Las Vegas is known worldwide for the grand events, parties, and gambling that happen there non-stop. By way of outdoor activities, the city also serves as a popular hub for trips to the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead. However, there are quite a few other stunning desert spots just outside Las Vegas that are often overlooked. So, on a hot summer weekend, we set out to explore the desert around the city. First on our agenda was the Red Rock Canyon scenic drive.
Know Before You Go
- Check the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area website, as reservations to drive the scenic loop are required October through May. You can make your reservation here. See the below section for fees.
- Red Rock Canyon is home to a ton of wildlife, from bighorn sheep and foxes to rabbits and tortoises. Respect their space and keep an eye out for snakes and scorpions!
- The summers here are brutally hot, but you may see a dusting of snow in the winters. Prepare for the weather accordingly.
- If you want to camp, Red Rock Canyon Campground is a developed campground just before the turn for the visitor’s center (coming from Vegas) on Moenkopi Road. Check the website or call for reservations and fees.
- Drones are permitted, but please be respectful of other visitors and wildlife.
- Pets are allowed, but must be kept on a leash.
Getting to Red Rock Canyon
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is only about 30 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip. We headed west from the strip to reach County Road 215/Bruce Woodbury Beltway. There, we went north, turning left on West Charleston Boulevard which soon turned into Red Rock Canyon Road. The city began to fall behind us as we drove into the desert.
As we approached the visitor’s center, we saw large red rock formations looming ahead of us. We turned right towards the visitor’s center, stopping at the fee station. It costs $15 per vehicle for the day. If you have your America the Beautiful Annual Pass, this will cover your entrance fee. If you don’t have the annual parks pass but want one, you can purchase one at Red Rock Canyon for $80. Both cash and card are accepted at the entrance station.
Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive
There are quite a few trails in Red Rock Canyon, and the scenic loop provides a great way to hit different trails and viewpoints in a way that works best for your abilities and schedule. It was also over 100˚F the day we were there, so we were thankful to see the area with frequent escapes back into the air-conditioned car.
Scenic Loop Drive is a 13-mile (20.9-kilometer), one-way road. There are multiple parking areas, some with restrooms. Following are the stops we made along the Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive.
The Calico area consists of rocky outcroppings and canyons with unique red and ivory markings that give the area its name. We stopped at Calico I area and walked from the parking area down into the canyon a ways. There are a few trails that go through the canyon, one also connecting to the Calico II parking area. Instead of walking to Calico II, we turned around after exploring a bit because our car was at the Calico I lot.
A very short ways down the road is the Calico II area. Here, we also walked down into the canyon, admiring the views and doing some rock scrambling. The red sandstone reminded us a lot of our favorite spots in Utah!
The Sandstone Quarry parking area is quite large because there are a few trails that branch off into this part of the park. Some of these include Turtlehead Peak and Calico Tanks. If you want to hike, note that there is very little shade along these trails.
We walked along Turtlehead Peak trail a ways and climbed some of the sandstone features not too far from the trailhead. This area offers a pretty view of the desert peaks that surround the valley.
High Point Overlook
This stop didn’t require any hiking. It was a simple pull-off at the highest point of the Red Rock Canyon scenic drive. It was a short stop, but a pretty one nonetheless, offering views of the red and ivory rock formations and the distant desert.
On our way to our next stop, we tried to drive towards White Rock. This road is dirt and was quite rutted while we were there, so we turned around. However, you can park at the beginning of the dirt road and walk to White Rock and Keystone Thrust if you desire.
The road to the Petroglyph Wall branches off Scenic Loop Drive a short ways. We parked near a riverbed where there were towering canyon walls and large trees that shaded the area. There were a few pretty picnic spots here, making us wish we brought some lunch.
We crossed the dry riverbed and arrived at the Petroglyph Wall after only a couple minutes. Remnants of red handprints and etched drawings covered the rock. We strolled back to the car, enjoying the cooler air of the canyon. If you want to explore deeper into the canyon, the road continues; however, a high clearance vehicle is needed.
Ice Box Canyon & Pine Creek Canyon
Both Ice Box Canyon and Pine Creek Canyon have trails that head west towards the sheer sandstone cliffs that border the road. The lumpy formations that jut out steeply up from the the desert landscape were truly beautiful. If you want to hike closer to the cliffs and into the canyons, we recommend starting earlier in the day as there isn’t much shade and it was brutally hot while we were there.
Pine Creek Canyon was the last stop on our agenda. We followed the road to the scenic drive exit and headed back towards Las Vegas.