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Red Rock Canyon: Exploring Stunning Desert Landscape Near Las Vegas


Red Rock Canyon was the highlight of my day in Las Vegas, a city I had no previous desire to ever visit. On our road trip to Death Valley, we knew we would stop in Vegas. It was the fastest and easiest way to get there from Phoenix. I was hoping to drive through it, and never stop, the town’s reputation as a gambler’s city and even the type of entertainment it advertised never appealed to me.

But since this was a last-minute trip, we found no rooms in any of the resorts in or around Death Valley. When I realized that our destination was only two hours from Vegas, I suggested we book a hotel in town. We found a hotel in the outskirts, about ten miles from the strip though, so I felt far from the gambler city Vegas is famous for.

But as we explored the city and its vicinity I was reminded of why I normally don’t base my likes or dislikes on the reputation of a place. In this case, I did, and I was wrong. There is much more to Las Vegas than gambling and entertainment. Red Rock Canyon, for example.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Nevada’s first designated Natural Conservation Area, Red Rock Canyon is a protected natural site in Las Vegas, just outside the city, 17 miles from the famous Strip. In stark contrast to the town’s famous entertainment and gaming district, Red Rock Canyon offers a different type of entertainment, geared towards outdoor enthusiasts.

Along the one-way 13-mile scenic drive with multiple stops, hiking trails, rock climbing, mountain and road biking, nature viewing, picnicking opportunities abound in the park, visited by over two million people a year.

So close to Vegas, no wonder it’s popular, but they have a system that allows only a limited number of visitors to enter at any given time, which offers a less crowded environment. Granted, we visited during CoVid restrictions, so that might have accounted for fewer visitors anyway, but I can see how this system can be beneficial at any time of the year.

Those who only want to drive through, stop at the scenic views and take a short hike, usually leave before new people enter. You can definitely visit Red Rock Canyon in two hours, if you don’t stop for a longer hike. Or, you can stay as long as you want, since there are no restrictions on how long you can stay in the canyon once you enter.

After entering, we spent most of our rest of the day there. We stopped at every viewpoint or trailhead, though we didn’t spend the same amount of time at each. At some stops all we needed were a few minutes, while at others we spent hours at one site.

The Scenic Drive through the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Since we were still traveling through CoVid restrictions, the Visitor Center was not open; instead we drove through the gate and got on the scenic one-way drive. Stops along the road offer scenic views and/or trailheads to hiking opportunities for all levels. Besides this, we noticed rock climbers on many of the sheer rock faces everywhere we looked.

Enjoying Scenic Views at Calico Points

The viewpoint and trailhead to the Calico trail was our first stop in Red Rock Canyon. Calico is the name of the colorful rocks visible from the parking lot, and from the trail that leads through them. The viewpoints from the parking lot offered gorgeous vistas of colorful rock formations.

View from the Calico Viewpoint off the Scenic Road in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
View from the Calico I Viewpoint

However, when I walked to the trailhead, ready to start the hike, I found it way too crowded for comfort. Though most people were wearing masks, the narrow trail was packed with people as far as we could see, and it seemed almost impossible to walk past or through.

So, instead of trying to weave my way through the crowds, I opted to spend time at the far side of the parking lot, with no one else around, enjoying the views. I knew I’d have other opportunities to hike. Besides, the views seemed better from where I stood.

Hiking the Calico Tanks Trail at Sandstone Quarry

The Sandstone Quarry stop wasn’t as busy, and offered an opportunity for an enjoyable hike. Four different hikes start (or pass through) this parking lot, we chose one that seemed quieter, and leading through some shaded areas.

The trailhead at the Rock Quarry
Start of the trail at the Sandstone Quarry

The trail towards Calico Tanks ended up being our most fun hike in the park, winding through a wash flanked by spectacular rock formations. We met few people on the trail as we walked through areas shaded by short desert trees, near colorful white and red rocks, through sand and rocks. In a few places, the trail seemed to disappear and we would have to walk on beautiful slick rock or through narrow passes through towering rocks.

On the Calico Tanks Trail in Red Rock Canyon
On the Calico Tanks Trail

We spent over an hour on this trail, not because it was too difficult, but it was so much fun, and took us through areas where we were alone among the rocks – until a larger, and very noisy group came by, but by then we were ready to return to the car, to continue the scenic drive.

On the Petroglyph Wall Trail at the Willow Creek Picnic Area

After a few brief stops to enjoy some stunning views, we stopped at the Willow Creek Picnic Area to walk to the Petroglyph Wall. Though the parking lot and its surrounding were busy, once on the short trail to the petroglyphs, we met few people, and had some time alone at the rocks.

A short, but pleasant walk, this easy trail took us across the wash in a green environment to a rock wall filled with petroglyphs.

on the Petroglyph Trail
At the end of the Petroglyphs Trail – notice the glyphs on the rock.

A Stop at Pine Creek Canyon Overlook

As we were climbing after this point, it was getting colder in the higher elevations. We also noticed fewer people stopping on the next viewpoints. We were cold when we stopped at the Pine Creek Canyon Overlook, so didn’t spend much time there. It was also getting late in the day, with the sun setting, so we thought we’d make our way out of the park.

A Short Hike at Oak Creek Canyon

With a name like Oak Creek Canyon (that we are familiar with from the vicinity of Sedona), we had to stop at the last parking spot on the scenic drive. With no other people around, we walked the steep trail down into the canyon. Though walking towards the sometimes blinding setting sun, it was a pleasant hike through a familiar landscape filled with cholla cacti and desert bushes. I wouldn’t call it spectacular, but it was a great spot to spend time alone before returning to Vegas for the night.

Red Rock Canyon walking towards the setting sun in Oak Creek
Walking towards the setting sun towards Oak Creek

Red Rock Canyon Offers Great Opportunities for Outdoor Activities

Though we only hiked a few relatively easy trails, those who have more time (our pass only allowed us to enter the park after 2pm), or return more often, have 26 trails of all lengths and levels to choose from. These trails crisscross some of the most spectacular landscapes of the Mojave Desert, through canyons and peaks, ledges, gullies, and gorgeous rock formations.

Red Rock Canyon is also popular with rock climbers of every level. We’ve seen people perched on the sides of the rocks on every major rock wall we went by. Climbers have routes of interest for all levels within the park.

Those who can’t leave home without their bikes find the scenic loop an enjoyable biking route, and mountain biking is allowed on many designated trails.

The park also has a developed campground, offering a way for longer stays for those who who want to explore its hiking or mountain biking trails, or climbing routes.

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