by Sam Burkhart
A short and relatively cheap flight to Sin City puts you on the doorstep of some of the most spectacular, yet relatively unknown adventure opportunities in the world.
The Valley of Fire is one example and this spring I had the opportunity to explore some of what this park has to offer.
The Valley of Fire lies 88 km northeast of Las Vegas and less than 10 km from Lake Mead. The park, which was dedicated in 1935, encapsulates a cluster of iron-rich outcroppings that jut out of the Mojave Desert like giant Martian stalagmites. These red sandstone formations that give the park its name have been used to portray alien landscapes in film and also make for glorious hiking, exploring and photography.
You’ll want to set up camp in one of the park’s two first-come, first-serve campsites. Our guide, a park ranger and desert-lifer told us setting up camp anywhere but the designated campsites, while permitted, isn’t a great idea.
“Our season is a 12-month season, but we see a drop in camping around June 1. For some reason folks don’t want to camp when it gets over [38°C] and it will be 40°C to 46°C for three months. In the designated campsites you have shade and water — key to surviving in 40°+ weather.”
Even in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall are the ideal times to visit the park), temperatures often reach the 30s. If you do strike out on your own, make sure you’re well-provisioned and don’t expect cellphone service in the park. It’s spotty at best.
There are 72 units up for grabs and these campsites are equipped with shaded tables, grills, water and washrooms. A dump station and showers are also available.
Avoid the RVs, which are prevalent in the park, by camping at Arch Rock, which is more secluded with private campsites. Camping here will also put you among some of the most interesting rock formations in the park, including Arch Rock, Piano Rock and the nearby beehives — rock formations that, you guessed it, look like beehives. Trek through these formations for a glimpse at some of the finest examples of ancient petroglyphs in the park, including a depiction of the atlatl, a notched stick used to throw primitive spears and the primary ranged hunting weapon before the advent of the bow and arrow. Other examples can be found in the aptly named Petroglyph Canyon, a short drive northeast of Arch Rock. Petroglyph Canyon, a wash (or arroyo) which fills with water after a rainfall, is floored with fine, red sediment. Follow this path to Mouse’s Tank. Legend has it that Mouse, a drifter and renegade from the 1890s, hid out in the rock formations here while posses searched for him. He was able to outlast the posses because he knew of a natural basin capable of holding water for months after a rainfall. On our visit, the tank was dry.
“Annual rainfall is listed at four inches. But to be honest with you we’re lucky to see 2.5 most years. Every once in a while we have one of those really wet years that brings the average up. But three inches is pretty good.” So wherever you hike, take water and when you think you have enough, take more.
Charlie’s Spring loop is another popular trail of about 10 km. It takes you through a wash and by the Clark Memorial which honours a traveller who died here in June of 1915. The trail eventually leads to a spring producing water year-round.
Prospect Trail is a 13 km loop that begins at White Domes, one of the most stunning rock formations in the park. It’s about an 8km hike overland from the campsite to White Domes.
For the most part this park is a sandbox — yours to play in and our guide encourages this. “We don’t have a lot of trails because we want people to go out and explore.” Free climbing and bouldering are fair game, though technical climbing is limited to Lone Rock and there are no chalk, pitons, cams, or other hardware allowed.
On a sunny day in the park, the contrast between the reddish orange of the rock and the bright blue sky is breathtaking and on a cloudy day (more rare) there is an eerie, otherworldly feel to this place. This alien landscape was filmed to portray the surface of Mars in Total Recall and the planet Veridian III in Star Trek Generations. For trekkies, it’s something of a holy land — the place where Captain Kirk met his end. “Oh, my.”
From Las Vegas: Take I-15 North to exit #75. Take a right at the end of the exit ramp and follow the road heading towards the Valley of Fire State Park. The park is approximately 11 miles east of I-15.