Explore the Las Vegas Wilderness

Nevada's Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area has miles of trails and hundreds of climbing routes just a short drive from the Strip.
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Pine Creek Canyon

Pine Creek Canyon at sunrise

Forget dancing waters on the Vegas Strip. Want to see a real show? Head 17 miles west of Sin City to Red Rock Canyon, where a geologic rumble 65 million years ago turned everything upside-down. The result is a topsy-turvy wonderland that juts 3,000 feet out of the Mojave Desert. Stage a visit in early spring, when 60°F days are the norm and occasional precip keeps the tinajas full. It’s sure to outshine the neon mirage next door.

The Insider

When Joel Brewster moved to Nevada 20 years ago, he joined the Las Vegas Mountaineers Club and started ticking off the group’s Classic Peaks, a selection of the region’s best summits, including four in Red Rock Canyon. The 47-year-old professional gambler has since completed all 50 Classics and continues to hit Red Rock every month to hike and prep for summer expeditions.

Wake-up Call

Get a fast start on Brewster’s favorite morning workout: Turtlehead Peak, a 5-mile out-and-back that gains 2,000 feet. From the Sandstone Quarry trailhead, follow a wash between sloping rocks to a gully, where the trail ramps up to gain the 6,323-footer at the turnaround point. From the summit block, spot Las Vegas to the east, and watch sunlight play over sandstone that’s tinted red and orange by oxidized iron. “Note the peak’s misnomer,” Brewster says. Turtles prefer water; Red Rock’s resident hard-shell denizen is the land-dwelling desert tortoise.

Penthouse Suite

Red Rock Canyon limits backcountry camping to dispersed sites above 5,000 feet, so set your sights on 6,460-foot Bridge Mountain, one of the Mountaineers Club’s Classics and so-named for a nifty geologic feature. Brewster’s prep includes minding the moisture two ways: He packs all his water (refills here are rare) and checks recent precip to make sure rocks aren’t slick (the route requires an exposed, class 3 scramble). To tick off the 8-mile (one-way) hike, park at Willow Springs Picnic Area off the Scenic Drive. Trek 4 miles on Rocky Gap Road’s dirt surface—a long approach that deters crowds. At the pass, take the signed Bridge Mountain Trail about 2 miles through juniper and pinyon scrub to an escarpment. Follow black “quote” marks on the rock before downclimbing a bench to a 4-foot-wide crack. There, use all fours to ascend the class 3 rock for about a mile before picking an exit via the distinct, “beehive” rock. Pass under the mountain’s 40-foot-tall, 40-foot-wide namesake and look downhill for a stand of pinyon pines. “We call it the hidden forest,” Brewster says. “The needles disintegrate to soft dirt, which is unusual with all the sandstone.” Stake out a campsite, then climb on. Two large tinajas—rock depressions where water pools—signal the final summit approach. From the top, scan south to 6,801-foot Rainbow Mountain before retiring to your camp.

Red Rock Wildlife

Though the desert tortoise hibernates from November to March, other animals here stay active. At higher elevations, listen for the deep, hollow clip of hooves on rock, then scan cliffs for the curved horns of desert bighorn sheep. Gila monsters also call Red Rock home: The heavyweight of American lizards grows up to 20 inches long and weighs as much as 4 pounds. Brewster’s heard of sightings near Kraft Mountain, a peak just west of NV 159 before the fee station. And those donkeys braying near the Scenic Drive? They’re wild burros descended from ranching and mining pack animals.

First People, Infinite Legacy

Humans enter Red Rock history around 11,000 BC. More recently—1,000 years ago—Southern Paiutes moved through with the seasons. Their art adorns cliffs: See painted pictographs on the 1.5-mile Willow Spring Loop. Then take the .2-mile spur from Willow Spring Picnic Area to Petroglyph Wall, a brick-red panel etched with 800-year-old shapes. A 3-mile foray to Pine Creek Canyon passes donut-shaped limestone berms; these roasting pits were used to soften the spiny agave’s heart into a succulent dish.

Chase Waterfalls

Head 2.6 miles south of the Scenic Drive exit on NV 159 for a 3-mile out-and-back to First Creek Canyon. Follow a level trail 1.5 miles through open desert to the canyon mouth, then listen closely: “There’s a hidden waterfall,” says Brewster. “It runs almost year-round, but what’s a little trickle in summer becomes a 30-foot gusher in winter.” That cascade fills a pool framed by rust-colored boulders hung with ferns. No mirage. Just a desert jackpot.

Trip Planner

Season September to May Permit Required for overnighting (free); call (702) 515-5050 to obtain paperless permit.