My first exposure to Red Rock Canyon was in the game Fallout: New Vegas, so when I visited the real Las Vegas, I jumped at the chance to see it firsthand. It’s right outside the city, only a 10-15 minute drive west of the metro area. Thankfully, I didn’t run into any Great Khans or Cazadors. It was the middle of summer though, so it was ridiculously hot.
Red Rock Canyon, Calico Hill, and Keystone Thrust are simply breathtaking. 600 million years ago, the area was under an ocean and sediments gradually hardened into limestone. By 180 million years ago, the area became a desert and was covered by shifting sand dunes. These hardened into sandstone with calcium carbonate and iron oxides, giving the rocks, called Aztec Sandstone, a unique reddish color. They are only found in the Mojave Desert.
Like Custer State Park in South Dakota, wild donkeys, called burros (donkey in Spanish), roam the park, although I never saw one. The Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association adopted a burro and named him “Jackson.” He sometimes hangs out at the Visitors Center or south of Highway 159 where the Loop Train begins, but you’re not supposed to feed him.
It doesn’t look like it, but Red Rock Canyon is home to a variety of animals and insects, including scorpions, butterflies, tarantulas, snakes, lizards, frogs and toads, gray fox, hawks, and the ubiquitous Western mule deer. In springtime, the flowering plants are quite beautiful.
The scenic Loop Road is 13 miles long, with plenty of side trails for hiking. Hiking trail distances range from less than a mile to over six, at varying difficulties. The most difficult, Turtlehead Peak, is five miles and takes you to the top of the tallest peak at Red Rock. From there, your hard work is rewarded with a magnificent view of virtually the entire park.
The canyons themselves are worth a visit, of course, but I caution you to bring proper hiking shoes. There are trails along the bottom, but you can also walk in and among the sandstone ledges, which can be slippery and hazardous if you’re not prepared.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is open April through September from 6am to 8pm and closes slightly earlier the rest of the year. The visitors center is open daily from 8:00am to 4:30pm. It costs $7 per car to get in, or $3 if you walk, bike, or ride a motorcycle. You can camp there Labor Day weekend through Memorial Day weekend, and individual campsites are $15 per night, for a limit of two weeks (14 nights). It’s a must-see if you’re in Las Vegas and looking to get away from the city for an afternoon.