weather icon Clear

Red Rock Canyon scrambling to handle record crowds

Hot weather has cooled things down for the moment at one of Las Vegas’ busiest outdoor destinations, but officials know the crush will return to Red Rock Canyon when summer gives way to fall.

The Bureau of Land Management is considering a range of changes to address growing seasonal congestion at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, where visitation has almost tripled in the past six years.

More than 3 million people visited Red Rock Canyon last year alone, shattering the old attendance record by more than 600,000. Prior to 2013, the park had never seen even 2 million visitors in a single year.

About half of the visitation is concentrated in the “fee area” along the Scenic Drive, which represents about 10 percent of Red Rock’s land area of almost 200,000 acres.

The onslaught has forced the BLM to temporarily close the 13-mile loop on days when the parking lots fill and traffic at the fee gates backs up onto state Route 159.

Bureau spokesman John Asselin said that sort of thing never happened a few years ago. “Now we have to have temporary capacity closures almost every weekend when the weather is ideal,” he said.

“Any beautiful Saturday could create an explosion of people,” said Andy Hart, executive director of the Southern Nevada Conservancy, the BLM’s nonprofit partner at the conservation area. “I think everybody who cares about Red Rock Canyon is paying attention to this capacity and congestion issue. We want visitors to have a good experience.”

No shuttle plans yet

The options under consideration include adding more lanes — including a fast-pass line — at the fee station and creating a dedicated entrance and exit lane for taxis and ride-hailing services to move traffic through more quickly.

The BLM also hopes to secure funding for a return road that would give motorists a way to get back to the visitor center without driving the entire 13-mile, one-way Scenic Drive. The 2.5-mile shortcut between Sandstone Quarry and the visitor center is expected to improve traffic flow and provide better access for emergency vehicles.

Red Rock officials wanted to build the return road several years ago, but they couldn’t secure federal funding for the roughly $800,000 project.

For now, the BLM and its nonprofit partner at Red Rock, the Southern Nevada Conservancy, are working to boost cellphone coverage and provide public Wi-Fi service at the visitor center and the fee station to improve communication, provide real-time traffic monitoring and allow tourists to hail rides back to the Strip.

Catrina Williams, BLM’s field manager for Red Rock, said that if congestion continues to grow, officials might consider a seasonal shuttle system like the one that runs through the heart of Zion National Park for much of the year.

But that comes with its own challenges, including the need for a large central lot where people can park to catch the shuttle, she said.

“This is a national conservation area. We can’t do a lot of development,” Williams said.

A marketing success

Longtime local conservationist John Hiatt said any possible response to the problem will be limited by funding and the BLM’s larger mission to protect the area.

“Essentially what’s happening at Red Rock is the same thing that’s happening at Grand Canyon and Zion and other popular parks in the West: rapidly increasing visitation and decreasing budgets. That’s a recipe for disaster,” Hiatt said. “The challenges are multiple, and the solutions all involve money.”

Hiatt played a major role in the push to expand Red Rock in the early 1990s. “I’m sorry we didn’t make it bigger,” he said.

In the decades since then, the valley’s population has exploded and so has interest in the outdoors by residents and visitors alike, Hiatt said. Outdoor retailers and tourism agencies have only fueled that trend.

“People have been advertising the outdoors for years, and that message is getting through. There are just a lot more people looking for outdoor recreation,” Hiatt said. “The marketing department is way out ahead of everyone.”

Studying the problem

The BLM operates its busiest site in the nation with a permanent staff of about 15 people. Its primary nonprofit partner at Red Rock, the Southern Nevada Conservancy, chips in another 40 paid employees and volunteers, mostly to staff the fee booths and visitor center gift shop.

The conservancy also recently helped fund and produce a capacity study for the conservation area.

“We all saw it as something we needed,” Hart said. “I do think it will help with management decisions going forward.”

The Great Basin Institute, a Reno-based environmental research and conservation group, delivered the study to the BLM this year.

The bureau and its partners have so far declined to release the full report while they analyze its findings, but the executive summary identifies the busiest times of year as late March into early April, Thanksgiving week and other holidays and fee-free days.

Weekends tend to be busier than weekdays, and traffic tends to peak between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.

The executive summary had this to say about the BLM’s response to the problem so far: “Specific management direction about addressing increasing visitation and capacity-related impacts at (Red Rock Canyon) is severely lacking in official policy and management documents.”

Avoiding the crush

That’s not to say nothing has been done.

In 2016 and 2017, the BLM received more than $10 million from the Federal Highway Administration to repave the Scenic Drive and expand the parking lots at the visitor center and trailheads along the loop. Asselin said that project added 300 parking spots to the fee area. It was a big improvement, but it wasn’t enough to stave off temporary closures on the busiest days.

He said Red Rock’s management team plans to release the full capacity study in the coming weeks, once “a decision is made on how to address the issue.”

In the meantime, visitors can avoid congestion on busy days by using places outside the fee area or arriving early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

And when they are there, they can protect the park from its own popularity by obeying the signs and following the rules.

It’s simple, said Williams, the Red Rock field manager: “Park where you’re supposed to park. Hike where you’re supposed to hike. Throw your trash in the trash can. Pick up after your pets.”

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Local Videos
Flamingo rollover crash
Las Vegas police investigate a rollover crash at the intersection of West Flamingo Road and Edmond Street on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Health district alleviates COVID-19 testing demands - Video
The Southern Nevada Health District is helping to alleviate COVID-19 testing demands by setting up smaller, pop-up neighborhood testing sites. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Neighborhood COVID-19 Testing Sites - Video
The Southern Nevada Health District is helping to alleviate COVID-19 testing demands buy setting up smaller, pop-up neighborhood testing sites. They are taking the weight off of the larger testing facilities, and providing more community based testing, especially in minority and senior communities hit hardest by the pandemic. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Goodwill provides ways for Las Vegas Valley families to save money - VIDEO
Goodwill is becoming the surprising place for families and job seekers to save money during the COVID-19 pandemic. We look at its safety measures and price out outfits for a family of four. (Angus Kelly and Carrie Roper/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fungus creating 'zombie' cicadas - Video
A “mind-control” fungus found in cicadas manipulates the insects into “zombies” that spread fungal spores, according to a researcher. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Wells Fargo teams up with Three Square food bank - Video
Wells Fargo and Three Square food bank team up to help out those in need during the coronavirus pandemic. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Coronavirus cases triple at Henderson nursing home - VIDEO
The number of residents with COVID-19 at Lake Mead Health & Rehabilitation in Henderson tripled overnight, according to state data. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
National Nurses United organized the picket at St. Rose Dominican, Siena campus - Video
National Nurses United organized the picket outside of St. Rose Dominican in Henderson calling for more nurses to improve the ratio of nurses to patients. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Reveiw-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Opponents to Floyd Lamb Park barn conversion sue - VIDEO
Opponents of a plan to convert a historic hay barn at Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs into an event center are suing the city of Las Vegas and Councilwoman Michele Fiore to halt the project. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Doubling down with the Derricos - Video
North Las Vegas couple Deon and Karen Derrico and their 14 children will be featured on a TLC reality show "Doubling Down With the Derricos." The Derrico family and their children includes quintuplets, triplets, twins and singletons. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police give details on fatal crash near Las Vegas Strip - Video
A 16-year-old girl died and two other people were injured in a one-vehicle crash on Sands Avenue near Las Vegas Boulevard South on Monday morning, Aug. 3. (Glenn Puitt/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
ICU nurse talks about staffing shortages with COVID-19 patients increasing - Video
A 92 percent occupancy rate might suggest that a hospital still has room for more patients. But the number, according to Las Vegas Valley ICU nurse Geoconda Hughes does not tell the whole story. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police investigate homicide.
Detectives were investigating a homicide in southwest Las Vegas on Friday morning. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Buffalo Soldiers Day in Nevada - Video
Secretary of Buffalo Soldiers Horse Cavalry Anne Monterio attends a service honoring Nevada’s African American veterans for the Second Annual Buffalo Soldiers Day in Nevada, at the Grant Sawyer State Office Building on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Mob Museum makes hand sanitizer out of moonshine - Video
The Mob Museum's moonshine distillery has been making hand sanitizer in their underground facility for the past few months. Senior Educator Jim Zlomke shows how the FDA approved formula is made. (Cassie Soto/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
100 Dinners distribution in Las Vegas - Video
Food writer and lead organizer of Please Send Noodles, Kim Foster ,discusses preparing and distributing 100 meals for individuals of the community, at Foster’s home in Las Vegas on Saturday, July 25, 2020. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Eyewitness recounts man's drowning at Bellagio fountains - Video
Kayla Eklund said she called 911 Friday morning after she and her friend witnessed a man jump into the water at the Bellagio fountains. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pedestrian killed when struck by a vehicle in south Las Vegas - Video
A man was struck and killed by a vehicle when he ran onto Las Vegas Boulevard South near Windmill Lane in south Las Vegas early Wednesday, July 22. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Lead investigator of local COVID-19 vaccine trial talks about hopeful outcomes - Video
Dr. Michael Levin, investigator for the phase three trial of the first COVID-19 vaccine developed in the U.S. by the National Institute of Health and Moderna Inc., talks about what health experts hope to learn from the trial. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Activists, union: Support only Black-owned businesses Monday - VIDEO
Social justice activists and a major labor union banded together Monday to keep attention on the Black Lives Matter movement. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
No Mask Nevada protests governor's mask mandate in Henderson - VIDEO
About 200 people gathered in Henderson on Saturday morning to protest Gov. Steve Sisolak’s mask mandate.The demonstration was organized by No Mask Nevada, a political action committee. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police: Mom Arrested in Fatal Crash Drove 121 MPH - VIDEO
A 23-year-old woman arrested Sunday night after a crash that killed her 1-year-old son was driving 121 mph at the time of the collision, according to a Las Vegas police report. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Owner of Mario’s West Side Market talks about his role in community - Video
Mario Berlanga, owner of Mario’s West Side Market, talks about his role in the community and his thoughts on the recent Black Lives Matter protests. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Trustees approve CCSD fall school reopening plan with caveat - VIDEO
In a marathon meeting Thursday night, Clark County School District trustees approved a plan to reopen schools this fall with the caveat that additional details about how to do so would come back before the board. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jara says time for debate is over on CCSD reopening plan - VIDEO
With pressure growing for the Clark County School District to modify its school reopening plan, Superintendent Jesus Jara said Tuesday that the time has come to move forward on the existing blueprint. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
RTC considers route changes as pandemic affects ridership, revenue - Video
Stung by a drop in public bus ridership because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada is considering systemwide service changes. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)v
Fireworks light up Las Vegas - Video
Las Vegas celebrated the Fourth of July with fireworks lighting up the entire valley. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fireworks in the Moapa sky - Video
Fireworks explode near Moapa Paiute Travel Plaza during Fourth of July festivities in Moapa, northwest of Las Vegas, on Saturday, July 4, 2020. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fourth of July fireworks at Plaza in downtown Las Vegas - Video
Fourth of July fireworks at the Plaza casino lit up the night sky in downtown Las Vegas on Saturday. (David Guzman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas teen shares COVID-19 story on social media - Video
Kaydee Asher speaks with the RJ about what it's like having COVID-19, how she may have contracted the virus, and how she's using her platform to tell other young people to be safe. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Train carrying decommissioned nuclear reactor passes through Las Vegas - VIDEO
The train carrying a decommissioned nuclear reactor vessel from Southern California is passing through Las Vegas on Thursday afternoon. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas company recalling 200K pounds of meat, poultry

A Las Vegas meat company is recalling around 200,000 pounds of meat and poultry due to misbranding and undeclared allergens, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced.