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Red Rock Canyon area blossoms in spring

Despite fitful storms and spiteful winds, springtime arrives this month in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area west of Las Vegas. It marks the beginning of a busy season of programs and outings offered by recreation area staff and volunteers. Administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the huge recreation area encompassing nearly 200,000 acres of desert and mountains welcomes more than a million visitors a year.

Red Rock lies just minutes from Las Vegas. Follow Charleston Boulevard west from downtown toward the prominent sandstone escarpment backed by high, rugged mountains. A popular scenic drive, the extension of Charleston Boulevard becomes Highway 159. It swings south in front of the colorful cliffs to meet Highway 160, the road to Pahrump. These highways and Interstate 15 create a loop that returns to the city.

To reach the canyons at the heart of Red Rock, visitors must leave Highway 159 at the beginning of a 13-mile one-way scenic loop open at this time of year from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Watch for the well-marked side road on the right shortly after you pass a major detention basin, a shooting range and a turnoff to a camping area. If you want to stop at the new visitor center, turn off toward it before you begin the one-way route. It remains open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is a federal fee area. Expect a stop at an entrance station on the spur road. Fee increases now under consideration are not yet in effect. The same for the past two decades, the daily entrance fee remains at $5 per vehicle, waived for holders of federal annual or lifetime passes. As yet, pedestrians, horsemen and bicyclists pay no entrance fee. User fees paid at Red Rock are supposed to stay in Red Rock with improvements and maintenance that benefit all who visit the beautiful resource.

Opened last fall, the handsome new center acquaints visitors with features of the conservation area, its scenic splendor, its plants and animals and its wide recreational appeal. Take time to view the displays, watch an orientation video and browse in the store stocked with a nice selection of books, maps, clothing and gifts. The facility hosts wide-ranging activities, including informational programs twice a week that are repeated during the day.

The conservation area boasts 19 designated trails of varied lengths and skill levels. Many trails are open only to foot traffic. Motorized explorers must keep to designated roads. Hikes led by park staff or volunteers are offered daily in springtime. Pick up a list at the visitor center or check the hike and program listings online at redrockcanyonlv.org, clicking on Trail Source, a site maintained by the Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association. The popular outings require reservations made by phone at 515-5367.

Considered a premier rock climbing destination, Red Rock also draws skilled climbers from all over the world who test their abilities on 2,000 rock climbing routes. Permits are required for rock climbing adventures. Common sense requires training, experience and proper equipment for these dangerous and potentially lethal kinds of climbs.

Many spring programs and hikes focus on wildflowers. Following an extremely dry year, this winter’s storms dropped generous rainfall and snows that left the Red Rock cliffs rimmed with frosty white. Visitors soon will know if the moisture means a banner wildflower year. Best guesses predict better than average in some locations. Find out for yourself on outings with experts in Red Rock in upcoming weeks.

When visiting or participating in organized activities in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area this spring, plan for the season’s potentially changeable weather and temperatures.

Dress in warm layers. Wear a hat and use sun block. Bring bottled drinking water and high energy trail snacks. Carry a small backpack for extra clothing and other loose gear such as camera, binoculars, maps and guidebooks.

Pack along an extra plastic bag to take your trash home for disposal, as well as any litter you may discover along the way.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.

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