hour later than the scenic drive, so we stopped by before heading back to our RV park. The view was terrific, and well worth the few extra minutes!
Tips for Parents
Red Rock Canyon offers a wonderful opportunity to get out of the constant hustle and bustle of Las Vegas. The park was not at all crowded on the day of our visit, allowing us to relax and enjoy the scenery. The park rangers were helpful and friendly, and there were plenty of opportunities to get out of the car and walk around.
Red Rock Canyon is extremely hot during the summer months. On the day of our visit, the temperature fluctuated between 105 and 110 F. Carry more water than you think you will need, as the high heat and low humidity combine to cause extreme thirst and dehydration. Pack salty snacks if you plan to hike or climb. A hat and sunscreen are absolutely essential.
Although rain is rare, when it does occur it can easily lead to flash flooding. Pay close attention to weather reports and always keep an eye on the sky. Head for safety if clouds begin to gather, as even a small amount of rain could lead to a dangerous situation if you are caught out on the rocks.
Allow your kids the freedom to play, but keep a close eye on them. Keep them on the trail and away from drop-offs. Falls are rare, but they have occurred. Know your own limitations and those of your kids, and err on the side of caution when choosing your hiking and climbing locations.