Explore The Outdoors

Hit a Geological Jackpot Near Vegas

From Vegas you can see the red rocks in the distance.  On your next Vegas trip, take a break for the neon and glitz of the Strip and head to see the grandeur of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

The 13-mile Scenic Loop Drive will wow you.  First thing you’ll notice is the different colors.  Yes, red in the predominate color but you’ll see striations of grays, oranges, and tans making up the magnificent rocky world.  I did the drive and a hike with my friends Pam and Earl.  All three of us are outdoorsy and instead of navigating the Strip, we needed to navigate a trail on our recent Vegas trip.

Red Rock Canyon is a geological jackpot.  It’s only about a 20-25 minute drive from the Strip.  Experienced and amateur geologist, hikers, bikers, and sightseers flock to Red Rock to take in the visual masterpiece of vivid colors created over millions of years.


Let me breakdown the geological colors for you.  Soaring thousands of feet high into the air are the great sandstone cliffs made up of Aztec Sandstone.  The cliffs were created when sand dunes lithified about 180-190 million years ago during the Jurassic time.  Iron oxide or hematite in some of the rock outcrops has oxidized or rusted because of exposure and erosion over time.  That results in the red, orange, and brown-colored rocks.  Where the rocks are a buff or tan color, either iron oxide was never deposited there or iron has been leached out by subsurface water.  You’ll probably notice a lot of limestone.  There’s a reason for that.  More than 500 million years ago the area was at the bottom of an ocean basin.  Limestone and some dolomite accumulated in the ocean basin for over 250 million years during the Paleozoic Era.  Looking northwest of the Scenic Loop Drive, you see thousands of feet of gray Paleozoic containing sea life fossils.  Looking west you see older gray Paleozoic limestone on top of younger tan and red Jurassic sandstone.  The Keystone Thrust Fault happened when an oceanic plate subducted the western edge of the North American Plate about 65 million years ago in the Mesozoic Era.  That caused the intrusion of the Sierra Nevada granite batholith and compressional forces in the Earth’s crust caused older limestone to be thrusted east over younger sandstone.  The compressional thrust faulting extended all the way up to Canada, but the best exposure of the Keystone Thrust Fault is in Red Rock Canyon.

First stop for us at Red Rock Canyon – the visitor center.  All three of us are big on asking rangers for their suggestions on hiking trails.  They know the area better than anyone so after they ask you a couple of questions like how long do you want to hike, they’ll offer some options.  We got it down to two options – Calico Tanks where you get views of Vegas or Pine Creek Canyon, which is the one decided to hike.

On the Scenic Loop Drive, we took in the view of Calico I and II, but because of the crowds (it was Nevada Day so kids were out of school and Red Rock Canyon was busy), we decided to drive on.  Our first stop was Sandstone Quarry.  It was really interesting to see the mammoth sandstone blocks and learn a little history about the quarry.


Next stop was High Point Overlook.  The vista view was from 4,771 feet in elevation.  It’s a great place to take in the ruggedness, vastness, and remoteness of the area.  Red Rock Canyon makes up 195,819 acres within the Mojave Desert.


As we continued on the loop, we missed the turn off for the Petroglyph Wall Trail.  We’d plan to do that quick hike too.  But, we missed it and you can’t turn around on the one-way loop.

There are 26 trails to hike in Red Rock Canyon ranging from less than a mile to 14 miles.  As we stood at the trailhead for Pine Creek Canyon, we had a great view looking down two canyons.  Word of caution hiking in the high desert – shade is scare so make sure you have sunscreen and plenty of water.  My advice – on any desert hike, take at least double (or more) water than you think you need.

The trail takes you through open desert as you head down a gravel trail, which quickly changes to a sandy, rocky trail as the trail flattens out.  From there you’re hiking into where the two canyons meet as you follow a trail along Pine Creek.  Hiking along you do get great views of several mountains – (L-to-R) Mt. Wilson, Rainbow Mountain, Rainbow Wall, Juniper Peak, Mescalito, and Bridge Mountain.  Mescalito is the one in the middle that’s only red at the peak and it’s the one you’re hiking toward on the trail.

A little under a mile into the hike, we came up to an old homestead site as we continued through the desert meadow.  It’s the Wilson Homestead.  Not much of it is left now, but in 1920, Horace and Glenda Wilson built a two-story home, planted a big garden and orchard, and ran cattle.  They homesteaded for about 10 years, but as they got up in years, moved to Las Vegas.  Now, only the foundation, an old apple tree, and the garden plot, still mostly clear of shrubs except Yerba Santa, remain.  If you want a little shady spot for a break, have a seat under the old apple tree.  Be on the lookout for two old stone pillars.  Those used to mark the entrance to the Wilson ranch.  We found them on the hike back.


As we hiked looking up at the monolithic canyon walls, something really stood out.  It was the ponderosa pine forest at the mouth of the canyon.  This remnant from the last Ice Age survives in the desert because of the cooler air and water flowing down Pine Creek Canyon.

We hit a point where we could go down into the creek bed.  Certain times of year there is water flowing but for us it was dry.  I couldn’t believe how much fall foliage there was.  What a treat to see autumnal hues in the desert!

While in the creek bed, we noticed some rocks with polka dots.  They looked like red or purple berries had dissolved on the rocks.  I was so curious about the rocks, I did a little research.  Those red spots in the Aztec Sandstone are iron concretions.  Subsurface water precipitated iron oxide.  Those concretions are more resistant to erosion than surrounding sandstone.  So the iron concretions weathered into little balls called Indian or Moqui Marbles resulting in the polka dot pits on some of the sandstone.

What a colorful hike in the desert in Red Rock Canyon!

As we were driving out of Red Rock Canyon, Pam said, “I wish I could see a wild burro.”  Not even 30 seconds later, her wish was granted with not one, but two wild burros just munching away roadside.


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