Trip reports

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Red Rock Canyon scenic drive vista. (Lauren Danner photo)

TWOINK. No. No, no, no, no, no. Aw, crap. After a night of sound sleep at the only developed campground in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, I’d stuffed the camping gear and my clothes into the suitcase and started to lift it into the car. Big, painful mistake. There is a particular feeling, almost a sound, buried deep in your body, when you throw out your back. It sounds like TWOINK, at least to me, and it signaled a rather different day than the one I’d planned.

But there was nothing for it. I had to return the rental car at McCarran Airport and get to downtown Las Vegas to catch my bus to Phoenix, where I’d meet Mr. Adventure that night. Tweaked back or no tweaked back, I had to load that suitcase into the car.

I know from experience that the best thing to do when I hurt my back (it doesn’t happen often) is to keep moving. And I was in the perfect place, a scant 17 miles from Las Vegas in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Camping in Rock Rock Canyon National Conservation Area under a clear desert sky. (Lauren Danner photo)
Camping in Rock Rock Canyon National Conservation Area under a clear desert sky. (Lauren Danner photo)

I’d arrived the previous afternoon, found a campsite, and set up the tent. Then I hopped back in the car and drove to the Red Rock Overlook, where I met volunteers from Bureau of Land Management and Southern Nevada Conservancy for a guided moonlight hike. As the group gathered, I was confident I’d be the exotic visitor from far away. Ha. Hikers from California, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and even France had all come to experience the canyon at night.

Moonlight hike

Moonrise over Red Rock Canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)
Moonrise over Red Rock Canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)

At dusk, we headed out, stopping to peer at a seven-legged tarantula (“He’ll probably be a coyote’s snack before morning,” the Southern Nevada Conservancy guide said. Male tarantulas have it tough, she explained. Females stay in their burrows and wait for potential mates to arrive. Once mating is complete, the male sometimes becomes the female’s next meal. “It’s dinner and a date,” the guide explained, “but in reverse.”

Though tarantulas are venomous and their bites can be painful, the spider has a much more effective way of warding off attack. When it feels threatened, it releases thousands of tiny barbed hairs, called urticating bristles, from its body, and the attacking animal inhales the hairs. They lodge in the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, and can cause serious irritation. (Lauren Danner photo)
Though tarantulas are venomous and their bites can be painful, the spider has a much more effective way of warding off attack. When it feels threatened, it releases thousands of tiny barbed hairs, called urticating bristles, from its body, and the attacking animal inhales the hairs. They lodge in the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, and can cause serious irritation. (Lauren Danner photo)

We hiked to a small grotto and clambered down to the permanent spring there. As we listened to the last birdsong of the day, bats started zooming around us, apparently unhappy we’d invaded their feeding territory. The grotto was shaded by trees and the moonlight didn’t penetrate the canopy, so we climbed back to the desert floor.

“Before we go back,” the hike leader said, “I want you to take a few minutes and just listen to the canyon and experience the dark.” I walked a short distance away and sat on a rock, savoring the stillness of encroaching night.

Hiking in the dusk with the Southern Nevada Conservancy and visitors from around the globe. (Lauren Danner photo)
Hiking in the dusk with the Southern Nevada Conservancy and visitors from around the globe. (Lauren Danner photo)

The moon illuminated the trail, and I hiked back without using my flashlight. We spotted small flashes of light from climbers bunked down for the night in climbing bivys suspended from the canyon walls. The stars came out overhead. I didn’t want the hike to end.

Willow Spring and Petroglyph Wall

I slept soundly, woke refreshed, packed quickly, and promptly threw out my back. Gah. Nevertheless, I wanted to explore more of Red Rock Canyon, so I carefully levered the suitcase and my body into the car and set off to drive the one-way, 13-mile scenic drive.

Calico Tanks from the Red Rock Canyon scenic drive. (Lauren Danner photo)
Calico Tanks from the Red Rock Canyon scenic drive. (Lauren Danner photo)

The Bureau of Land Management has an excellent visitor center at the beginning of the route, and I stopped in for advice. I knew my back wouldn’t tolerate a long or rough hike, so I opted for the Willow Spring loop and Petroglyph Wall trails. Located about halfway along the scenic drive, the trailheads are at the beginning of the unpaved Rocky Gap Road, where the canyon narrows.

The Willow Spring trail winds past several ancient agave roasting pits, large donut-shaped cleared areas used by indigenous peoples to prepare the succulent plant. I did not see petroglyphs along this portion of the trail, but then, I was focused more on where my feet were stepping. On the other side of the loop, the trail climbs a bit, offering a good view of the narrow canyon. As I stood there, a golden eagle launched from a rock below me and soared up the canyon wall before disappearing. For a moment, I forgot the pain.

View of cactus and rocks from the Willow Spring trail in Red Rock Canyon.
Along the Willow Spring trail in Red Rock Canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)

The Petroglyph Wall trail is short and flat, leading to a desert-varnished wall rising from the canyon floor. At the base of the wall, behind barrier fencing, are several petroglyphs and pictographs. They’re hard to photograph because of the fencing, and even if my back wasn’t hurting, I wouldn’t have disrespected the boundary.

Wilderness boundary and rock climbers on the Petroglyph Wall trail in Red Rock Canyon.
Wilderness boundary and rock climbers on the Petroglyph Wall trail in Red Rock Canyon. (Lauren Danner photo)

I still needed to get the car to the airport and figure out how to get to the Las Vegas Strip to catch my bus, so I eased myself into the car and finished the scenic drive.

The mouth of Pine Creek Canyon from the scenic drive in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
The mouth of Pine Creek Canyon from the scenic drive. This trail is definitely on my to-do list. (Lauren Danner photo)

Strange interlude

A couple of hours later, I found myself at Caesar’s Forum on the Strip, sitting in a white chair molded to look like Caesar’s head, waiting for the bus to Phoenix. I was easily the dustiest person in that cornucopia of faux gilt and marble, and probably the only one carrying a tent. From my quasi-hidden vantage point inside Caesar’s cranium, I heard snippets of conversation as people roamed the shops. “It’s rail nahss, honey, and it’s on sayle,” a man said to his pink-pajama-clad companion. “You disserve it.” Soft scratching behind me turned out to be a small, scraggly boy peering through Caesar’s eyehole. “Reggie!” a voice screeched. “Get back here, dammit!”

I felt as if I’d been dropped into another universe, which, of course, I had. Coming from days on my own in the Nevada desert to this teeming mass of shopping-crazed humanity felt overwhelming. This desert valley, subjugated to celebrities and lucre and neon, feels surreal. I guess that’s the point.

Looking up to the ceiling in Caesar's Palace Forum on the Las Vegas Strip.
The view upwards from inside Caesar’s head in Caesar’s Palace Forum on the Las Vegas Strip. (Lauren Danner photo)

Standing under the neon Hard Rock Cafe sign in the bus turnaround between Caesar’s Palace Forum and the casino, I waited for the bus that would take me five hours to Phoenix. I gingerly stowed my suitcase in the cargo hold and climbed aboard, hoping for a peaceful drive watching the sun set over the desert. Nope. I quickly learned that apparently, playing video or music on one’s phone without headphones is the new normal. Between the Spotify R&B playlist of the woman in front of me, who held her phone up so it was above the seatback and thus pointing directly toward me, and the mariachi-band soundtrack of the movie playing behind me, I felt anything but relaxed. I’d boarded the bus thinking, everyone has a story, this’ll be interesting. Two hours in, I wanted out. I sense we’re losing basic manners, the simple consideration granted to others because of proximity.

The sun set, the moon rose, and we pulled into the bus stop at the Phoenix airport. In a couple of hours, Mr. Adventure would stroll out from the landing gate, and our Arizona experience would begin.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking, I'm either buried in a book or writing about outdoor recreation and public lands from my home near Puget Sound.
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2 thoughts on “Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

  1. Red Rock Canyon NCA is just one of several public lands treasures near Vegas—or should I say, in the former Pah-Ute County, Arizona, much of which was “stolen” by Nevada during Arizona’s Territorial Days.

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