Valley of Fire State Park is Nevada’s largest and oldest state park. Northeast of Las Vegas, the Muddy Mountains harbor the stunning Valley of Fire State Park—an area that rivals and often exceeds the more accessible Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in colorful rock formations and is reminiscent of Zion or Bryce Canyon national parks in Utah.
Valley of Fire State Park features formations with colorful layers of Aztec Sandstone—red, orange and white layered rock and white domes contrasting nicely with the grey cliffs further east. Nevada’s oldest and largest park, Valley of Fire State Park derives its name from the red sandstone formations in this starkly beautiful corner of the Mojave Desert.
Great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs, 150 million years ago, combined with complex uplifting and faulting followed by extensive erosion created the unusual landscape. Limestones, shales and conglomerates provide even more interesting rock formations. Prehistoric visitors to the Valley of Fire included the Basket Maker people later followed by the Anasazi Pueblo farmers from the nearby fertile Moapa Valley. Examples of rock art left by these ancient peoples can be found at several sites within the Valley of Fire State Park.
Most recently and in much larger numbers Las Vegas tourists and residents have visited the area in motor vehicles — sometimes damaging the fragile desert which will require centuries for nature to repair. Be sure to drive vehicles only on approved routes and park and camp only in designated areas. All plants, animals, rock and mineral materials are protected by state law.
The park can be entered from the north via exit 75 off Interstate 15 or from the south via Lake Mead Northshore Road. The West Entrance Station provides maps, points of interest and other information as well as a panoramic view of the valley. I was fortunate to visit Valley of Fire State Park and to shoot lots of great pictures, some of which are on this page. One of my favorite sightseeing trips out of Las Vegas, I highly recommend a visit to this park.
On my visit we proceeded past Balance Rock (you really wonder how long it will last) and made a brief stop at Rainbow Vista before continuing to the end of White Domes Road where we walked the easy 1.25 mile White Domes Trail loop.
White Domes Trail
Sand dunes from ancient times solidified over time from their own weight in this area. Underground streams percolating through the sand caused minerals to oxidize in some areas which resulted in brilliant color contrasting with white domes. We passed through a ten foot wide slot canyon that had been formed by the force of water cutting through the soft sandstone. Water can be several feet deep in these canyons during a thunderstorm.
Sand that was deposited in layers as the wind changed direction caused the layers to change angles and cross over each other producing formations known as cross bedding — most evident when looking at the sides of large sandstone formations.
The most common desert plant in the Mojave Desert, the creosote bush, has a resinous coating on its leaves to retard evaporation of precious moisture. The plants name comes from the aroma that it gives off during moist or humid conditions which you can experience by breathing on the plant then sniffing. Creosote bushes are widely spaced because the roots drip a substance that keeps other creosotes from crowding too close.
Beavertail Cactus and many other desert plants bloom in the spring.
After completing the White Domes Trail loop we jumped back into the air-conditioned 4-wheel drive SUV and proceeded back down the White Domes Road to the end of Rainbow Vista Road for a stop at Fire Canyon/Silica Dome. This road isn’t paved and is passable via 2-wheel drive vehicles but I was glad for the comfort of the SUV and a knowledgeable guide.
Fire Canyon and Silica Dome
Lake Mead is visible from Fire Canyon/Silica Dome—it’s only six miles from the park—as are a panorama of red rocks, Muddy Mountains and desert. An interpretive sign explains that the dome’s soft silica will eventually erode and become oxidized into a red formation that matches the nearby hills.
Another sign describes Fire Canyon—“In this region, forces within the earth have been powerful enough to cause thousands of feet of surface rock to fold, break, and in some areas push several miles from their original location. Today, erosion has worn away the top of one great fold, exposing the sharply angled layers of rock, and creating numerous canyons.” The snow capped peaks in the distance are in the Spring Mountain Range on the other side of the valley.
Mouse’s Tank Trail and Petroglyph Canyon
The next stop was for another trail walk—this time through Petroglyph Canyon on the Mouse’s Tank Trail. Desert tanks are natural basins where water collects and sometimes remains for months. This particular desert tank was named for a renegade Indian who supposedly used the area for a hideout in the 1890’s. Mouse’s Tank is at the end of the easy half-mile round trip hike.
Along the way we passed many examples of prehistoric Indian petroglyphs. On more than one occasion I was grateful for our guides pointing out the sometimes difficult to find locations of the marks that had been scratched into the rock surface. The images are usually found in areas of desert varnish —where time, weather and the unique chemistry of the rock adds color to the surface. The coating usually consists of iron and manganese dioxides mixed with the products of lichens and possibly other things providing a patina that may make the rock appear shiny or wet. It has been estimated that many of these petroglyphs were placed here 3,000 years ago. It’s hard to imagine something produced by humans that many years ago surviving today but the desert environment has done a good job of preserving them. Their greatest threat for survival today is from the many tourists who visit and inadvertently or even purposefully damage them.
Lizards are one of the most common animals you are likely to encounter in the Mojave Desert. We saw a few small lizards and this large Chuckwalla. Considered a delicacy by Native Americans—and also by the coyote and kit fox that roam the area—the herbivorous Chuckwalla lodges itself between rocks by inflating itself when it senses danger.
Locations throughout the Valley of Fire State Park have been used in many movies and commercials which helps to explain my impression of the area as both a slightly familiar and yet alien environment. Our guide mentioned that the ‘Star Trek — Generations’ movie was filmed in this are and pointed out a small rock formation that resembles the ‘Starship Enterprise.’
Valley of Fire State Park Visitors Center
A stop at the Visitor Center to view exhibits on the Valley and surrounding areas was interesting. There are also books, films and other information available as well as drinking fountains though they do not allow you to fill containers to take away with you.
Back on the Valley of Fire Highway (169) we continued on to another brief stop at the Cabins. These historic stone cabins were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s from native sandstone as a shelter for passing travelers. There was another fairly good size tank full of water just below the cabins. I was visiting in March following a record wet winter which probably accounted for the surprisingly large amount of water I was seeing in the Mojave Desert.
There are a number of rock formations in Valley of Fire State Park that have been given fanciful names because they are said to resemble animals and we proceeded to the most famous of them — Elephant Rock — which is not far from the East Entrance Station at the other end of the valley from where we entered.
Scenic Loop and Atlatl Rock
Returning on Valley of Fire Highway toward the west entrance we made a brief side trip on the Scenic Loop to view Arch Rock and stop at another famous location—Atlatl Rock. Atlatl Rock has several examples of ancient Indian petroglyphs including a depiction of the atlatl (at’-lat-l) which was a notched stick used to throw spears.
The petroglyphs on Atlatl Rock are far above the ground requiring a couple story climb up metal stairs that have been provided by the park service. Walking around the large rock we discovered more petroglyphs on surrounding surfaces — much closer to the ground — and yet another tank full of water. The Atlatl Rock tank contained another unusual desert animal; fairy shrimp or desert shrimp. These amazing little animals can remain dormant for decades if necessary in egg or cyst form and then hatch at the first sign of moisture to begin the life cycle anew.
Other rock outcroppings in the area are said to resemble a fish, a poodle and a piano. It helps to see the rock as a piano if you can imagine one of the candelabras from the Las Vegas Liberace museum perched on the rock. If you venture into the Mojave Desert a wide brimmed hat, sunscreen and loose-fitting clothing are recommended as the temperature typically exceeds 100 degrees and may go as high as 120 degrees from May through September. It was very pleasant during my visit at the end of March, warm but not hot.
Be sure to have plenty of water with you. What little rain the area receives—an average of 4 inches a year—may arrive in a single July or August thunderstorm so be on the lookout for flash floods in normally dry washes even if hasn’t rained at your location.
Don’t miss Valley of Fire State Park if you are in the Las Vegas, Nevada area. It was one of the highlights of my visit.