Where is Red Rock Canyon?
It blew my mind when I saw how close the Red Rock canyon conservation area is to the city of Las Vegas. The beautiful red, yellow, gray, and white sedimentary rocks will make anyone want to hike Red Rock Canyon.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is only a 30-minute drive from downtown Las Vegas in southern Nevada.
Red Rock Canyon is an excellent place for your next outdoor adventure. An added bonus is how close and accessible the hiking is to a major city. You can hike during the day and enjoy the nightlife of Vegas!
I’m being honest here; when I think of Las Vegas, I think of bright lights, the strip, nightclub acts, gambling, and porte-cochères with valets. Maybe not in that order, but those are the things that come to mind.
To make matters worse, my mental visual of the area outside the city was a barren desert, with little relief, lots of tumbleweeds, snakes, dry gravel, and sand. I’m going to blame Hollywood for that perception.
As you can see, it’s nothing like I envisioned. The scenery is striking
The colors of the sandstone peaks, red rock formations, and easy access to so many hiking trails and natural areas add to the beauty.
Besides hiking, there are a lot of other outdoor activities you can do. For example, the many near vertical rock faces make it perfect for rock climbers.
You can also sign up for horseback riding trips, which is a great way to cover a lot of ground and explore more of the open space around Red Rock Canyon.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
The conservation area is protected land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Red Rock Canyon NCA contains almost 196,000 acres and includes 27 hiking trails ranging from easy, short, and child friendly to 14-milers with rock scrabbles.
You will find a trail that fits your hiking level here.
If you are traveling with someone that isn’t into hiking, many trails can be classified more as walks. Some of these trails have picnic areas where you can enjoy the views without going through difficult spots.
The first stop should be the visitor’s center to see if there is any information on the trail conditions and see the displays inside.
Map from Red Rock Canyon Keystone Visitor Guide
On the numerous hiking trails, you will see mostly red sandstones. But as you venture further into the RRCNCA, the color of the rocks and the terrain will change. The high cliffs and canyon walls will reveal an array of red, gray, and yellow sedimentary rocks, and depending on the time of the year you visit, the desert could be blooming with wildflowers.
There is a lot of wildlife, including opportunities to see Bighorn Sheep, chuckwallas, desert tortoises, and even wild burros!
I will discuss the best hikes in Red Rock Canyon below.
Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive
Besides the great hiking, Red Rock Canyon also has a scenic drive. So if you run into hot or windy weather or have someone who would rather not hike, you can take the scenic drive.
The drive is a one-way road about 13-miles long that loops through the middle of the canyon lands providing excellent views, all without leaving the air conditioning.
Be aware, however, that there is an entrance fee to the scenic loop drive. Furthermore, you need entry reservations between October 1 through May 31.
You can visit Recreation.gov for more information and reservations during the busier season.
Now, this is a hiking website, so we won’t get too much into the drive, but you can download the Red Rock Canyon Keystone Visitor Guide, which includes a short guide to the history, geology, and wildlife of the area.
The guide also contains a nice map of the trail locations (not to scale) and a short description of all the 27 trails within the RRCNCA.
Best Time to Visit Red Rock Canyon
Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive requires reservations between October and the end of May because the temperatures in the Mojave desert are more moderate (60- to 75-degrees) on average.
However, don’t underestimate how cold the desert can become at night, anytime during the year.
In the summer months, the heat can become unbearable in the afternoons, so go early in the day if you can. Bring an umbrella to reflect some of the sunlight and provide shade.
Carry plenty of water.
Cell service is spotty, so be sure to carry what you may need to get back to the main parking lot.
The best time of year is when you can get out to Red Rock Canyon. If you have a chance to go to Vegas take the opportunity to visit Red Rock Canyon.
You can find the perfect hike for you at any time of the year, even if you can’t hike the trails you want, like the Mesa trail. Pine Creek Canyon, or Quarry Pass Trail, because of the weather, each trail contains beautiful red rock ridges, and by the end of the hike, you will be happy.
Where to Stay Nearby
Most people who visit Red Rock Canyon come here on a day trip from Las Vegas, either for business or fun. However, you may want to stay on the city’s west side as you only have a short distance to drive to the visitor’s center.
The Red Rock Canyon State Park is a short drive south of the canyons if you want to camp.
Remember, this is BML land, so there are a lot of wilderness areas nearby if you are a van lifer.
The easiest you may want to base yourself on, or near, the Las Vegas Strip and commute to the park, which is just 30 minutes away. There’s no lack of hotels, motels, or Air BnB’s in Las Vegas.
Hike Red Rock Canyon
Parking for many of the trailheads is located on the Scenic Drive. In addition, the drive itself has many overlooks that are worth seeing.
Remember, many people are not into hiking and enjoy the spectacular views by car only.
The Scenic Drive is a one-way road with people driving slowly and taking in the scenery.
Mountain biking is also popular here, so be on the lookout for mountain bikers. Speed limits on Scenic Drive are 35 mph and strictly enforced.
Please be patient getting to the trailheads.
The RRCNCA has created this pdf guide that shows the parking areas for each of the trailheads.
The following descriptions are the most popular hikes. The PDF download listed above has the complete list.
Calico Tanks Trail
It is the most popular trail of the 27, and if you only had time for one hike while visiting Las Vegas, this calico Hills trail would be it.
The walk is an in-and-out hike, with one parking area and one trail.
The trail is short, listed at only 2-½ miles round-trip. But the trail takes you to cliff overlooks with great views of the Las Vegas valley.
It is rated as moderate because there are a few steep and rock-scrabble areas.
However, the effort is worth it as you encounter everything in Red Rock Canyon. First, the color of the rocks is stunning; as you start in the wash of the canyon wash, and work your way up the canyon, passing some cultural areas of the Paiute civilization.
At the end of the trail, you have views of the desert valley and the “tank,” which is a natural water catchment that can retain water in the rainy season.
Calico Tank is a must-hike trail at Red Rock Canyon and a perfect trail for about everyone.
Lost Creek – Children’s Discovery Trail
You have to work the Lost Creek Trail into your schedule. Although it doesn’t have the overlook views that Calico Tanks Trail has, the desert plant life is more abundant here. The spring bloom brings the desert alive.
Besides the botany lesson, the trail provides more Paiute cultural sites, including an agave roasting pit and pictographs.
If you are lucky enough, you might even see a flowing waterfall if you visit in the spring or after heavy rain.
The hike will take less than an hour and is only ¾ of a mile long. The trail is rated moderately easy. The only tricky part is some uneven hiking surfaces and some larger gravely areas.
Lost Creek is an easy hike and great for younger children and those that have problems with steep or long trails.
Ice Box Canyon Trail
We have covered an easy trail (Lost Creek) and a moderately difficult trail (Calico Tanks) with its rock scrambles. Now let’s discuss a more challenging trail.
The Ice Canyon Trail isn’t long, only a 2.6-mile round trip. However, if you want to get back into the box canyon, you will have to do some rock hopping over large boulders.
I enjoy the feeling of walking into a box canyon. Something about the way it funnels you in, the walls seem taller, and the flat ground you stand on is narrower. As you start this hike in the sunny, open wash, the canyon slowly closes in around you.
The rock walls along Ice Box Canyon also have different colors than the rest of the Red Rock Canyon area. Here they have darker hues making the reds seem more intense.
How fast can the conditions change? Watch at about the 33-second mark in this video! Amazing!
The trail is rated as difficult. Now, it’s not like climbing a rugged mountain -actually, there is little elevation gain – instead, it is the size of the rocks and the narrowness of the gaps between them that raises the trail’s difficulty rating.
If you are lucky, water might be flowing over the canyon’s edge. The pinon and ponderosa pines and junipers at the canyon opening also add an element to Ice Box Canyon that the other trails don’t have.
Interested in Plate Tectonics? Then Try The Keystone Thrust Trail
The Keystone Thrust fault shows the effects of the collision and subduction of the Pacific Plate under the North American plate, causing crust shortening with the older Cambrian-aged dark-colored dolomites and white rock limestones sliding over younger Jurassic red sandstone.
The short video below explains the phenomena.
The Keystone Thrust trail is easy with little elevation gain and little to no tough terrain.
The in-and-out 2.2-mile trail also has views of the Calico Hills.
Few places have easier access to the geological wonders of thrust faults. So if you’re interested in such natural events, this is your trail.
The Most Challenging Trail is Bridge Mountain
Bridge Mountain trail is not only the longest tray in the Red Rock Canyon trail system; it has a class four scramble to get to the peak.
The trail starts at the Willow Springs Picnic area, and the total distance is 14 to 15 miles. You also gain 2,400 feet of elevation. Expect your hike to take between 6- and 9 hours depending on your skill level.
You will hike along the ridge with great views of the desert floor. Finally, at the peak of Bridge Mountain, you will have views of Red Rock Canyon and the city of Las Vegas.
Turtlehead Peak Trail: Challenging Hike of Less than 5-miles.
The Bridge Mountain trail is not only challenging, but it is long.
A shorter alternative for a challenging hike is the Turtlehead Peak Trail.
The elevation gain is around 2,000-feet, and the trail is steep with exposed ledges and slippery sandstone faces. There are rock scrambles too, so it has about everything that Bridge Mountain has in a shorter hiking distance.
You gain access to the trailhead at Sandstone Quarry.
For more background information on the history and temperature ranges throughout the year, check out the link below to take you to Red Rock Canyon on Wikipedia.
I hope you enjoyed the very brief summary of hiking Red Rock Canyon. The best place to get up-to-date information on the conditions and operating hours (you may need to make a reservation to reach some of the trailheads) is to download the guide below and give the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center a call.