By Tania Moffat
An hour northeast of Las Vegas, via Interstate 15, travellers can escape the hustle and bustle of Vegas and immerse themselves in a remarkable prehistoric landscape as they walk through the Valley of Fire.
The tortured red sandstone terrain was formed approximately 150 million years ago. It was a tumultuous period, at the time the earth was literally ripping itself apart. The lifting and shifting of tectonic plates formed massive faults and mountains within the region which consequently began to erode. Over the millennia wind and rain have continued to sculpt the unique land formations that draw nature lovers to the park. Limestone, shale and conglomerate rock formations can be found here in the Valley of Fire State Park, however, it is the red sandstone which gave rise to the park’s name.
One of the oldest and largest state parks in Nevada, the valley has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The Basket Maker people and later the Anasazi Pueblo farmers, from the nearby Moapa Valley, occupied this land from 300 B.C.E. to 1150 C.E. and samples of the petroglyphs they left behind can still be found at several sites throughout the park.
A drive down Scenic Loop Road will bring you to metal stairs leading to Atlatl Rock. This is a great stopping point to view some of the spectacular petroglyphs or rock carvings at the park. An atlatl is a spear launching device used by ancient Indians and is depicted in the rock art they’ve left behind. Drive a little further and you’ll see Arch Rock located just off the side of the road. The arch is fragile and climbing on it is not permitted. Petrified logs or fossilized wood washed into the valley 225 million years ago and can be viewed in two locations along the road. They are fenced off to preserve them for future visitors close to the road.
The Beehives are an excellent representation of geologic cross bedding – the grooved lines going in different direction are actually layers of silt that have been deposited at different periods of time. Wind and water caused the designs as they moved the silt, forming these intriguing sandstone formations.
Mouse’s Tank trail is a 1.2 kilometre roundtrip hike suitable for all ages. The trail meanders through colourful Petroglyph Canyon where prehistoric art can been seen along the walls. Mouse’s Tank itself is a natural basin in the rock which collects rainwater; the water is unpotable as it sits and stagnates.
Carved out 150 million years ago, it’s easy to imagine the dinosaurs that once walked through the canyons, domes, towers, ridges and valleys along the Rainbow Vista’s 1.6 kilometre hike. The trailhead itself opens up at a point where the road reaches the top of a low ridge, offering views of a vast panorama of multi-coloured rocks stretching for miles, hence the name. This area is coveted by photographers and used for wedding ceremonies. The hike itself will take you to Fire Canyon, an hour or so of trudging through deep sand with no shade past canyons and sharply angled rocks.
Highly recommended is the two kilometre hike that winds along ridges and cairns towards Fire Wave (not recommended during the summer because of the extreme heat). Stunning vistas are enriched by unique rock formations containing a rainbow of vivid colours. A photographer’s dream that is best captured mid-morning to late afternoon when the colours really come alive. If you only have the time for one hike through the Valley of Fire this should be it. Visitors can spend hours immersed in the beauty.
This quick little hike will take you five to ten minutes. Elephant Rock is a natural arch formed in the rock that resembles the shape of an elephant. It is located next to the road but if you take the third of a mile trail you will have a much better view.
Other intriguing sites worth seeking out include the Seven Sisters, a group of tall, red, eroded boulders surrounded by the sandy desert and the historic cabins built for travellers in the 1930s from red sandstone. The John J. Clark memorial pays tribute to a Canadian who served in the American Civil War and met his demise in the Valley of Fire.
The end of the road will lead you to the White Domes trailhead. This two kilometre trail offers a little bit of all the unique features contained in this park. You’ll pass the remains of an old movie set, The Professionals, filmed in 1966. The White Domes themselves are formations of sandstone that contain beautiful contrasting colours. A short slot canyon cuts through a rock fin and is a spot favoured by children and families. This hike will take you through sweeping desert vistas and canyons.
Hikes in the Valley of Fire are not arduous and are easy to moderate through sand and slickrock; however, they are best done from October to April as they can become dangerously hot in the summer months (especially Fire Wave).