One of Nevada’s quiet thrills is 55 miles and 150 million years from the bright lights, glitz and sounds of Las Vegas. Tucked into the southern tip of the state is Valley of Fire, Nevada’s oldest state park, just six miles from Lake Mead and not far from Las Vegas.
Instead of a string of cherry clusters in the smoky, artificial lighting of a casino, this place has unexpected messages that predate our grandparents’ great-great grandparents many times over. And those are just the human messages etched on stone. The geological messages tell of a time when this desert was a huge inland sea. Petrified tree trunks are reminders that forests grew in a land now covered in sagebrush and creosote bush, that prehistoric mammals grazed along green shores, and that giant birds fed upon fish and mollusks.
There are plenty of sights at Valley of Fire for day visitors, but RVers and other campers have a special privilege. Not only do they have time to leisurely explore the park, but the campgrounds are a delight. Tucked between sandstone monoliths, peppered with holes, the campsites are a wonderful place to relax. Beautiful at any time, the rocks take on an intense glow of color as the sun goes down. The passing shadows of clouds change the rocks and focus attention on different textures and forms.
In the mornings, I enjoyed my cup of tea while listening to sage sparrows in the shrub and the beating of a raven’s wings above me. In the late afternoons I sat on rocks warmed by the sun and watched the shadows grow longer and the deep, clear blue sky, punctuated by puffy white clouds, shift to deep magenta. Occasionally the quiet was interrupted by the strident caw of a raven or far-off sounds of a family climbing the high rocks across the campground. Some nights the skies were deep black and speckled with stars. On others, the moon provided ample light to suspend use of a flashlight.
During the day there are trails to hike, petroglyphs (prehistoric drawings or carvings on rock) to “read,” a visitor center to explore, and roads to travel through the vast world of colossal, rounded, carved, weather-cut and sanded rock formations.
I have stayed in Valley of Fire every season but summer. I think it best to leave the area to lizards, snakes, coyotes, fox, bighorn sheep, jackrabbits, ravens and rodents in the blazing summer months. Unlike me, they are adapted to the intense heat.
A good place to start a visit is the park’s Visitor Center, where displays put the geological, human, animal and plant history into perspective. For someone with only an hour to spend, the Visitor Center and a drive through on the Valley of Fire Scenic Byway provide a quick overview of the 35,000-acre park.
But there is more to see. My favorite short walk is not far from the Visitor Center. Petroglyph Canyon Self-Guiding Trail leads to Mouse’s Tank, a deep basin in the rocks where rainwater collects. In the 1890s a Paiute Indian, known as “Mouse,” hid here from pursuers. He had a water supply and rugged terrain in which to hide. Why Mouse came to be hunted by a posse is unclear. He was eventually spotted, pursued and shot to death.
The walk to Mouse’s Tank is listed as a half-mile round trip. It could be done quickly, but it took me a couple of hours as I stopped every few feet with my camera and tripod to photograph the smoothed out cavities in the rocks, the petroglyphs, and the places where wind and rain had created small arches and holes that I could stick hands and head through.
The canyon is narrow and rocky but without noticeable elevation change. Along the east side are large areas of desert varnish. These blackened areas, created by the leaching of iron and magnesium, made excellent “blackboards” for early peoples, known as “Basketmakers” and Anazasi. Some of the patterns etched in the rock are easily recognizable; bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, feet, snakes and human figures with atlatls, an early spear-throwing tool. No one knows for certain the meanings of the spirals, zigzags, circles and other designs, but they repeat themselves throughout the Southwest.
At the end of the trail, a short canyon cuts to the left. At first it seems to end in a large rock barricade. But climb up and look between the rocks. There is a deep pool hidden here where water gathers during storms and lasts a good while due to depth and shade from the surrounding rocks. This was Mouse’s water source.
In the early morning, there are signs to read on the sandy floor. You can test your skills at identifying these tracks by consulting one of the displays in the Visitor Center.
The park map indicates sights worth visiting. Two areas with petrified logs are easily accessible. Now protected by chain-link fence, these tree trunks lie in a region where trees no longer grow. They were deposited by long-ago floods. How long ago? Estimates are about 225 million years. There are also three stone cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Atlatl Rock, between the two campgrounds, has a staircase leading to a smooth rock face covered with petroglyphs and protected by Plexiglas panels to prevent inconsiderate visitors from adding their own marks. I far prefer the petroglyphs along the trail to Mouse’s Tank.
Much of the park is wilderness area. For those who cannot or do not wish to hike, there are roads with beautiful vistas. White Dome Road passes the trailhead to Mouse’s Tank and the side route to Fire Canyon and Silica Dome.
White Dome Road ends in a parking area with shaded picnic tables and restrooms. It’s a good place to get out and hike. The trip back might as well be on a different road. The scenery from the opposite direction looks spectacularly different. And changes in lighting make it seem like you are on an extension of the road rather than backtracking over space already covered.
White, cream, red, gold, gray, brown, even purplish rocks delight the eyes. A close look reveals clearly delineated streaks of pink through some formations. Sculpted rocks display the forces of wind and water erosion. As a display behind the visitor center explains, sand particles get in small pits in the sandstone. The wind swirls the grit, sandblasting the pit, which in time become craters and arches.
Some park areas are graphic demonstrations of great upheavals in the plates under the surface of the earth that shifted the upper crust into jagged patterns. Water continues to play an important role in shaping the landscape, carving canyons and washes, and slowly dissolving some of the minerals holding rocks together. When this happens, portions, often colossal, fall away leaving new shapes and new surfaces. In other areas, huge petrified sand dunes are reminders of the ancient sea.
In spring, if there has been ample rain, wildflowers bloom. “Ample” is relative. For visitors from less arid regions, four inches of rain per year does not seem enough for anything to grow, but a close look at the plants shows their adaptations. Tough, leathery and tiny leaves minimize evaporation, sponge-like interiors hold water, and seeds wait until adequate rains fall for germination.
Should it rain while you are in the park, be cognizant of flash floods. Never enter a wash when water is running or when a wall of water may quickly reach the road. If the force of water can move boulders, imagine what it can do to tiny human forms, cars or RVs.
Late afternoon is a good time to relax back in the nooks and crannies of the campground. I enjoy sitting on a smooth expanse of rock, and watching the shadows move up the stone walls as the rocks glow red in the warm colored light. As the red deepens, it is easy to see why early explorers dubbed this “Valley of Fire.” Scuttling clouds, storms and sunlight create a kaleidoscope of colors and textures to rival the bright lights along “the Strip” 55 miles away. This is the quiet side of Nevada; a magical world created by natural forces of time, erosion and adaptation.
Betty Prange is a writer, photographer and full-time RVer.
IF YOU GO
The entrance fee is $6 per vehicle. There are two campgrounds, both on the Scenic Road Loop, with 51 sites and more are being added. Grills, shaded tables, restrooms and showers are available but no hookups. Sites are $14 per vehicle, including the entrance fee. The Visitor Center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Phone (702) 397-2088.
You can reach the park from Interstate 15, northeast of Las Vegas, by turning southeast at exit 75. The more scenic route is to approach the park from North Shore Road, which runs above the shore of Lake Mead between Henderson, Boulder City or North Las Vegas (via Lake Mead Drive) and Overton. Turn west into the park. There are signs indicating the park from both Interstate 15 and North Shore Road.
There is a boondocking site overlooking Lake Mead a few miles south of Overton and there are RV sites at several lake access points within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Hoover Dam is 44 miles away. For information on Lake Mead National Recreation Area call (702) 293-8906.
The Lost City Museum in Overton includes a fine collection of early Indian artifacts, information on anthropological excavations, and a partially reconstructed pueblo and pit dwelling representing the large string of communities that once inhabited the region. The reconstruction and the museum building were Civilian Conservation Corps projects during the l930s.
The nearest town is Overton, 15 miles away. There are some services closer at Overton Beach.
Visitors should always carry water when hiking and driving. Shade hats and protective clothing are important. Nights in the desert, except summer, can be cold so carry jackets. Binoculars and cameras are suggested.
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