Beautiful Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area provides scenic splendor and wide-ranging recreational opportunities just beyond the urbanized area of Las Vegas. Little wonder it attracts more than a million visitors annually. Though many visitors are locals who frequently return, many others come from across the country or around the world.
Red Rock lies west of town where the desert sweeps up to high, colorful sandstone cliffs and canyons backed by rugged foothills and rocky peaks. Follow state Route 159, the extension of Charleston Boulevard, to reach the area within a few minutes of the last stoplight. The route heads west, then curves south parallel with the dramatic rock formations. It junctions with state Route 160, the road to Pahrump.
Although close to the city, Red Rock seems a world away. Great expanses of desert and mountains remain largely untouched. People live in a few scattered locations, leaving the native wildlife as the primary residents. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area covers nearly 196,000 acres, administered by the Bureau of Land Management as part of the National Landscape Conservation Program. Impact on the scenic wilderness and its plants and animals is always an important consideration when facilities for visitors are developed.
Visitors enjoy many outdoor activities in the Red Rock area, including hiking, mountain biking, road cycling, rock climbing, horseback trail riding and driving for scenic pleasure. More than 30 miles of trails have been developed and more miles explore routes following washes and old roads. The 3,000-foot cliffs and deep canyons invite technical climbers for world-class adventures. The BLM has improved areas adjacent to the state highway to provide safe off-road parking at viewpoints and some trailheads.
Major road development includes the paved, 13-mile scenic loop road that accesses the visitor center, several trailheads and many points of interest as well as improvements on spur roads. A $7 fee applies on the scenic loop route.
Overnight camping is limited to one campground off Route 159 that closes in the summer. It contains more than 70 individual sites for tents and RVs available on a first-come basis and seven group sites that must be reserved. Toilets and water are centrally located. There are no hookups for RVs.
Four picnic areas in the conservation area are popular gathering points. On Route 159, watch for the turnoff to Calico Basin a couple of miles east of the scenic loop road. Follow Calico Basin Road through a private residential enclave, passing horse stables and a riding arena to reach the Red Spring Picnic Area.
Red Spring contains 12 shaded picnic tables with grills and a group area suitable for up to 50 people. A boardwalk trail, which is wheelchair accessible, protects the little spring and marshy vegetation. On the way to the spring, watch for examples of ancient petroglyphs on cliffs and rock faces.
After you stop to learn more about Red Rock at the visitor center, tour the exhibits, enjoy the introductory film or browse through the bookshop, you might be ready for a bite to eat. Picnickers find 12 tables west of the parking area with nearby restrooms and water at the visitor center and access to two scenic hiking trails.
Willow Springs Picnic Area is located on a spur road off the scenic loop road in a canyon. Twenty-eight tables and grills are snugged up near the steep cliff among trees and vegetation. Restrooms and water are available. Use of grills may be restricted during summer fire season. Four major trailheads are nearby.
At the Red Rock Scenic Overlook on Route 159, take advantage of the panoramic views as you enjoy your picnic. Shade structures protect 19 tables at the site. Restrooms and the paved Overlook Trail are nearby.
Finding solitude and dodging crowds in Red Rock requires strategic visitation. Arrive early and avoid weekends, holidays and special events.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.