Although officially known as the Springs Mountains National Recreation Area, this region is more popularly referred to by the name of its most prominent landmark, the 11,918-foot-high Mount Charleston. Visible from Las Vegas proper, the mountain and its surrounding recreation areas have been a popular getaway for locals and vacationers alike for decades.
Comprising more than 316,000 acres of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest (the largest in the lower 48), the area is practically an earth science class covering geography of such variety that it almost causes whiplash. As you start up the road toward the peak, you are surrounded by the kind of desert sage brush and Joshua trees that are most predominant at the lower levels. Suddenly the road takes a curve and a dip, and the desert gives way to a pinyon-juniper-based ecosystem, full of craggy canyons and trees. Finally, you dive into the full-on forests of ponderosa and bristlecone pines, which create a lush oasis powered by more than 100 natural springs formed by water and snow runoff that soaks through the porous limestone rock and eventually bubbles to the surface.
Outdoor activities are the predominant lure and include hiking, camping, rock climbing, and, during the winter months, skiing and snowboarding.
Head north on I-15 away from the Strip and then transition to U.S. 95 N. About 18 miles of freeway-style driving will bring you to the first of two roads in the Mount Charleston area. Kyle Canyon Road/NV 157 will take you about 17 miles up toward the summit and is where you’ll find the Spring Mountain Visitor Center, open 9am to 4pm daily (tel 702/872-5486), many of the campgrounds and hiking trails, the Mount Charleston Resort, and the Mount Charleston Lodge. A few miles farther is NV 156, which runs about 18 miles up to the Lee Canyon (see “Snow Sports,” below). It’s only about 35 miles or so from Downtown Las Vegas, but traffic on the freeways in town is often difficult (to say the least) so plan an hour of travel time to be safe. Note: Chains are often required during or after snowfalls, which can be epic in the area. A December 2010 storm dumped a record 90 inches here over the course of several days.
Also note that there are no gas stations, convenience stores, or other services (and that often includes cellphone service) in the area, so be sure to fill up the tank and bring whatever supplies you may need with you.
You might well be satisfied with driving up to the region and, if it’s wintertime, gazing at the snow from the warmth of your vehicle. We know that many of you come to Las Vegas in the winter to get away from the snow, but for those who don’t get to see it very often, snow-covered peaks could very well be an entertaining sight. But if you want to actually get out of the car, there are a number of recreational activities available.
CAMPING: There are seven campgrounds in the Mount Charleston area, although only the McWilliams, Fletcher View, and Kyle Canyon sites are open year-round. Some have hookups if you are bringing your camper with you, while others are good for just tents and your sleeping bag; most have toilets, fire pits, and other outdoorsy conveniences. Fees range from around $10 to $50, depending on the number of people, type of vehicle, and facilities or hookups. A full listing of the campgrounds is available at the USDA Forest Service website at www.fs.fed.us (then search for the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area). To make reservations for any of the sites, use the National Recreation Reservation Service at tel. 877/444-6777 or click over to www.recreation.gov.
HIKING: Whether you are an expert hiker or a casual walker, there is probably a trail here for you—more than two dozen total. The Echo/Little Falls trail is a relatively easy mile or so through forests that lead to a small waterfall. On the other end of the scale is the South Loop, an 8-mile trek that leads you almost all the way to the summit of Mount Charleston more than 11,000 feet up. You can pick up a trail guide at the Spring Mountain Visitor Center. There is no fee to use the trails, and follow all of the admonitions about bringing plenty of water and not drinking from the natural springs (they may contain parasites that can make you sick).
ROCK CLIMBING:There are several rock-climbing opportunities available in the Mount Charleston area, but all of them are do-it-yourself—no cushy controlled environments here. The most popular sites are the Hood along the unfortunately named Trail Canyon Trail, or Robber’s Roost, accessed from the trail head along Highway 158. For more information, pick up a guide at the Spring Mountain Visitor Center.
SNOW SPORTS: Lee Canyon (formerly Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort), Highway 156, Mount Charleston (www.leecanyonlv.com; tel 702/385-2754), offers three chairlifts and more than 30 trails ranging from beginner to advanced, plus terrain parks for snowboarders and a tubing area. Lift tickets are $40 to $60 for adults, and $30 to $45 for children 12 and under and seniors 60 and over. The facility offers a full array of equipment and clothing rentals; there’s also a small snack bar and sundry shop if you forgot to bring a camera with which to record yourself in full downhill glory (or falling repeatedly, if you are like us). It is usually open late November through early April from 9am until 4pm, but that may vary based on conditions.
Where to Stay & Dine
In addition to the aforementioned snack shop at the Lee Canyon, there is only one other dining option outside of the Mount Charleston Resort (see below). The Mount Charleston Lodge, 5375 Kyle Canyon Rd. (www.mtcharlestonlodge.com; [tel] 02/872-5408), has a rustic dining room with 20-foot ceilings in an A-frame, ski-lodge type building; a big bar; an open fireplace in the center of the room; big windows; and an outdoor patio from which you can enjoy the scenic views from its 7,717-foot elevation. They serve a wide range of American comfort food, and are open from 8am to 8pm Sunday through Thursday and from 8am to 9pm on Friday and Saturday. The lounge is open daily until midnight.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.