Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada is an area managed by the Bureau of Land Management as part of its National Landscape Conservation System, and protected as a National Conservation Area. It is located about 15 mi west of Las Vegas, and easily seen from the Las Vegas Strip. The area is visited by over 1 million visitors each year.
The conservation area showcases a set of large red rock formations: a set of sandstone peaks and walls called the Keystone Thrust. The walls are up to 3000 ft high, making them a popular hiking and rock climbing destination. The highest point is La Madre Mountain, at 8154 ft.
A one-way loop road, 13 miles (21 km) long, provides vehicle access to many of the features in the area. Several side roads and parking areas allow access to many of the trails located in the area. A visitor center is located at the start of the loop road. The loop road is very popular for bicycle touring; it begins with a moderate climb, then is mostly downhill or flat.
Red Rock Canyon itself is a side-canyon accessible only by four-wheel-drive road off of the scenic loop. The unnamed but often visited valley cut through by State Route 159 is commonly, but incorrectly, referred to as Red Rock Canyon. The massive wall of rock called the Wilson Cliffs, or Keystone Thrust, can be seen to the west along this highway.
Towards the southern end of the National Conservation Area are Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, the western ghost town replica attraction of Bonnie Springs, and the village of Blue Diamond.
The first humans were attracted to the Red Rock area due to its resources of water, plant and animal life that could not be easily found in the surrounding desert. This made Red Rock Canyon NCA very attractive to hunters and gatherers such as the historical Southern Paiute and the much older Archaic, or Desert Culture Native Americans.
As many as six different Native American cultures may have been present at Red Rock over the millennia. The following chronology is an approximation:
- Southern Paiute 900 to modern times
- Patayan Culture 900 to early historic times in the 1800s
- Anasazi 1 AD to 1150.
- Pinto/Gypsum (Archaic) 3500 BC to 1 AD.
- San Dieguito 7000 to 5500 BC.
- Paleo-Indians (Tule Springs) 11,000 to 8000 BC.
Numerous petroglyphs as well as pottery fragments remain today throughout the area. In addition, several roasting pits used by the early Native Americans provide further evidence of human activity in the past at Red Rock.
In the early 1900s, around the time the first people settled in nearby Las Vegas, a small sandstone quarry was operated by the Excelsior Company near the northern area of the scenic loop. It proved to be uneconomical and was shut down. Evidence of the quarry's existence includes some of the huge sandstone blocks that have been left behind. In 1967, the Bureau of Land Management designated 10000 acre as the Red Rock Recreation Lands. By 1990, special legislation changed the status of the Red Rock Recreation Lands to a National Conservation Area, which also provides funds used to maintain and protect it.
The Howard Hughes Corporation, developer of Summerlin, has transferred land adjacent to the protected area, to provide a buffer between development and the conservation area. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is adjacent, on the west side, to the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area.
The conservation area is one of the easternmost parts of the Mojave Desert; the lowest elevation of the area, from 3600 to, is in the Lower Sonoran Zone, while the area from 4500 ft up is in the Upper Sonoran Zone. The character of the sandstone layers is such that a number of year-round springs may be found in the recesses of the side canyons.
Some 600 species of plants are known in the area. Common types in the valley floor include the Joshua tree, Mojave yucca, banana yucca, creosote, and blackbrush. Higher up the Utah juniper and Sonoran scrub oak (also called scrub live oak) come to dominate. Agave is easy to spot in red rock niches, with its thick low leaves and flowering stem that reaches twice the height of a man. The Calico Tanks trail has a plaque about prehistoric agave roasting pits. Ponderosa pines may be found at the top of the valley, where it connects to the Spring Mountains.
Wild burros are a familiar sight, as are rabbits and ground squirrels. Desert bighorn sheep are occasionally seen at higher elevations.
The Conservation Area is protected habitat for the Desert Tortoise. A mascot tortoise, named Mojave Max, was kept at the Visitors Center. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on July 2, 2008 that Max had died of natural causes at the age of 65. A successor has not been named.
The Red Rock Area has a complex geological history, which over millions of years, helped to create the dramatic landscape that characterizes the region.
The Red Rock area was located under a deep ocean basin during the Paleozoic Era 600 million years ago. Sediments up to 9,000 feet thick were deposited, and eventually lithified. This sediment eventually formed into limestone.
Around the Mesozoic Era 250 million years ago, the earth's crust started to rise due to tectonic shifts, forcing the water out and leaving behind evaporite formations of salt and gypsum. Exposure of the former sea bed allowed some of the rocks to oxidize (literally rust) and formed the area's characteristic red and orange rock layers.
Eventually a lush plain with streams and trees developed in the area. Some of these trees were covered with mud from the streams and eventually became petrified wood. Many of these fossilized logs can still be found today at the base of the Wilson Cliffs.
By 180 million years ago, the climate continued to change and the area became a desert featuring vast expanses of huge shifting sand dunes. These dunes would pile up and were lithified, and are now called Aztec Sandstone. During a mountain building period called the Laramide orogeny around 65 million years ago, the Keystone Thrust Fault developed, which ran through most of North America and through the Red Rock Conservation Area. The movement of this fault forced the older grey sedimentary rock over the younger red rocks, forming the striking red line that can be seen in the mountain today.
Red Rock provides a wide variety of activities, the most popular being hiking, biking, rock scrambling, and rock climbing. Horseback riding and camping are also allowed on specific trails and designated areas. Automobile and motorcycle clubs such as Flat 4 LV (Subaru enthusiasts club) often do group drives through the 13-mile scenic drive. ATV use is not permitted in the area.
Aside from the obvious dangers from climbing rock faces and cliffs, visitors should know that temperatures can routinely exceed 105 F in the summer, so bringing plenty of water is a must. Visitors hiking into the backcountry off established trails should never go alone, and should inform other people of their plans. There is also the threat of venomous rattlesnakes and flash flooding/lightning from thunderstorms.
Despite the Yosemite-size walls offering a host of challenging lines, technical climbing activity is not known from before 1968. The rock is Aztec Sandstone, a very hard variety with a consistent solidity; many climbs feature ascents of a single parallel-sided crack hundreds of feet long. The climbs of Red Rock have a broad range. Not only are there many long, easy routes, making the area a common climbing training ground, but Red Rock also features many more difficult climbs as well.
Popular sport climbing areas include the Calico Hills and Sandstone Quarry. Red Rock also has a multitude of traditional climbing areas including single pitch areas such as Brass Wall and Necromancer Wall, along with multi-pitch areas such as Eagle Wall, Aeolian Wall, Mescalito, and Solar Slab Wall. Multi-day big wall aid climbs are featured on the Rainbow Wall.
Red Rock has hiking trails and picnic areas. Trails are changed and diverted depending upon the needs of the ecosystem. In early spring, depending upon the precipitation, it is possible to see waterfalls on the edge of the canyons.
Wildfires in Red Rock, especially those in the loop area, allow visitors to see both the damage caused by these events as well as the ability of the desert to heal itself over time.
While wildfires are nothing new to the Red Rock Area, recent fires seemed to have been in part fueled by the thick growth of non-native red brome and cheat grasses. They provide fuel for fires and also compete with the native plants in the area for resources. So far there have been no plans to control these weeds, as control methods such as using herbicides can be both costly and also damaging to the native plants.
Several significant wildfires have burned within the Red Rock Canyon NCA in recent years, including:
- 1998 a fire occurred in the loop area. By 2003 regrowth made it difficult to find the burn area.
- June 25, 2005 the Goodsprings fire at over 31600 acre, burned into Red Rock NCA's southern area.
- July 22, 2005 lighting caused 800 acre fire in the loop area.
- September 6, 2006 yet another fire was started by lightning in the loop near the visitor's center and burned around 1500 acre.
- List of climbing areas
- Urioste, Joanne, The Red Rocks of Southern Nevada, American Alpine Club, 1984
- Clinesmith, Larry L. and Elsie L. Sellars, Red Rock Canyon Plants, Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association, 2001
- BLM's Red Rock Canyon Site
- Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association
- Mountain Project: Climbing Red Rock