Red Rock Canyon: Escape from the Las Vegas Strip

A family hikes one of the many trails at Red Rock Canyon. Below, a view of the escarpment. The canyon got its name from the crimson hue of the towering rocks.
A family hikes one of the many trails at Red Rock Canyon. Below, a view of the escarpment. The canyon got its name from the crimson hue of the towering rocks. (SUZETTE PARMLEY / Staff)
Posted: November 27, 2011

LAS VEGAS, NEV. - There is nothing better to relax a soul after a business trip to Las Vegas, or a bad losing streak at the casinos, than the natural beauty of Red Rock Canyon.

Although less than a half-hour - 17 miles - from the Strip, Red Rock Canyon might as well be a world away. It is the yin to the Strip's yang. With its desert beauty and quiet isolation, it is the polar opposite of the man-made casino glitz and action along the Strip.

Often referred to as the hidden jewel of the Mojave Desert, this is the "other Vegas" that few outside of Nevada know much about.

In early October, after a national gambling conference in Las Vegas, I decided to spend a glorious Saturday touring Red Rock Canyon with my boyfriend, Rob. I was told by the Red Rock Visitor Center that it was best to rent a car, since there was no way to trek the 13-mile scenic loop - and take side hikes - on foot, and an expensive cab ride wouldn't do it justice. I was also advised to dress appropriately - comfortable flat shoes, old jeans, and sunglasses. Ladies, leave the heels behind.

Almost all of the major casinos on the Strip have a rental car agency on site. So I booked a car about a week before my arrival in Vegas to ensure we had transportation. That Saturday morning, Rob and I went to the Hertz counter in the lobby of Harrah's Las Vegas Casino Resort to pick up the keys to a compact car (about $100 for the entire day with unlimited mileage).

We were set. The hardest part of the trip to Red Rock Canyon was escaping Las Vegas' maze of streets. Once we got onto I-15 south, known as Beltway 15, it was smooth sailing. Two exits and a left turn later, I started seeing the crimson-colored rocks. They get their color from iron oxide that for centuries had built up over sandstone rocks.

(As we approached the entrance, we realized that the fuel gauge on our rental was teetering on "E." "Triple-A can't help us out here," Rob joked. After a seven-mile detour, we got gas. Then, our adventure resumed.)

Las Vegas is in a valley surrounded by mountain ranges. Red Rock Canyon is part of the Spring Mountain range, which runs northwest-southeast along the west side of Las Vegas and down to the border with California. Most of the land in the mountains is owned by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and managed as the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

The fee to get into Red Rock Canyon was $7 per car per day. It began charging fees in 1998, and the money collected goes toward land maintenance, law enforcement patrols, and environmental education programs, among other things.

Our first stop was the Visitor Center just after the entrance to pick up maps and other information to navigate our tour. The center also has a gift shop. I bought a refrigerator magnet that looks just like a piece of the canyon - a jagged, crimson-colored piece of rock. But it would be no match for the real deal.

Wow was the first word I uttered once we began the scenic drive. It was easy to see why Red Rock Canyon attracts more than a million visitors a year from all over the world. We saw license plates from California, Arizona, Washington, and Saskatchewan along the route.

The maximum speed limit on the 13-mile loop was 35 m.p.h., lower in some sections. We were among about two dozen vehicles that traveled in a slow-moving caravan, alongside bicyclists. No need to pass; any worries about time or deadlines went out the car window as we took in the breathtaking landscape.

The views were majestic, with towering, picture-perfect rock formations. I learned they were formed by the sheer brute force of nature, where the Earth's crust collided over millions of years through fractured faults.

At Keystone Thrust Fault, two of the Earth's plates collided with such force that part of one plate was shoved up and over the other and created the brilliant contrast of gray limestone and red sandstone. It extends 13 miles along the crest of the Red Rock escarpment and creates one of the more picturesque views. Fossilized sand dunes dotted the land.

Some of the cliffs at Red Rock reach as high as 3,000 feet. I shivered in the colder air to take photos at the various stops - nine scenic points altogether - along the drive. Like fingerprints, no two rocks were alike.

Red Rock Canyon is part of the Mojave Desert, which stretches out to the corners of California, Utah, Arizona and Nevada. It is home to such plant life as cactus and sage. Coyote tobacco, buckhorn cholla, and the famous Joshua tree were also abundant. About 200 types of animals, including burros, rabbits, coyotes, bighorn sheep, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, and hummingbirds, roam freely.

There wasn't a single traffic light along the 13-mile scenic drive, and this was one of the few corners of Nevada that hadn't seen a bulldozer.

Tim Wakefield, Red Rock/Sloan Field Office manager, said Red Rock canyon was open year-round, with hours varying by season.

"Southern Nevada is a land of extremes," Wakefield said. "Extremely hot, extremely exciting, and extremely beautiful. Red Rock Canyon provides opportunities for exciting outdoor adventures, but it is also a beautifully serene escape from the Las Vegas Strip. You can spend your day dangling from a climber's rope or hiking in a secluded desert canyon."

Red Rock is a world-class rock-climbing destination - among the top five in the United States. Rob and I marveled at the nerves of the rock climbers we saw.

At Scenic Points 1 and 2, known as Calico I and II - near the Calico Hills and Calico Basin - we saw colorful sandstone formations. Scenic Point 3, known as Sandstone Quarry, featured limestone Indian agave-roasting pits.

Several families, with dogs in tow, got out to enjoy a picnic at the Willow Springs Picnic area and to see the famous Indian "handprints" and pictographs. The only man-made creations along the loop were parking lots allowing visitors to get out to stretch, hike, rock-climb, and snap pictures. On some of the 19 hiking trails, we saw springs and cascading waterfalls.

Dogs are allowed on any of the hiking trails, as long as they are on a leash and are cleaned up after, said Shelise Simmons, office manager for the Visitor Center. Her advice to dog owners was to have their pets wear booties to protect their paws from the heat and jagged rocks. Visitors can also take the tour on horseback.

Red Rock Canyon has become a popular setting for weddings, too, said Simmons, who books weddings and reservations for campgrounds and picnic areas. She said couples must obtain a permit.

As our glorious 13 miles came to an end, we drove out of the final scenic point, Pine Creek Canyon, where I took some great shots of the Joshua tree in the foreground. The thought of heading back to "civilization" and reality saddened us as Rob and I both realized we had just experienced the best bargain in Las Vegas - with views that are priceless.


Hours: Red Rock Canyon is open year round. Open daily at 6 a.m. Closing time varies by season. The Visitor Center is open daily, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Cost: $7 per car, $5 per person in commercial vehicles (tour buses and limousines), and $3 for motorcyclists, bicyclists, and hikers. There is also a $30 annual pass. The $7 daily pass and $30 annual pass do not include overnight stays in the developed campground.

An $80 America the Beautiful Annual Pass is an interagency pass that is honored throughout the country by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Reclamation. An America the Beautiful Senior Lifetime Pass costs $10 as a one-time fee for U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 and older and provides a 50 percent discount on campground fees.

An America the Beautiful Access Pass is free for U.S. citizens or permanent residents with a permanent disability and provides a 50 percent discount on campground fees.

Payment options: Cash or check (out-of-state checks are accepted and cash is easiest since there are no credit-card machines on site).

Travel options: Private vehicle, a tour bus, or an outfitter/guide.

Amenities: There are restrooms along the 13-mile scenic drive, as well as a campground, picnic areas, Visitor Center, interpretive signs, and trails.

What to bring: Water, sunscreen, a hat, sturdy shoes. Be sure to have a full tank of gas before traveling to Red Rock Canyon.

Visitor Center Phone Number: 702-515-5350

Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or

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