Walk the path of dinosaurs.
By Julia Bayly
Once in Las Vegas, Nevada, turns out it can pretty hard to find a reason for leaving that city. A dizzying array of food, entertainment, gambling, art and shopping options compete for a traveler’s attention pretty much 24-7.
But it’s not a bad idea at all to rise above that and take some time to head out of the city to explore the desert landscape from which the famed city was born.
About an hour-and-a-half drive 55-miles northeast of the city is Valley of Fire State Park which provides a scenic break from the bright lights and clanging slot machines.
We opted for a visit to Valley of Fire on the advice of the rental car agent at Alamo Cars and I will confess to questioning that decision about an hour into the drive there. Heading out on I-15, the landscape was flat, dusty and dry in varying shades of grey. Desert, yes, but hardly the scenic drive for which we had hoped.
Turning off exit 75 to Valley of Fire Highway for the final 15 miles of the drive, scrub grass, cacti and rock outcroppings began to break up the landscape as the road rose steadily in elevation.
Still, not much that we would describe as particularly photo-worthy.
Then, just as we turned the corner into the park entrance, the curtains went up and someone changed the setting from monochromatic to high-definition technicolor.
Red sandstone formations were, indeed, creating what looked like a ring of fire around the valley.
Formed 150 million years ago—when dinosaurs, not tourists, came through the area—millennia of geologic activity and erosion have created a unique and breathtaking landscape that includes rock formations of limestone, shale and combinations of both.
Much of what is worth seeing in the Valley of Fire is easily done so from the view points scattered along the park’s 20-miles of paved road.
There are two entrances into the park on opposite sides and from each the road winds through the park to the other access point. There is also a scenic side loop.
Regardless of where you enter or exit, the first stop at Valley of Fire should be the visitors’ center located smack in the middle of the park.
That is, if you can ever get there after stopping for the expansive views and sights along the way.
At the visitors’ center, maps, books, souvenirs, clean restrooms and water are all available in addition to an interpretive display describing the park’s ecosystem and geologic history.
Surrounding it all, no matter where you stand or look outside, are those towering rocks in more shades of red than I had thought possible—from pale, pinkish hues to blazing, almost glowing orange, often on the same formation in layers of strata laid down over eons.
Those multi-colored formations are best seen at the overlook of Rainbow Vista, which offers a panoramic view that goes on for miles.
We hit it almost precisely at mid day and, while impressive, the colors looked a bit washed-out thanks to the high sun. I can only imagine what Rainbow Vista would look like in the pre-dawn or early-twilight hours.
According to information provided by the park, early Americans probably visited the area to hunt, gather food and for religious ceremonies.
Lack of water, according to park officials, would have limited the time any group would have remained. It is believed humans occupied the park on at least these part-time bases dating back to 300 BC.
Now all that is left are the petroglyphs depicting examples of hunting tops, plants, animals and symbols of the natural world.
The walk in to see these drawings is level and not challenging. Much of it is on soft, red sand and, on my way back out, the temptation to take off my shoes and socks to walk in that sand barefoot was too great to ignore.
Along the way, I took the opportunity to construct my own rock “Hoodoo,” a pile of rocks which, according to legend brings good luck to the builder. The higher the stack of rocks, the better the fortune. (However, it should be noted that Hoodoos are not a native feature to the area and, while not expressly forbidden, not everyone appreciates these manmade additions to the park’s natural landscape.)
The far point of the park’s loop drive is White Domes, massive sandstone formations broken up by contrasting colors of the rock. It is near-lunar in appearance and lined with trails leading out to various overlooks, each more impressive than the last.
Our final stop was at the Beehives, rock formations that have to be seen to be believed.
These red sandstone formations are the result of wind and water erosion over time that have left conical, hollow rocks looking every bit like the beehives of a long extinct race of giants.
Examples of more recent history also appear in the park, including Mouse’s Tank, a natural water-collecting basin in the rock used as an outlaw hideout in the 1890s and historic stone cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
So, next time you are in Vegas, take some time to step back, breath deep and soak up all that makes Valley of Fire a great destination.
Valley of Fire State Park is open daily except Christmas, 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Entrance fee charged per vehicle and collected at a booth at the entrances.
Odds of Encountering Children: It’s a park, so there are likely to be parents there with their kids. But it’s a 42,000-acre park and not one of Nevada’s most visited, so it is fairly easy to avoid any active family group and find a peaceful spot all to yourself.
Keep in mind summer temperatures vary greatly from day to night where highs in the park can exceed 100-degrees and even top out at 120. Winters are mild with temperatures ranging from freezing to 75 degrees. The area sees about four-inches of rain annually, but sudden thundershowers can lead to flash floods. It’s a good idea to pay attention to weather reports before visiting and while there. Spring and fall are the optimal weather times to visit the park.
Do bring water, snacks, sunscreen, lip balm, camera, binoculars and pocket guides to regional plant and animal life.
Camping is available within the park for an additional fee. The 72 camping spots between two campgrounds are on a first come, first serve basis. Each have shaded tables, grills, water and nearby restrooms with available showers. There are also limited RV sites with power and water hookups.
Shaded picnicking areas are located throughout the park and include three large-group areas available.
For additional information, visit the park website or call 702-397-2088.
– Photos by Julia Bayly
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