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Cold Creek, Willow Creek offer few facilities, but plenty of scenery

Cold Creek and Willow Creek at the northern end of the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area provide escape from urban pressures in a lovely mountain setting. Visitors find few facilities, but plenty of possibilities for picnicking and camping, horseback trail riding, hiking, off-highway exploration of rudimentary roads and wildlife observation.

Within the boundaries of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the site lies little more than an hour’s drive from Las Vegas near the Cold Creek residential community. To reach the area, drive north on U.S. 95 from Las Vegas about 35 miles. Turn west off the highway onto Cold Creek Road, which runs near two prison facilities. The 17-mile paved road gradually climbs toward rugged mountains still streaked with snow. Snow lingers into summer on north-facing peaks, keeping summer days 15 to 20 degrees cooler than in Las Vegas.

Runoff from this winter’s heavy snow and rain swells the stream called Cold Creek and fills ponds on the right side of the paved road as you near the community. Trees and meadows near the ponds draw area wildlife, especially in early morning and evening. Tables at the site make a good place for a picnic.

Follow a well-traveled graded road heading to the left from near the ponds through the fringes of the settled area. It passes a few informal picnic or camping sites near the water, then twists about three miles over forested foothills to drop into the verdant little valley formed by Willow Creek. Willows, cottonwoods and many other trees and shrubs follow the course of the stream. At this time of the year, Willow Creek fills its banks to overflowing with a raucous little waterway hustling between steep hills on its way to the desert.

Inclined toward flooding, Willow Creek so regularly washed out bridges and roadbeds that authorities long ago gave upon keeping them in place. Off-roaders find plenty of challenges on the far side of the stream where rough tracks indicate the old route over the mountain through Wheeler Pass into Pahrump Valley. Other side roads head toward Indian Springs. Please stay on existing old roads to avoid further damage to the landscape, where tracks leave scars for decades.

When runoff is over and summer arrives in earnest, lush meadows starred with wildflowers green up near the creek. Our cooler than usual spring extends the blooming season. Crowding the road, creamy flowers top the cliff rose and fuzzy seed heads fur the mountain mahogany. Stately spires of pink penstemon and fiery stalks of red penstemon draw the eye. Crimson columbine clusters in marshy areas. Dense thickets of wild roses bearing fragrant pink blossoms in spring will, this fall, be covered with orange fruit or hips, a favorite of birds, rodents and pioneer women for jelly and tea.

Willow Creek long ago attracted Southern Nevadans seeking respite form summer heat. It used to offer more facilities such as tables, grills, pit toilets and a dam that created a small reservoir regularly stocked with trout. Even with most development now removed, people still seek the beauty and solitude of the site. Informal campsites suit campers with trailers, RVs or tents, as well as those who prefer sleeping under the stars — and what stars they see this far from city lights!

If you plan to picnic or camp in this area, arrive completely prepared. Bring at least a gallon of water per person per day for drinking water plus water for camp use. The water from the stream must be purified before using or drinking it. Bring plenty of heavy-duty trash bags for hauling camp refuse home for proper disposal. Responsible campers police their own sites, adjacent areas and trails they use.

The area may be posted for no open fires, especially later in the summer and fall. Be prepared to cook on a camp stove or use a portable fire pit with a metal screen for spark control. Bring firewood, as cutting or gathering on site depletes the resource. A galvanized tub drilled in the bottom for drainage and on the side for ventilation provides the campfire ambiance. It holds coals for Dutch oven cooking and for roasting marshmallows or hot dogs. Fit screen wire across the top and crimp over the sides. Pour water over the ashes in the tub and let it drain and cool. The whole tub goes home with you for disposal of ashes in the trash.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.

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