If you’re visiting Vegas and seeking to detoxify from the smoky casinos and deep-fried food, take an hour’s drive to the Valley of Fire State Park. Located in Nevada’s Mojave Desert, you’ll witness Mother Nature’s radical side. Over 40,000 acres of Aztec sandstone tinged burnt orange is interrupted with streaks of sandy beige, slate grey, light coral, and Tuscan yellow. As you may have guessed, the valley gets its name from the way the sun’s rays strike the red rocks, causing them to blaze with color.
Though it might be tempting to breeze past the Visitor’s Center on your way into the park, don’t. By engaging the geology, biology, and history of the area, you’ll have the chance to deepen your appreciation for this natural wonder. The helpful park rangers are also more than willing to share insider info—from their favorite trails to the best overlooks for sunset watching.
Here you’ll learn that the rock is lined with sandstone, limestone, shale, and other conglomerates, giving it those intense colors stacked like the layers of an insanely fancy cake. You’ll also hear about the significant erosion which creates some pretty bizarre formations.
Now that you’re equipped to experience the valley first hand, Atlatl Rock makes a great introduction. Thousands of years ago, the Anasazi Pueblo people coated this rock with petroglyphs. Most tourists focus their attention on scaling the 40-foot staircase up the rock closest to the parking lot. But if you take the time to skirt around the main section, you’ll discover a bounty of unbroadcasted petroglyphs just behind. Unlike the ones out front, these concealed carvings are not fenced off and, better yet, unmarred by the scratched initials of graffitists.
The Beehives are nearby. You’ll witness a number of large rocks with grooved lines circling around their exteriors. They’ve been sculpted, not by human artists, but by wind and water. It’s here you’ll probably start growing familiar with the flora and fauna of the area. Tall cactuses stretch their long limbs toward the cloudless desert sky while their squat relatives assume the form of little-meshed spike balls, resembling sea urchins very far from home. Tenacious desert bushes somehow manage to put down roots in stony crevices. Tiny desert flowers fleck the landscape in shades of violet, tangerine, and canary yellow. Sage sparrows balance atop burro bushes and antelope ground squirrels ricochet from rock to rock. A fair share of lizards bask on rocks as if they’re posing for tourists’ cameras.
It’s time to hit a hiking trail. White Dome is only a little over a mile in length, but be sure to bring more water than you think is necessary. Don’t be that visitor who underestimates the desert heat and ends their trip in heatstroke! About halfway down the loop, you’ll encounter the remnants of a Mexican Hacienda built for the film “The Professionals.” After that, venture through a (very photogenic) rock corridor and loop back around to the parking lot through more red rock.
It would be hard to miss your next destination. The Fire Wave Trail is a path that hugs a mass of dark red cliffs that surge 2000 feet high in the sky like a stone tidal wave. Behind them, you’ll find ripples of red and beige so pronounced they seem to move like surf lapping up against the shoreline.
If you’re starting to tire out at this point, the Petroglyph Trail is only three-fourths of a mile and leads to Mouse’s Tank. Legend has it that this location was the hideout of Paiute outlaw Little Mouse during the 1890’s. Apparently, it was quite the criminal getaway, offering not only a well-concealed hidey-hole but also a natural sandstone basin that collected rainwater.
When you start feeling that sunburn and need to recuperate from the trails, set up a picnic at Seven Sisters. Each sister, represented by a towering vertical rock, stands in a single-file line along the road. You’ll find awning-shaded tables separating siblings.
Too exhausted to drag yourself along yet another hike? Not to worry. Your last destination, at the far end of the park, is located right along the roadside for easy access. The eroded stone of Elephant Rock takes the form of, you guessed it, a towering pachyderm.
All of Valley of Fire’s main attractions can be covered over the course of a day. If you want to be thorough, stay overnight at either the tent or RV camping sites. This choice will give you the chance to hit Fire Canyon and Silica Dome, the west and east Petrified Logs, Arch Rock, Lone Rock, Clark Memorial, and Rainbow Vista in the morning. It also gains you access to an insane display of the Milky Way rivaling Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”