What makes Red Rock Canyon so unique? Simple answer: The Keystone Thrust fault.
Here’s the slightly-more-complicated geological answer. Approximately 65 million years ago, the shifting of tectonic plates forced the oceanic plate underneath the North American Plate, creating the Keystone Thrust fault. Evidence of this type of plate-shifting activity can be seen all the way up the west coast of North America, but thanks to the Keystone Thrust fault, Red Rock Canyon is one of the most exposed examples, and it offers some of the most impressive viewpoints.
Because of the unique scenery it boasts, you may recognize this National Conservation Area from such films (and shows) as G.L.O.W. (2017), Bells of San Angelo (1947), and Fools Rush In (1997). In addition to providing a scenic backdrop to entertainment programs, it also offers beautiful hiking trails, camping, climbing, tours, and it is a very short drive from the Las Vegas Strip.
So, what kind of scenic beauty can you expect to see at Red Rock Canyon? Once you arrive at the National Conservation Area (NCA), you will be sent along a 13 mile one-way loop leading you along the best views Red Rock has to offer. Because it is one-way and you cannot turn back without paying again to re-enter, it’s best to plan your stops out beforehand.
Watch out for these impressive viewpoints (in order!) along the aptly-named Scenic Loop:
1. Calico Hills
The Calico Hills can be accessed from both in- and outside of the Red Rock Canyon conservation area. These brightly colored hills are made up of beautiful Aztec sandstone—a mixture of layered orange-red and tan “calico” colored stones. From inside Red Rock Canyon, the Hills can be found right after the Visitor Center.
See the dramatic scenery of Red Rock Canyon on this unique tour, including scenic drives and an exclusive off-road adventure.
2. Turtlehead Peak
Turtlehead Peak offers some of the most impressive views in the area—from the top you can see the Las Vegas Strip, Lake Mead, and the surrounding desert—and it is one of the most accessible peaks at Red Rock Canyon. However, it requires 4.6 miles of strenuous uphill hiking and it can be quite windy uptop, so only undertake this trail if you don’t mind hiking steep terrain and have a windbreaker.
PRO TIP: The trails are not very well marked towards the top of the peak, so make sure you keep your eye out for markers and stick to the visible path as much as possible. If you take a wrong turn, don’t worry—just keep heading upwards and you will find the path again (or the summit) eventually.
3. High Point Overlook
Located right along the Scenic Loop, High Point Overlook is a great place to stop, take a break, and get an impressive downhill view of Red Rock Canyon NCA.
4. Petroglyph Wall
Following a short trail located near the Willow Springs Picnic Area will lead you to the impressive Petroglyph Wall. This wall offers some of the easiest to find and access rock art in the entire conservation area. Some petroglyphs and pictographs in this area date back as far as 3,000 years ago! The petroglyphs are fenced off to prevent vandalism, so you can only view them from a distance.
PRO TIP: A petroglyph is an image that has been carved or scratched into stone. A pictograph is an image that has been painted onto stone.
5. Ice Box Canyon
Named for the cool water and low level of sunlight that keeps this Canyon cool, Ice Box Canyon is an ideal trail to traverse in the hotter months. A moderate hike that is about an hour long (in one direction) leads you to a shaded canyon complete with seasonal waterfalls that can be seen December-April.
PRO TIP: Though the canyon itself is cool, make sure you dress in layers and bring sunscreen and a hat! You will still have to pass through desert terrain to reach Ice Box Canyon.
6. North Peak
Another strenuous hike, North Peak requires an 11.8 mile trek (or a drive in an all-terrain vehicle drive and partial hike) through pinyon-juniper forest to reach the top of the Red Rock escarpment. While it’s difficult to climb, it is worth the effort—from the top, you can see, among other things, Bridge Mountain and Rocky Gap Road.
7. Bridge Mountain
Bridge Mountain is a peak of the Red Rock Escarpment that has a naturally-formed arch that looks like a bridge (hence the name). It’s even large enough to pass through! The bridge is located near the summit of the eponymous mountain.
8. Pine Creek Canyon
Pine Creek Canyon, following along a creek, offers some of the most green and lush scenery in the NCA, including an uncommon-for-the-area ponderosa pine forest. In this area, you might also spot some interesting wildlife, including burros and jackrabbits.
Pine Creek Past: In this area you will also find the historical homestead of the Wilsons, who had an apple orchard in the area thanks to the reliable water source provided by the creek and the porous sandstone. Built in the 1920s, you can still see the remnants of a gate and the home’s original foundations.
9. First Creek Canyon
At First Creek Canyon, you will find a short and easy 2 hour hike that leads to a beautiful little waterfall and grotto. Though the falls are seasonal and often dry most of the year, it is still a pretty area to visit. This trail is located outside of the Scenic Loop towards Spring Mountain Ranch State Park.
10. Mount Wilson
While not technically located within the conservation area, Mount Wilson is the highest peak among the Spring Mountains situated along Red Rock Canyon, reaching over 7,000 feet high. It is certainly a daunting and challenging climb to reach the summit, but Mount Wilson has a variety of different trails and trail difficulties for hikers from novice to expert to try. If that’s not your thing, it’s also very impressive to see from the ground or the trail of an easier hike.
While it may be right next door to Las Vegas (you can actually see it from the Strip), Red Rock Canyon NCA is a calming respite from the bustle and bright lights of the city. Take some time to enjoy nature, the beautiful views, and the viewpoints this incredible conservation area has to offer.