19 miles W of Las Vegas

If you need a break from the casinos of Vegas, Red Rock Canyon is balm for your overstimulated soul. Less than 20 miles away—but a world apart—this is a magnificent, unspoiled vista that should cleanse and refresh you (and if you must, a morning visit should leave you enough time for an afternoon’s gambling). You can drive the panoramic 13-mile Scenic Drive (daily 6am–dusk, $7 per vehicle) or explore more in-depth on foot, making it perfect for athletes and armchair types alike. There are many interesting sights and trail heads along the drive itself. The National Conservation Area offers hiking trails and internationally acclaimed rock-climbing opportunities. Especially notable is 7,068-foot Mount Wilson, the highest sandstone peak among the bluffs; for information on climbing, contact the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center at tel 702/515-5350.

There are picnic areas along the drive and in nearby Spring Mountain Ranch State Park (tel 702/594-7529; www.parks.nv.gov), 5 miles south, which also offers plays in an outdoor theater during the summer. The entrance fee is $10 per vehicle.

Getting There

Just drive west on Charleston Boulevard, which becomes NV 159. As soon as you leave the city, the red rocks will begin to loom around you. The visitor center will be on your right.

You can also go on an organized tour. Gray Line (www.grayline.com; tel 800/634-6579), among other companies, runs bus tours to Red Rock Canyon. Inquire at your hotel tour desk.

Finally, you can go by bike. Not very far out of town (at Rainbow Boulevard), Charleston Boulevard is flanked by a bike path that continues for about 11 miles to the visitor center/scenic drive. The path is hilly but not difficult, if you’re in reasonable shape. However, exploring Red Rock Canyon by bike should be attempted only by exceptionally fit and experienced bikers.

Just off NV 159, you’ll see the turnoff for the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center, (www.redrockcanyonlv.org; tel 702/515-5350), which marks the actual entrance to the park. It features outdoor exhibits on the flora and fauna found in the canyon and you can also pick up information on trails and the driving route. The center is open daily from 8am to 4:30pm.

About Red Rock Canyon

The geological history of these ancient stones goes back some 600 million years. Over eons, the forces of nature have formed Red Rock’s sandstone monoliths into arches, natural bridges, and massive sculptures painted in a stunning palette of gray-white limestone and dolomite, black mineral deposits, and oxidized minerals in earth-toned sienna hues ranging from pink to crimson and burgundy. Orange and green lichens add further contrast, as do spring-fed areas of lush foliage. And formations, such as Calico Hill, are brilliantly white where groundwater has leached out oxidized iron. Cliffs cut by deep canyons tower 2,000 feet above the valley floor.

During most of its history, Red Rock Canyon was below a warm, shallow sea. Massive fault action and volcanic eruptions caused this seabed to begin rising some 225 million years ago. As the waters receded, sea creatures died, and the calcium in their bodies combined with sea minerals to form limestone cliffs studded with ancient fossils. Some 45 million years later, the region was buried beneath thousands of feet of windblown sand. As time progressed, iron oxide and calcium carbonate infiltrated the sand, consolidating it into cross-bedded rock.

About 100 million years ago, massive fault action began dramatically shifting the rock landscape here, forming spectacular limestone and sandstone cliffs and rugged canyons punctuated by waterfalls, shallow streams, and serene oasis pools.

Red Rock’s valley is home to more than 45 species of mammals, about 100 species of birds, 30 reptiles and amphibians, and an abundance of plant life. Ascending the slopes from the valley, you’ll see cactus and creosote bushes, aromatic purple sage, yellow-flowering blackbrush, yucca and Joshua trees, and, at higher elevations, clusters of forest-green pinyon, juniper, and ponderosa pines. In spring, the desert blooms with extraordinary wildflowers.

In the latter part of the 19th century, Red Rock was a mining site, and later a sandstone quarry that provided materials for many buildings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and early Las Vegas. In 1990, Red Rock Canyon became a National Conservation Area that comprises approximately 197,000 acres.

What to See & Do

Begin with a stop at the Visitor Center; while there is a $15-per-vehicle fee for entering the park, you can pick up free guides, hiking trail maps, and lists of local flora and fauna. You can also view exhibits that tell the history of the canyon and depict its plant and animal life, including the thousands of wild horses and burros, protected by an act of Congress since 1971. Call ahead to find out about ranger-guided tours as well as informative guided hikes offered by such groups as the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

The easiest thing to do is to drive the 13-mile scenic loop (or give it a go on your bike for a moderately difficult ride). It really is a loop, and it only goes one way, so once you start, you are committed to driving the entire thing. You can stop the car to admire a number of fabulous views and sights along the way, have a picnic, or hike. As you drive, observe how dramatically the milky-white limestone alternates with iron-rich red rocks. Farther along, the mountains become solid limestone with canyons running between them, which lead to an evergreen forest—a surprising sight in the desert.

If you’re up to it, however, we can’t stress enough that the way to really see the canyon is by hiking. Every trail is incredible—glance over your options and decide what you might be looking for. You can begin from the Visitor Center or drive into the loop, park your car, and start from points therein. Hiking trails range from a .7-mile-loop stroll to a waterfall (its flow varying seasonally) at Lost Creek to much longer and more strenuous treks. Actually, all the hikes involve a certain amount of effort, as you have to scramble over rocks on even the shortest hikes. Unfit or undexterous people should beware. Be sure to wear good shoes, as the rocks can be slippery. You must have a map; you won’t get lost forever (there usually are other hikers around to help you out, eventually), but you can still lose your way. Once deep into the rocks, everything looks the same, even with the map, so give yourself extra time for each hike (at least an additional hour), regardless of its billed length.

A popular 2-mile round-trip hike leads to Pine Creek Canyon and the creek-side ruins of a historic home site surrounded by ponderosa pine trees. Our hiking trail of choice is the Calico Basin, which is accessed along the loop. After an hour walk up the rocks (which is not that well marked), you end up at an oasis surrounded by sheer walls of limestone (which makes the oasis itself inaccessible, alas). In the summer, flowers and deciduous trees grow out of the walls.

As you hike, keep your eyes peeled for lizards, the occasional desert tortoise, herds of bighorn sheep, birds, and other critters. But the rocks themselves are the most fun, with small caves to explore and rock formations to climb on. On trails along Calico Hills and the escarpment, look for “Indian marbles,” a local name for small, rounded sandstone rocks that have eroded off larger sandstone formations. Petroglyphs are also tucked away in various locales.

Biking is a tremendous way to travel the loop. There are also terrific off-road mountain-biking trails, with levels from amateur to expert. No need to haul your bike with you on, rent one from one of the recommended shops linked on Friends of Red Rock, (www.friendsofredrockcanyon.org).

The gleaming, luxurious Red Rock Resort gives day-trippers a highly desirable refueling point on a trip to the canyon. Stop by the food court Capriotti’s, the economical submarine sandwich shop. The subs are ideal for takeout for picnics in the park (buy a cheap Styrofoam ice chest at a convenience store) or for in-room dining as you rest up in your hotel post-hike.

Nearby Bonnie Springs Ranch (www.bonniesprings.com; tel 702/875-4191) has a cute Wild West old town, horseback riding, a petting zoo, and more. Horseback riding $60 for 1 hour, pony rides $7.50 per child, zoo admission Monday and Tuesday $7, Wednesday through Sunday $10 adults, $7 children.

Desert Hiking Advice

Except in summer, when temperatures can reach 120 °F (49 °C) in the shade, the Las Vegas area is great for hiking. The best hiking season is November through March. Great locales include the incredibly scenic Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire State Park.

Hiking in the desert is exceptionally rewarding, but it can be dangerous. Here are some safety tips:

1. Don’t hike alone.

2. Carry plenty of water and drink it often. Don’t assume that spring water is safe to drink. A gallon of water per person per day is recommended for hikers.

3. Be alert for signs of heat exhaustion (headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and cool, damp, pale, or red skin).

4. Gauge your fitness accurately. Desert hiking may involve rough or steep terrain. Don’t take on more than you can handle.

5. Check weather forecasts before starting out. Thunderstorms can turn into raging flash floods, which are extremely hazardous to hikers.

6. Dress properly. Wear sturdy walking shoes for rock scrambling, long pants (to protect yourself from rocks and cacti), a hat, and sunglasses.

7. Wear sunscreen and carry a small first-aid kit.

8. Be careful when climbing on sandstone, which can be surprisingly soft and crumbly.

9. Don’t feed or play with animals, such as the wild burros in Red Rock Canyon. (It’s actually illegal to approach them.)

10. Be alert for snakes and insects. Though they’re rarely encountered, you’ll want to look into a crevice before putting your hand into it.

11. Visit park or other information offices before you start out and acquaint yourself with rules and regulations and any possible hazards. It’s also a good idea to tell the staff where you’re going, when you’ll return, how many are in your party, and so on. Some park offices offer hiker-registration programs.

12. Follow the hiker’s creed: Take only photographs and leave only footprints. 

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.