Monday, February 9, 2009

Desert Destination: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Every Monday we visit a desert destination.
Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area is located just 17 miles west of Las Vegas' downtown. The bright red sandstone rocks can be seen from most of the city, but they make up just a small part of this nearly 200,000-acre area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. 

There aren't a lot of signs showing the way to get to Red Rock, but fortunately there are just two main ways to go, and they make for a nice loop if you want to see some different landscapes. The northern way is to take Charleston Boulevard west, and it eventually turns into Highway 159. The southern way is to take Blue Diamond Road, Highway 160, and then take the cutoff to the north, Highway 159.

A fee booth is at the entrance of the 13-mile scenic drive. It's possible to visit parts of Red Rock directly from Highway 159 if you really don't want to pay the fee, but it's only $5 per vehicle, and you can also use the America the Beautiful Pass here. 

A good first stop is the visitor center. There is a lot of construction around the visitor center, as they expand the one made in 1982, which was made when 20,000 people visited Red Rock a year, to a new one that can accommodate the 1,000,000 annual visitors.

The visitor center is up above the parking lot, and it could use a few more signs. While waiting ten minutes in the parking lot, three different people asked where the visitor center was. Inside are a variety of exhibits, some good views, and friendly volunteers.

After the visitor center, it's time to head down the Scenic Drive. This is a one-way loop with a maximum speed limit of 35 mph, so you can just take your time and enjoy the scenery. The scenery is eye-popping, beginning with the Calico Hills.

This area is popular with rock climbers--can you see the two climbers and two belayers in the photo above? Red Rock has all different levels of climbing, from beginner to expert routes that take more than a day to complete.

The Calico area has some pullouts to stop and enjoy the view or start a hike. In the foreground of this photo is a burned Joshua tree. Numerous wildland fires have burned in Red Rock Canyon over the past years.
Looking in the other direction, the burned area goes as far as the eye can see. The land managers are concerned about non-native vegetation taking over. To combat that, rehabilitation efforts like seeding with native vegetation are ongoing. 

The Red Rock Canyon newspaper lists 19 different hikes. It was hard to choose which ones would be best for us. Because we had Desert Boy along, we decided the Children's Discovery Trail near Lost Creek would be a good place to start. The trail is 0.7 miles long and was listed as easy. 

At first, Desert Boy was bored with how easy the trail was.

Then we got to the wash, which during flash floods can quickly fill with water. The wooden structure and the pipe on the left-hand side are a crest-staff gage. Inside the metal pipe is a piece of wood and some cork. When the flood comes through, the water makes the cork float and it sticks to the wood. A USGS employee checks it after the flood and can estimate the amount of water based on the height of the water, the slope of the wash, and the substrate. USGS records show that this gage was in operation from 1961-1999 and the highest recorded flood was over 7,000 cubic feet per second, in 1969. To put this into perspective, 7,000 cfs is about the average streamflow for the Columbia River, that giant river flowing from between the states of Oregon and Washington into the Pacific Ocean. Seven thousand cfs is more than what usually flows in the Hudson, Chicago, and Rio Grande rivers.

Desert Boy was more interested in picking up rocks, and his great-uncle had fun photographing him.

Then the trail got a little rockier and steeper. Did Desert Boy want to be carried? No way! He likes challenges, and fortunately the knees in his pants were up to it. He walked/crawled/rolled down the entire trail by himself. 

After our hike, we continued along the Scenic Drive, passing more beautiful scenery. Then we reached another trailhead, for Pine Creek Canyon.

The Pine Creek Canyon trail descends from the parking lot across a rather flat area full of a variety of bushes and grasses. In the distance is the triangular-shaped rock formation called Mescalito. From a guidebook I knew that the trail led to the canyons on either side of Mescalito, and it sounded like a fun place to go rockhopping.

Eventually we got to a wilderness boundary sign. There are two wilderness areas in Red Rock Canyon NCA: Rainbow and La Madre, designated in 2002.

Mescalito appeared closer as we walked down the narrow path with the red dirt.

Desert Boy ran out of steam (and so did his mama carrying him in the backpack), so the great-uncles stepped in to help him through the tall bushes...

...and across the rocks down into the streambed.

The streambed was very rocky and had quite a bit of vegetation growing in it, making it difficult to travel. The trail had split in many different directions, and we couldn't figure out which one was the right one. So instead of trampling vegetation, we decided it was time for us to head back to the car, and we turned around.

On the way back, Desert Boy found a nice place to rest. Hiking in February was really comfortable, although we noticed a big change in temperature from sunny to shady areas. During the summer heat, this hike wouldn't be nearly so nice.

This big yucca graced the trail on the last stretch up to the car. It was a pleasant hike, although we had been expecting the trail to lead us somewhere instead of petering out. Nevertheless, it was a welcome breath of fresh air and quiet not far from Vegas.

Red Rocks has lots of territory to explore, and I hope to be back soon to check out some more trails.


The Incredible Woody said...

Beautiful! There's just something about the desert landscape that speaks to my soul.....

Caroline said...

I'm too sick (dizzy with flu) to read your whole post...but I LOVE your beautiful pictures. It looks like it was a very fun day!

Old Hunter said...

As a kid, we made that trip every time for visitors that wanted to partake in something other than GAMBLING. Have you done a post about the Hoover or Boulder Dam..most Las Vegans call it Boulder...everyone else Hoover Dam.

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