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Oak Creek Canyon
Photo by Brent Holmes

Off the Beaten Path: Remember getting away from it all?

Desert Companion

These 16 hidden-gem hikes are rich in sights, silence, And solitude

Oak Creek Canyon

Pine Creek’s forgotten twin — all the dramatic vistas, minus the crowd

There’s no substitute for the deep canyons along the western edge of the Red Rock Scenic Loop. And that’s why they’re so damn crowded. But if you’re willing to drive down a short dirt road, you can cut the crowds by more than half, which is usually enough to get some alone time on the trail. Oak Creek has the same dramatic walls as Pine Creek Canyon and Ice Box Canyon, the same boulders, the same pools. But because people can’t see the parking area as they drive the loop, they just don’t visit Oak Creek in the throngs seen on competing trails.  AG

How to get there: Take the Red Rock Scenic Loop to the signed turnoff for Oak Creek. Drive down the short dirt road to the trailhead, then follow the trail west into the canyon.

Distance
3 miles

Elevation Gain
200 feet

 

Deer Creek

Discover a perennial creek that’s hiding in plain sight

Support comes from

Amazingly, I did not know Mt. Charleston had a year-round flowing creek until last summer. Deer Creek itself runs alongside usually-empty picnic tables at the Deer Creek Picnic Area, right on Deer Creek Road. I know, right? Anyway, following the trail upstream eventually leads to private property, which can be bypassed on the left. If you’re willing to venture farther off the beaten path, veer west-northwest just past the private property and rejoin Deer Creek, where you can follow it to its headwaters. Otherwise, the main trail continues roughly west-southwest and eventually climbs the steep hillside to Mummy Springs. From here, you can hike back via the North Loop trail to avoid retracing your steps.  AG

How to get there: Park at the Deer Creek parking area and cross Deer Creek Road to take the trail down to the picnic area.

Distance
2 miles

Elevation Gain
300 feet

 

Cholla Forest and Seven Dry Falls Loop

Trek to a grove of teddy bear cholla (but don’t cuddle!)

Cholla forest

Photo by Scott Lien

The quiet of this hike seems to lend itself to contemplation. As I saunter my way up Seven Dry Falls Canyon on my preferred counterclockwise route, my thoughts often turn to the amount of time required for a canyon like this to form. Rocks large and small must be broken down and carried away by rushing water, which falls in appropriate strength exceedingly rarely. The countless millennia have given a gift that few people take the time to appreciate.

This first leg of this loop stays in the bottom of a fun wash on the southeastern slope of the River Mountains. The number of dry falls climbed in the hike is a matter of some conjecture, as it’s unclear which pour-overs actually constitute “falls.” By my count, it could be as low as five or as high as 13. Each one creates its own challenge, a puzzle to be overcome with a combination of brawn and brain. If the puzzle gets the better of you, there are climb-arounds to the right of each fall.

At the top of the canyon, the route reaches a saddle that serves as the midpoint of the hike. Do yourself the favor of a brief side trip by following the game trail to the right (north) and scrambling your way up to the ridgeline. The views of Lake Mead and the surrounding River Mountains are truly breathtaking.

Back at the saddle, the trail heads southwest down to Cholla Forest Road. From there, it’s a short walk to the hillside home of a substantial family of the diabolical, and deceptively named, teddy bear cholla. The cholla are made of pods which are densely covered on all sides by a thicket of sharp spines, complete with microbarbs that, once embedded in clothing or skin, are very difficult and painful to remove. For goodness’ sake, be careful!

The loop is completed by hiking down Cholla Forest Road toward Lake Mead and turning left at the Boulder City lateral pump station to return to the parking area. There are beautiful views of Lake Mead throughout.  AG

How to get there: Park just beyond the water tanks on Cottonwood Tree Road, across Lakeshore Drive from the Boulder Beach Campground.

Distance
7 miles

Elevation Gain
1,200 feet

 

Cleopatra Wash

Seasoned hikers will savor the most colorful hike at Lake Mead

Cleopatra Wash

Photo by Alex Gegax

Our desert’s beauty usually comes in subtle shades of brown. At Cleopatra Wash, Mother Nature’s artistic palette is brought fully to bear. The topography of Cleopatra Wash is similar to many washes at Lake Mead. It has wide spots and narrow spots, an alternately rocky and gravelly bottom, misplaced boulders and tenacious vegetation. That alone makes it a wonderfully fun and varied hike, geared toward the seasoned hiker. Where Cleopatra Wash truly sets itself apart is in the bands and splotches of red, yellow, purple, white, and, of course, brown rocks that line its cliffs and spring up unexpected from its bottom. Around every bend is a new and surprising canvas, luring hikers all the way to the wash’s glorious terminus at the shore of Lake Mead.  AG

How to get there: Take Northshore Road to Boathouse Cove Road, 100 yards south of mile marker 30. In a high-clearance vehicle, drive three miles to the crossing of Cleopatra Wash. Hike down the wash from there.

Distance
6 miles

Elevation Gain
1,000 feet

 

Kraft Mountain Loop

Enjoy a Mojave Desert sampler in one encyclopedic hike

Kraft Mountain

Photo by Heidi Kyser

This 3.2-mile loop is a compact package of everything there is to love about Mojave Desert hiking: a robust little climb to start things off with a bang, some scrambling and hopping down pour-overs, an oak tree-lined wash for a shady rest, and a chance to gawk at young climbers who congregate around the Kraft Boulders near the end of the hike. All that is provided that you do it clockwise, which is recommended until you get used to identifying the spot where the trail crosses a broad expanse of rock and drops into Gateway Canyon. What gives the Kraft Mountain Loop its personality is the gorgeously patterned red-and-milky-white sandstone that fills the middle third of the hike. Descending the velvety slopes of these giant rocks — touching one, occasionally, to keep your balance — it’s easy to understand how people get addicted to climbing them. HK

How to get there: Take West Charleston Boulevard (State Route 159) about 30 minutes from city limits and turn right on Calico Basin Road. Go to the end of the paved road and park near the Sandstone Road Trailhead, where the hike starts. Several trails crisscross the desert around Kraft Mountain, so use a detailed trail guide to get to the right one.

Distance
3.25 miles

Elevation Gain
590 feet

 

Boulder Wash, Pinto Valley Wilderness

Beyond the scrub is a painted wonderland

A defining characteristic of Nevada wilderness is its hidden beauty. From the road, it may look like endless miles of boring scrub; but get out of your car, hike in a ways, and a colorful wonderland reveals itself. This is the case with Pinto Valley. Only after topping the ridge a half-hour from your car does the landscape open up into something that seems worth getting a closer look at. As the name “Pinto” (Spanish for “painted”) suggests, it’s a tableau of red, yellow, brown, and gray mudstone, sandstone, and sedimentary rock along a wide, flat wash leading to a hidden cove. One warning: The trail is entirely unmarked, so a map or GPS is needed.  HK

How to get there: Drive northeast on Northshore Road in Lake Mead National Recreation Area to mile marker 18. About two-tenths of a mile farther, you’ll see a paved pullout on the left. Park there. The trailhead is on the opposite side of the road.

Distance
11 miles

Elevation Gain
2,000 feet

 

Pinnacles

So rarely visited it still has that new trail smell (and plenty of bighorn sheep)

Pinnacles

Photo by Christopher Smith

Pinnacles takes “off the beaten path” literally. The last section of this loop, across the open, untouched desert, has not yet been beaten in by years of hiking boots, and the trail gets very faint in areas. Don’t worry, the Atlatl and Arch Rock formations, and the crowds of tourists that go with them, can be seen from miles away to guide you home. At the heart of the trail, Pinnacles gets hikers up close and personal with the most dramatically vertical red rocks in all of Valley of Fire. Take the time to climb around, see what’s around the bend and over the rise. As an added bonus, the steep terrain and lack of humans seems to attract bighorn sheep, which I’ve seen every time I’ve hiked the Pinnacles.  AG

How to get there: Park at the Atlatl Rock parking lot, and take the marked trail to the north.

Distance
5 miles

Elevation Gain
400 feet

 

Windy Peak

A rigorous climb rewards you with a breathtaking payoff

Windy  Peak

Photo by Heidi Kyser

Let the unwashed masses fight each other for parking at the pullouts off the Red Rock Scenic Loop. You, queen of the desert, will survey your domain from the majestic ridges that overlook them from the southwest! That’s how it will feel arriving at Windy Peak, a 6,200-foot summit that’s easily accessible without having to go anywhere near the heavily trafficked 159. The view from Windy Peak is the payoff for a fairly rigorous climb up from the trailhead to the highest point — a net elevation gain of more than 900 vertical feet in just over a mile and a half (the entire hike is a little more than 5 miles). From there, you’ll descend along a ridge where geology buffs can geek out about passing over the Keystone Thrust Fault, where one tectonic plate was pushed above another during the Mesozoic Era. Stand with one foot on the gray limestone and the other on the yellow sandstone, and you’ll figuratively straddle 65 million years!  HK

How to get there: Go west on Blue Diamond Road (State Route 160). Nearly 10 miles past the junction with State Route 159, look for the Mountain Springs sign. Just before the town, there’s a turnout where the trailhead is located.

Distance
5.2 miles

Elevation Gain
900 feet

 

Bonanza Peak, from Cold Creek

All the switchbacks in the world can’t keep you from this peak (but they’ll try)

Let’s be clear: This hike is tough. It’s four miles of climbing (some 2,800 vertical feet!) to the summit, some of it on rocky terrain, with switchbacks that seem like they’ll never end. But it’s also everything that draws crowds to Mount Charleston — cool ponderosa and bristlecone pine forest, pristine wilderness, sweeping vistas — without those crowds. Note that the summit proper isn’t on the trail, so a guidebook or GPS unit is necessary to find the cutoff to get there from the saddle. With either of those tools, however, it’s easy to get to, and offers views of Mummy Mountain, the Nevada Test and Training Range, Desert National Wildlife Refuge, and even Pahrump.  HK

How to get there: Go to Cold Creek — off Interstate 95 about an hour northwest of Las Vegas — and continue south through town to the Bonanza Trailhead at the end of Cold Creek Road.

Distance
8 miles

Elevation Gain
2,8520 feet

 

Brownstone Canyon

Ponder ancient pictographs in quiet seclusion

People love rock art. Whether it’s petroglyphs (created by carving into the rock) or pictographs (created by painting the rock), these remnants of cultures past always draw a crowd. Red Rock’s most famous example, the petroglyphs at Willow Springs, bring in tourists by the busload — literally. The pictographs at Brownstone Canyon, by contrast, are secluded enough that you will almost certainly have them all to yourself. Take advantage of that quiet time to ponder their meaning. Among the untouched hills in this far-flung section of Red Rock, it’s easy to imagine life as it was a thousand years ago, before overcrowding required sites like this to be put behind fences. Soak it in.  AG

How to get there: You can either walk (it’s illegal to drive) up the wash from the far western edge of Summerlin, or park at the Kraft Mountain parking area and pick your way north through the hills.

Distance
5 miles

Elevation Gain
1,000 feet

 

Stanley B Springs

A spring! A mine! A campsite? All of the above

Stanley B Springs

Photo by Brent Holmes

Nestled between the overcrowded trailhead for Fletcher Canyon and the overcrowded trailhead of Trail Canyon lies the often empty dirt lot that is the trailhead for Stanley B Springs. The trail climbs through an old forest that is rich with manzanita, mountain mahogany, and gambel oak. Along the way, clearings provide stunning views of Kyle Canyon, from Harris Peak to Cathedral Rock. The jewel of the hike, of course, is the two springs that meet alongside the trail, just below the mine.

From this confluence, hikers can take the path to the right, and follow the tumbling stream to its source, a mine shaft carved into the hillside, blocked by sturdy metal bars. Once home to a wary miner’s avaricious dreams, the mine is now home to a population of bats. Farther up the canyon, the trail becomes difficult, and is soon blocked by the detritus of another, similarly abandoned mine.

Returning to the confluence and taking the other fork, to the left, the hike extends as far as your sense of adventure will take you. This tiny but reliable rivulet, a rare commodity in our harsh desert, cascades its way alongside the trail all the way to a small concrete ruin, built up around its source.

Just below the spring on the eastern hillside, is a large graded area that is the perfect spot for a small group of tents. Staying here, hikers have a reliable source of water, and can really take their time exploring this seldom visited section of Mt. Charleston. During one such exploratory trip, I found another campsite, hidden on the opposite hill (west). The first thing I noticed on the steep, scree-covered hillside was a perfectly level spot of ground, just big enough for a two-person tent. Someone actually went to the trouble of building a retaining wall from fallen logs and branches, and backfilling it with smooth, soft dirt. One of these days, I’m going to get back there and set up a tent of my own.  AG

How to get there: The trailhead for Stanley B Springs is a dirt lot big enough for about 10 cars, on the north side of Kyle Canyon Road, just west of Rainbow Canyon Blvd.

Distance
3 miles

Elevation Gain
1,000 feet

 

Grand Circle

Get an insider’s view of Red Rock Canyon at a leisurely pace

Grand Circle

Photo by Alan Gegax

Believe it or not, it’s possible to hike within the core area of Red Rock, visiting four bustling trailheads, yet have the trail all to yourself for most of the day. The Grand Circle is an ambitious endeavor, covering nearly 12 miles as it winds its way around the park, roughly following the Scenic Loop. The hike affords the opportunity to become intimately familiar with the Calico Hills, White Rock, and the Escarpment — the best of what Red Rock has to offer. In my opinion, the Grand Circle is the best way to see the park.

The best way to hike Grand Circle: amble. It’s a long trail, and it deserves to be enjoyed. The sights, sounds, and scents change substantially as Grand Circle touches on the varied landscapes of Red Rock. As cars zoom by on the Scenic Drive, cameras out the window trying to capture the incredible views, you can relax, knowing those views will be yours all day long.

On my last trip around Grand Circle, these were a few of the experiences I had along the way: Between the Visitor Center and Calico I, I saw a beetle impaled on a yucca leaf. First time I’ve come across that particular sight. Just past Sandstone Quarry, I encountered a lone, burned out tree, standing on a hillside otherwise bare from an already-forgotten wildfire. Above Ice Box Canyon, I walked through a stand of cliffrose, which, though not in bloom, filled the air with its unmistakable floral scent. They’re not dramatic, but they’re the type of thing we often fly past in daily life. Walking a long distance, away from crowds, affords the opportunity to really soak in our experiences. It’s Grand that such experiences can be had right in the heart of Red Rock.    AG

How to get there: Park at the Visitors Center and start your hike on the Moenkopi Loop. From there, follow the signs to stay on the Grand Circle, counterclockwise around the park.

Distance
12 miles

Elevation Gain
2,700 feet

 

Charlie’s Spring

Just you, yourself and the wildlife on this spring-fed walk

Most visitors to Valley of Fire are drawn to the park’s dramatic sandstone. That leaves Charlie’s Spring, one of the park’s only perennial water sources, largely unvisited — except by wildlife. Hiking during the crepuscular hours, when the desert’s inhabitants are at their most active, the quiet of the trail offers reliable wildlife viewing. As an added bonus, the water that flows just below the surface for most of the hike allows for flora that doesn’t exists in most of Valley of Fire. Among other superlatives, this area has, by far, the biggest brittlebush plants I have ever seen.  AG

How to get there: Park at the historic marker, a mile inside the east entrance to Valley of Fire, and follow the trail south to the wash, then take the wash downhill (left) to the spring.

Distance
6 miles

Elevation Gain
500 feet

 

Anthem East to McCullough Hills

Spot quail, lizards, and snakes on this sun-soaked excursion

McCullough Hills

Photo by Christopher Smith

What this hike lacks in petroglyphs — the hallmark of Sloan Canyon — it more than makes up for in wildlife. Tell your hiker friends that you’re striking out on the Anthem East trail, and they’re sure to tell you about the snake that crossed their path out there, or the family of quail they scared up from the creosote. One of two main caveats of this hike is it’s multi-use; you’re likely to be passed by a mountain biker or two — and maybe even someone on horseback. The other caveat is the trail’s utter lack of shade, apart from a lean-to over two benches at mile 3. This isn’t a hot-weather hike! But it’s perfect for any level of hiker who enjoys spotting lizards and jackrabbits as the dirt path meanders pleasantly through the hills toward the opposite trailhead in Henderson. The full hike is 17 miles point-to-point and back again, but it can be shortened with an earlier turnaround.  HK

How to get there: For the west-to-east version described here, drive to Anthem Hills Park off McCullough Hills Parkway near Del Webb Middle School in Anthem. Go all the way to the end of the park’s easternmost parking lot, where a shaded picnic table marks the trailhead.

Distance
17 miles

Elevation Gain
533 feet

 

Redstone

Your own private roadside Red Rock that’s worth the drive

Redstone

Photo by Christopher Smith

Imagine if there were a place like Red Rock, where you could park right at the foot of the most gnarled and dramatic sandstone formations, have a picnic in a shaded ramada, and have the whole area almost entirely to yourself. That place is Redstone. Wind and rain have sculpted the rocks at Redstone into seemingly impossible shapes, with potholes, alcoves, arcs, and spires that tease the imagination. Two short, flat trails amble through the area, offering limitless opportunities for photographers, youthful explorers, and anyone taken by the wonder of geology. Apparently, 30 miles of meandering desert highway is all it takes to keep the gawkers away. Let their loss be your gain, and take your family for an easy picnic they won’t soon forget.  AG

How to get there:
From Las Vegas, head out to Lake Mead and go north on Northshore Road to Redstone, around mile marker 27.

Distance
1 mile

Elevation Gain
100 feet

 

Mahogany Trail

A crumbling campsite awaits your discovery in a murmuring forest

This short but interesting trail is perfect for children or beginner hikers. The area was once a campsite, constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and is now returning to its natural state. Along the trail, the Forest Service has put up informational signs detailing the natural and human histories of the area. As the hike winds its way downhill into a wash, there are occasional benches where parents can catch their breath as the little ones enjoy the great outdoors. Or, on a day when the trail is quiet (which is most days), a seasoned hiker can take in the natural sounds and sights of the forest, so often missed on more crowded trails. To turn the hike into a short loop, follow the trail to the Mahogany Grove Campground and make a left to walk back up the road. AG

How to get there: The trailhead for this hike is in a small parking lot at the entrance to the Mahogany Grove Campground, on Deer Creek Road. 

Distance
1 mile

Elevation Gain
150 feet

 

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