Huge tracts of largely untouched open space lie within minutes of Las Vegas, adding to the appeal of living in Southern Nevada. Those desiring down time away from the stresses of urban life do not have far to go to find solitude in scenic places such as Cottonwood Valley.
Running between the southern Spring Mountains near 8,500-foot Mount Potosi and the rugged hills on the Bird Spring Range, the area seems as removed from civilization now as when frontier travelers followed the nearby Spanish Trail. Traveled today as a back-country route to Goodsprings, a 16-mile road over 4,900-foot Cottonwood Pass accesses wild horse and burro trails used by hikers and cyclists, as well as horsemen. This route often brings some of the best wildflower displays in our area. The region lies south of Highway 160 to Pahrump. Access it either from Interstate 15 or from the extension of Charleston Boulevard through the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area which junctions with Highway 160 near the village of Blue Diamond. From that junction, continue west about six miles. Watch for a set of power lines and a well-defined graded road cutting south. It has a washboard surface eroded by rains and roughened by traffic.
The first couple of miles include several rudimentary pullouts and parking for horse trailers and vehicles off-loading mountain bikes. Several trails following narrow horse paths and old two-track mining roads converge near these parking areas. The trails explore many miles of washes, canyons and foothills.
Passenger vehicles judiciously driven may negotiate the first few miles of the road. As it continues south, it gets worse, dictating use of high-clearance vehicles. It crosses through washes, diverts briefly to a splendid overlook on a cliff top and climbs over rocky areas in the pass before joining a maintained mine road as it approaches Goodsprings. Swept often by wildfires, the valley no longer contains the cottonwoods for which it was named. The absence of competition for sunlight and nutrients by large vegetation and the enrichment of soils by ash create favorable areas for wildflowers. The region supports flowers found in the Intermountain West, the Sierras, the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin and a few specimens found only in the Red Rock area.
Terrain varies along the route, providing different habitats for plants. The grassy, rolling landscape along the first miles of the road comes as close to prairie as you’ll find in Nevada, with many kinds of flowers vying for attention. Watch for blue spires of lupine, coiled purple phacelia, orange mallow, lavender Mojave aster, red Indian paintbrush, golden sunrays and brittlebush and penstemons in pink, red, and an unusual yellow. Wild hyacinths push up clusters of pure blue blossoms. Delicate mariposa lillies atop slender stems twine through sturdier plants to support their pale flowers. Hillsides turn pink when phlox is in bloom. Sandy areas suit white dune primrose, pink sand verbena and tall yellow primroses.
In the washes, redbud trees distinguished by heart-shaped leaves bear masses of sweet-scented fuchsia blossoms. Among the cactuses of the area, the beavertail is the showiest with its crown of hot-pink flowers. Such variety promises a flower show lasting from April at lower elevations well into summer higher up. Those who get out on the trails will see the best wildflower show, but even those who never leave their vehicle can miss the blossoms on plants crowding the road or vying for a place in the sun on nearby slopes.
The Cottonwood Valley Road primarily transverses lands within the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. As it climbs over the wooded pass, it runs through a portion of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. For more information on plants and features of the area, seek information at the BLM’s visitor center in Red Rock Canyon.
Take time to visit the overlook. Park and walk to the edge for an expansive view of the city filling the wide valley. You used to be able to watch mustangs come for water far below near the cliff base, but most of these are gone now.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.