A byway into scenery and prehistory, Christmas Tree Pass Road provides cool-season hiking, picnicking and access to some of the least-visited portions of southern Clark County. Just minutes from Laughlin and Bullhead City, Ariz., on the Colorado River, this graded back road reveals miles of stunning desert and mountain scenery as it loops between wilderness areas through a region sacred to native cultures.
Christmas Tree Pass is within Lake Mead National Recreation Area about 90 miles from Las Vegas. Forming a loop through the pass, the graded road connects Nevada Route 163 to Laughlin with U.S. Highway 95. Drive south from Las Vegas on U.S. 93/95. At Railroad Pass, head south on U.S. 95 through Searchlight to the junction with Route 163. You will pass the end of the loop road through the pass, 14 miles south of Searchlight. At the junction, head east toward Laughlin.
About 13 miles from U.S. 95, watch for Christmas Tree Pass Road to the left. Several miles of the gravel road are suitable for passenger vehicles, but interesting side roads snaking toward Lake Mojave might be too rough. Stay off them unless your vehicle is up to the challenges of sandy, rocky or washboarded surfaces. Where the main graded road turns west to climb up to the pass, it becomes more primitive. Visitors should have a high-clearance or four-wheel-drive vehicle for the trip over the pass. Once through the pass, most of the rough spots are behind you on the downhill western route back to U.S. 95.
The route gets its name from the scattered pygmy forest of junipers and pinyons growing among the rocky ridges of the Newberry Mountains. Years ago, some passer-by started a tradition of decorating some of the trees with leftover Christmas decorations and other shiny or colorful items, including beer cans and even underwear. The National Park Service takes a dim view of leaving refuse in areas it administrates, so the debris disappears, only to be persistently replaced.
The pass lies south of craggy, 5,600-foot Spirit Mountain, a cultural heritage site. Dominating the Newberry Ridge, this distinctive peak features prominently in creation stories and religious traditions of several regional Native American cultures. Home to life-giving springs, game animals and many useful plants, the mountains were special to the desert people along the Colorado River.
One canyon carved by flood waters bears proof of its importance with one of the most extensive displays of ancient rock art in Nevada. Follow the main graded road north a couple of miles to a turnoff on the left to Grapevine Canyon. A short spur road ends in a parking area with restrooms. A trail runs a few hundred yards along the edge of a gravelly wash to the mouth of the canyon. Boulders on either side of the intermittent stream are covered with petroglyphs made hundreds of years ago. Among many enigmatic symbols, without meaning to modern visitors, are recognizable depictions of animals, including bighorn sheep. Take plenty of photos, but resist touching or climbing on the rock art.
Follow the wash up Grapevine Canyon to find a little creek and small pools of water, lovely for wading and splashing on a warm day but not safe for drinking. Rushing floods have polished streamside boulders to shiny slickness sure to challenge boulder scramblers. The little canyon supports grassy vegetation, shrubs, a few trees and tangles of the wild grapevines that characterize the site. Early native visitors must have welcomed its cool shade and running water just as we do.
North of the Grapevine Canyon turnoff, the road passes well-defined washes and interesting rock formations where you can pull over for a tailgate picnic. Rugged side canyons invite further exploration. Watch where you put your hands and feet, though, because springtime warmth brings out tortoises, lizards and snakes.
Even in a year of scant rain, travelers on Christmas Tree Pass Road will see a few wildflowers and various cactus in bloom this time of year. Watch for them where water collects along paved roadsides and among boulders. Starting first on south-facing slopes, the blossoming moves into the pass as the season advances. The road west of the pass is often very showy.
Margo Bartlett Pesek's Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.