crash course red rock canyon

A Crash Course on Red Rock Canyon

When you’re ensconced in the hustle and bustle of Las Vegas, it’s easy to forget that one of the Southwest’s most memorable landscapes lies just a few miles off the Strip.

Red Rock Canyon is a scant 15 miles west of Las Vegas – you can actually see it from the Strip. It occupies 195,819 acres of the Mojave Desert, and hosts over 2 million visitors each year. The Canyon is part of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Landscape Conservation System, and was designated as a National Conservation Area – Nevada’s first – in 1990.

Its proximity to the Strip isn’t the only reason you should visit Red Rock Canyon. The area’s rich historical background, diverse ecological profile, and unique geology all make it one of the most interesting sights to see while you’re in Las Vegas. The Conservation Area also offers a number of opportunities for adventurous travellers, like hiking trails and off-roading experiences.

The Human History of Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon occupies one of the easternmost parts of the Mojave Desert, and is home to important resources like water, plants, and animal life that can’t be found in the surrounding desert area. For this reason, Red Rock Canyon would have been incredibly appealing to its first human settlers.

red rock canyon petroglyphs

Image Source: levork

The first inhabitants of Red Rock Canyon – the Paleo-Indians – likely moved in around 11,000 BCE. The area has been populated by various civilizations and cultural groups ever since, including the Southern Paiute, who left behind many artefacts that can still be found throughout the Conservation Area, such as petroglyphs (shown above), pottery fragments, and agave roasting pits. The area is uninhabited today, unless you count the millions of hikers, campers, and off-roaders who explore Red Rock Canyon every year.

Plant & Animal Life

600 species of plants are native to the area. Joshua trees, creosote, and blackbrush proliferate on the valley floor, while agave flourish in the red rock niches and Utah juniper and Ponderosa pines thrive at the top of the valley where it connects to the Spring Mountains.

red rock canyon burros

Image Source: Ecirphr

As for animal life, wild burros, rabbits, and squirrels are the most common creatures, but desert bighorn sheep can sometimes be spotted at higher altitudes if you have a keen eye.

Explore Red Rock Canyon on foot or take an off-road adventure and get up and personal with the Canyon’s diverse vegetation and wildlife. Don’t feed the wildlife – they can bite!

Mojave Max

The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is also a designated protected area for the desert tortoise. Look for the special tortoise habitat at the Conservation Area’s visitor center – it houses eight females and two males. One of the males, Mojave Max, is the mascot tortoise for the Clark County Desert Conservation program. Be sure to say hello!

Canyon Climate

Because of its slightly higher elevation, average temperatures at Red Rock Canyon are lower than in the Las Vegas valley.

In the summer, high temperatures average between 80° and 100°, with a comfortable yearly average of 74°. In the winter, average high temperatures range between 50° and 75°.

Red Rock Canyon receives about 12 inches of precipitation yearly, and less than 3 inches of snowfall. That’s triple the amount of precipitation Las Vegas receives on a yearly basis!

Geology Rocks!

Red Rock Canyon began forming about 600 million years ago. In the Paleozoic era, what we know as Red Rock Canyon was located under an ocean basin. This basin deposited up to 9,000 feet of limey sediments, which then lithified into limestone.

Lithification: The process of changing unconsolidated, loose sediment into sedimentary rock.

During the Mesozoic era (about 250 million years ago) the Earth’s crust started to rise as a result of tectonic shifts. As the ocean basin became more isolated, these shifts deposited marine shales and limestones and created formations of salt and gypsum. Oxidation in the iron materials in the sediments resulted in the red color of the rocks – hence the name “Red Rock Canyon”.

red rock canyon aztec sandstone

Image Source: Óðinn

70 million years later, the climate was still changing and the area had transformed into a desert characterized by giant shifting sand dunes. These sand dunes eventually lithified as well, and are now colorful Aztec Sandstone (pictured above). Due to the nature of the sandstone, a number of year-round springs can be found in the recesses of the area’s many side canyons.

A short 66 million years ago, a mountain building period created the Keystone Thrust. Older, gray sedimentary rock was forced over the younger red rock, creating the multi-colored landscape we see today.

Geology really does rock, huh?

Exploring Red Rock Canyon

All of these geological changes resulted in the varied landscape we can explore today. There are numerous viewpoints and vistas to check out when you visit Red Rock Canyon. Here are some of the most well known:

  • Keystone Thrust: Keystone Thrust extends for 13 miles along the crest of the Red Rocks escarpment. It’s one of the most recognizable formations in the Conservation Area.

keystone thrust

Image Source: Ken Lund

  • La Madre Mountain: At 8,154 feet, La Madre Mountain is the highest point in the area.
  • Icebox Canyon: Thanks to its narrow width, cool water spring, and air from the nearby mountains, Icebox Canyon is significantly cooler than the open desert areas.
  • Spring Mountains: Named after the numerous springs that flow from its peaks, this mountain range is technically located inside Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. The State Park is contained within the boundaries of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, and offers stunning views of colorful peaks, a picnic area, hiking, and a number of historical sites.

Many of Red Rock Canyon’s most iconic viewpoints are accessible by foot, but if you prefer to stay out of the heat, consider exploring the area in the comfort of an all-terrain SUV.

Rock Out

Red Rock Canyon is a natural paradise just a stone’s throw from the Las Vegas Strip. Exploring the area in an all-terrain vehicle is one of the best ways to experience the vegetation, wildlife, and unique geology of the region.

Traverse the rugged desert landscape, see the fossilized sand dunes and brilliantly colored rock formations up close, and maneuver the winding trails on one of our popular guided tours:

red rock canyon suv tour

Red Rock Canyon SUV Tour

See the dramatic scenery of Red Rock Canyon for yourself on this unique tour, including scenic drives and an exclusive off-road adventure.

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