Despite chill, exploring state parks a thrill during cooler months

Nevada’s 23 state parks, recreation areas and historic sites — scattered across the state from desert sands to alpine forests — attract nearly 3.5 million visitors annually.

Nearly all of the parks remain open all year, though weather and road conditions limit winter access to some remote parks. Winter freezes dictate shutting off water supplies in many park campgrounds. The summer season draws the greatest number of visitors to most Nevada parks, but winter sports and special events draw crowds to some parks with snow.

The four state parks in Southern Nevada are the least affected by winter conditions.

The Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort on Washington Avenue near downtown Las Vegas is open year-round. Visitors tour exhibits in the visitor center, browse through displays housed in an original adobe building and explore the grounds of the re-created 1855 fort, birthplace of Nevada’s largest city. Special events include demonstrations by the costumed Soldiers of the Fort.

Valley of Fire, about an hour’s drive north of Las Vegas, is best visited in the cooler months after the extreme summer heat has abated. In the largest and oldest of Nevada’s state parks, mild desert winters allow for enjoyable camping, picnicking, hiking and scenic touring. At the visitor center, learn about the area’s plants, animals and geology and the native people who frequented this beautiful region of colorful sandstone formations. Follow side roads to explore attractions in Valley of Fire’s north end.

Located near Laughlin, Big Bend of the Colorado is one of Nevada’s newest state parks. Big Bend enjoys winters so mild they are like springtime elsewhere. Visitors find year-round picnicking, camping and hiking as well as fishing, boating and water sports on the river.

Spring Mountain Ranch in the splendid Red Rock Canyon area west of Las Vegas offers tours of the ranch house and historical district, hikes, theater in the summer and living history programs most of the year, including Civil War reenactments on the last Saturday of each winter month. In winter, keep your eyes on the skies and your ears on the weather report, as snowfall in this park brings about magical changes.

Seven state parks in Lincoln and White Pine counties north of Las Vegas can be accessed from scenic U.S. Highway 93. These popular outdoor destinations offer ample recreational opportunities year-round.

State parks in Lincoln County include Kershaw-Ryan in a box canyon near Caliente, Beaver Dam in a well-watered, mountainous area northeast of Caliente, Cathedral Gorge south of Pioche and Spring Valley and Echo Canyon, both centered on reservoirs east of Pioche.

In White Pine County, Cave Lake State Park sits in a canyon east of U.S. 93 about 16 miles south of Ely, and Ward Charcoal Ovens Historic State Monument is in foothills west of the highway about 20 miles south of Ely.

Several of the state parks in eastern Nevada get enough snow for winter sports such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Snowmobiling is usually limited to groomed trails within the parks and routes on trails and side roads in adjacent areas away from major highways. Snowmobilers in Cave Lake State Park find staging areas in the park for nearby national forest routes. When winters are cold enough, ice fishing is popular at Cave Lake.

Special events planned for winter months keep visitors coming to several eastern Nevada parks. On Jan. 1, hikers meet leaders of First Day Hikes at 9 a.m. in Kershaw-Ryan and in Echo Canyon at the Ash Canyon trailhead. On Jan. 17 and 18, Spring Valley State Park will host an ice-hole golf tournament, ice horseshoe contests, frisbees on ice and nine-ball pool games. Games cost $10 per person or team. Featuring snow and ice sculptures and fireworks, the annual White Pine Fire and Ice Show will be Jan. 16 to 18 at Cave Lake State Park.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.

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