Hiking in the Nevada Desert: Valley of Fire State Park
I’ve been watching a lot of the early seasons of CSI: Las Vegas lately (I blame my boyfriend) which has incorrectly led me to believe that outside of Las Vegas is nothing but flat Nevada dessert where crime can occur and bodies can be left. Little did I know that an hour away from the Strip is an amazing state park that’s perfect for a day trip of hiking, fresh air and a few surprises.
Valley of Fire State Park has a pretty lofty name but luckily you won’t be anywhere near volcanoes, magma or brush fires (hopefully). Located near the Lake Mead Recreation area, it’s Nevada's first state park receiving the distinction in 1935. Its namesake is attributed to the striking red rock faces you can explore that look as if they’re on fire in the Nevada sun. We drove in on our way from Utah to Las Vegas and found it to be a perfect stop for multiple hiking trails that are easily accessible by car.
We made our way to the Visitor Center to pick up some trail maps and were loving the bare bones vibe of the park. After having visited multiple national parks in the same trip (Zion National Park and Bryce National Park), with huge gift shops, maps that take forever to refold and an overall commercialized feel, Valley of Fire keeps it simple. The entrance fee is $10, the map is just a folded sheet of printer paper with trails clearly marked, and in the Visitor Center was one of the most welcoming sounds of my childhood: the opening theme song to Eyewitness, a 90's educational video series that played often in my grade school science classroom on the Northwest side of Chicago. It’s as if this park is actually stuck in the 90’s and we weren't complaining. With only a few main roads we hopped in our car and headed towards the first hiking trail we wanted to explore: Mouse’s Tank.
Learn to Communicate with Ancient People
The little surprise about Valley of Fire State Park? Petroglyphs! This rock art, used by the ancient Anasazi people in this area to communicate between 300 BC and 1100 AD can be found in the rock and cliff faces along the edge of the Mouse’s Tank trail. Make sure you look up to find it…the petroglyphs are definitely higher on the rocks than you would expect. Our leisurely hike led us to multiple sightings, some still very clear in the rocks. Some markings that we saw were believed to mean "shaman" or "water or spring" or lines that denoted directions. It’s crazy to think people stood where I was standing, carving those images thousands and thousands of years ago. There were quite a few people snapping shots of these petroglyphs, including one husband and wife team who had mapped out where each grouping was and were professionally photographing them. That’s my kind of retirement!
From there I would definitely check out Rainbow Vista, a beautiful overlook and scenic viewpoint where cascading hills of rainbow colored sandstone collide in the distance. We also heard wonderful things about the White Domes Trail and the Fire Wave Trail (easily accessible and across the road from each other). Both are a short drive from Rainbow Vista and provide more hiking that leads to some amazing occurring sandstone formations.
Trek the Part of the Park That’s the Bee Knees
As you near the exit of the park to the southwest towards Las Vegas you can pull aside to see some rather strange rock structures. Known as the Beehives, these sandstone formations look like larger than life circular honeycombs complete with little holes surrounding the circumference of each. They have a similar look to Checkerboard Mesa in Zion National Park but instead of a cliff, are spherical. Such a cool sight and very fun to walk around and explore.
Valley of Fire State Park is as simple as state parks come. When we visited, it was cooler, allowing bikers to overwhelm the amount of cars on the road as full families trekked from one hiking trail to another on wheels. Although the summer sun would make some of the routes difficult, it's still a park that can be easily explored within the confines of your air conditioned car. It's a fun stop to get you outdoors whether you're traveling from Utah or need a break from the lights and action of the Las Vegas Strip.