Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT


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"In marked contrast to a town geared to entertainment and gaming, Red Rock offers    
enticements of a different nature, including a 13-mile scenic drive, [26] miles of
hiking trails, rock climbing, horseback riding, mountain biking, road biking,
picnic areas, nature observing, and a visitor center with indoor and
outdoor exhibits as well as a bookstore."
~ BLM home page for Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Since we'd read that more than two million people from all over the globe visit this 195,000+ acre conservation and recreation area in the Mojave Desert a few miles west of Las Vegas, we decided to see it for ourselves while we were staying at Nellis Air Force Base this week.

We went into the visitor center first. Then I took Casey for a hike on a nearby trail while Jim rode his bike on the 13-mile, one-way road loop through the conservation area. When he returned, we drove the loop so I could see the views from the car and a few observation areas.

Here's a map section of the one-way CCW loop through the park:

You can see a large pdf. map of the whole park and its proximity to Las Vegas on the park website.

We intended to go back another time but because of several rainy days and the stronger lure of Valley of Fire State Park, this was our only visit to Red Rock Canyon. If we ever stay at Nellis AFB again, we'll probably return to Red Rock to explore some other trails.

This entry includes photos from the drive to and from the park, the visitor center, the road loop, and one trail loop.


Red Rock Canyon NCA is located about 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip on Charleston Ave. (Hwy. 159).

On our drive from Nellis AFB in the northeast part of the city, we began to see some red rock formations well before reaching the entrance to the park:

Check the official park website for hours of operation at different times of the year. Note, for example, that the developed campground is closed during the summer months -- just too doggone hot then to camp! You can also do backcountry camping in the park.

There is an entrance fee unless you have one of the various types of national park passes. We got in free with our senior NPS passes.

Pets are welcome at Red Rock Canyon and are allowed just about everywhere on a leash. Park officials strongly advise against leaving pets unattended in vehicles because they can quickly heat up even on sunny winter days in this climate.

Casey checks out some beavertail cactus blooms on our hike.
(My guess is that a coyote or another dog peed there!)

And because this is high, dry desert terrain in the park, officials warn of the dangers of heat to humans, too. This sunny day in early April temps got up to 87 F. in town, about 12 degrees above normal for this date, and it felt plenty hot during my hike at Red Rock Canyon. 

Elevations at Red Rock range from about 3,500 feet in the canyons to 8,150 feet at the summit of La Madre Mountain. The visitor center sits at 3,720 feet and the High Point Overlook on the Scenic Drive is 4,771 feet elevation.


Even though we do online research prior to visiting any park, we still like to go into the visitor center on our first trip to a park to gather additional information and inspiration.

The visitor center/bookstore at Red Rock Canyon is designed so that it practically disappears into its surroundings. It has interesting geological, botanical, biological, and cultural information both inside and outside:

Main entrance to visitor center

View out from a large window wall in the visitor center

In addition to the exhibits located outside the visitor center, there is also a large landscaped terrace with benches, picnic tables, and a handsome memorial to Nevada service members who have lost their lives in military operations since the 9/11 tragedy:

See the grey-colored rock above the reddish rock in some of the mountains in the distance? It's a fault that is the result of the Keystone Thrust.

The what??

One of the interpretive panels on my hike explained this unusual phenomenon where younger, softer rock -- the red sandstone -- is now sitting under the older, harder, more erosion-resistant limestone, instead of the other way around like it's "supposed" to be.

About 60 million years ago two continental plates began pushing against each other, pushing the harder limestone above the softer sandstone. The thrusting ended long ago but very subtle erosion continues to this day. Here's another view:

There's even a trail named the Keystone Thrust that takes hikers to the most significant geologic feature of the park.

After going into the visitor center, we left our car in the parking area at that location for a couple of hours. Jim began and ended his bike ride from there on the 13-mile Scenic Drive loop while I took Casey on a 2.36-mile hike on the nearby Moenkopi loop trail.


This is one of the easier trails at Red Rock Canyon, with panoramic views of the surrounding cliffs and mountains.

There are good descriptions of 26 marked trails on the Red Rock Canyon Las Vegas website. This is a non-profit organization that works with the BLM to manage the large conservation area. This RRCLV webpage has links for details about each individual trail, and this one is a downloadable park guide that includes trail maps.

Here's a small version of the map that shows where the trails can be accessed. Most trailheads are right off the 13-Mile Scenic Drive or other paved roads in the park:

I marked the visitor center with a purple dot and the adjacent Moenkopi loop with yellow.

The 26 listed trails range in difficulty from easy to strenuous based on their terrain, distance, and elevation gain and loss. Distances range from less than a quarter mile (Petroglyph Wall Trail) to 14 miles (Bridge Mountain Trail). Trails can be hiked singly or combined into various configurations for longer treks.

The Moenkopi Trail winds through open desert terrain below the visitor center. I headed down to the Red Rock Wash and hiked the loop clockwise; you can go in either direction. 



Part way around the loop the trail ascends gradually about 300 feet in elevation to its high point on a limestone ridge with more panoramic views of the Calico Hills, Wilson Cliffs, Spring Mountains, and La Madre Mountains:




The trail descends into Red Rock Wash again, where a left turn got me back to the visitor center parking area.

I waited there for a little while until Jim got back from his bike ride on Scenic Drive:

Casey and I pretty much had the Moenkopi Trail to ourselves; we saw only three other people hiking it. I know there are more interesting trails in this park but today, it was the most convenient.


Even before reaching the Red Rock Canyon entrance station and scenic drive, the rock walls were colorful on our approach this morning via Rt. 159:



After my hike and Jim's bike ride, we began driving CCW around the popular 13-mile long Scenic Drive loop.

The paved, one-way road begins off Rt. 159 near the park entrance station, meanders in an elongated sideways U-shaped loop past the main features in the middle of the conservation area, and ends a few miles farther south on Rt. 159. You can see it clearly on the trail map I showed above.

The Scenic Drive is wide enough to be safe for cyclists, runners, and walkers to use the road in the same direction as traffic:

Despite moderate traffic on this warm, sunny spring day, Jim really enjoyed his bike ride on the loop.

I took some of the remaining pictures while Jim was driving and some when we stopped at several of the overlooks and trailheads. They are in order going CCW, starting at the Calico Hills #1 trailhead:

Ancient red sand dunes from 160 million years ago that have cemented into rock

Above and below:  Hikers follow a trail through the cross-bedded sandstone cliffs.


Near Calico #2 trailhead

Interpretive panel re: the Keystone Thrust; La Madre Mtn. in the distance

Above and below:  Three trails start from the Sandstone Quarry parking area.


Above and below:  Two views from the High Point Overlook on the far side of the Scenic Drive loop


Near the Ice Box Canyon trailhead

Farther along Scenic Drive is the Pine Creek Canyon trailhead parking area.

Above and below:  pretty Apache Plume flowers near the Pine Creek Canyon trailhead


In addition to the extensive BLM website for Red Rock Canyon, the website managed by its non-profit partner, the Southern Nevada Conservancy , also has detailed information and maps of the park.

This organization provides interpretive programming, fee-station management, retail operations, and more. I especially like the trail descriptions and maps in their online visitor guide.


After we left Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area we drove north toward Mt. Charleston. At 11,916 feet, it is the highest peak near Las Vegas. It lies within the Springs Mountains National Recreation Area and features about 60 miles of trails and multiple scenic byways.

I took this photo of the snow-capped peak as we were driving west toward the mountain but we didn't go all the way to the recreation area today.

We were low on gas and didn't want to run out in a remote area so we turned around, intending to go back another day. We never went back but would like to explore the area on our next visit to the Vegas area.

You can read more about all the recreational and sightseeing opportunities at Mt. Charleston at the Southern Nevada Conservancy website or by doing your own internet search.

Next entryhiking and sightseeing at Valley of Fire State Park, Part 1

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

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2016 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil