Nature's Neon Glow

Valley of Fire State Park isn't far, but it's miles away from the city's buzz

By: Ryan Slattery

Not far from the neon glow of the Las Vegas Strip, Mother Nature puts on her own daily light show. And those who venture out to this secluded part of the Nevada desert know it’s nothing short of spec-tacular.

Valley of Fire State Park, a basin of colorful Aztec sandstone, water-carved canyons, rock arches, spires and domes, is a wonderland of rainbow-colored rock less than an hour's drive from the city.

But despite the valley’s proximity to Las Vegas, it's a place often overlooked by visitors. Of the 35 million who come to the city each year, only a small percentage visit the area's strikingly different terrain, dotted with petrified logs and hundreds of prehistoric rock carvings.

But, be warned. Daytime summer temperatures usually exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so remind clients to bring hats, sun-screen and plenty of water.

Wet winters can bring about superb spring wildflower displays of marigolds and desert mallow.

Created in 1935, Valley of Fire is Nevada's oldest and largest state park. The odd rock formations, created during the dinosaur age by wind and water, have taken on fantastic shapes. Some, like Elephant Rock, Grand Piano and the Beehives, are named while others are left to your imagination.

The best time to visit the park is when the sun is low in sky and not only for the cooler temperatures. Late in the day, the red sandstone really comes alive, igniting in a surreal, fiery glow as the sun sinks low in the west.

Valley of Fire is mainly a stop-and-go park. Most highlights, such as the Cabins, specially built stone shelters to accommodate overnight travelers in the 1930s, and the Seven Sisters, towering monoliths, are located at pullouts and overlooks.

But there are several short trails worth the walk.

Entering from the west on Interstate 15, the loop road, near Atlatl Rock Campground, offers a good introduction to the park and is a nice place to explore the unusual rock formations.

Visitors also will find Atlatl Rock, the largest petroglyph panel in the park. An iron staircase leads to the site, which is on a sheer wall about 150 feet above the picnic area and canyon floor. The images of hunters and mountain sheep, as well as some circular designs, were scratched into the stone thousands of years ago. Among the drawings is an atlatl (pronounced at’-lat-l), a notched stick used to throw spears that is the predecessor to the bow and arrow.

The short interpretive trail to the petrified logs may disappoint some, but the Mouse's Tank Trail north of the visitor's center is not to be missed.

It is named for a rebel Southern Paiute Indian, who in the 1890s had several run-ins with settlers and reportedly killed two prospec-tors. He used to hide in the maze-like configuration of slot canyons and caves.

The easy half-mile roundtrip trail to Mouse's Tank, a natural sandstone tub that collects rain-water, loops through a peach-colored sandy wash and past hundreds of ancient petroglyphs before returning visitors to their vehicles.

If clients decide to skip the 3-mile roundtrip hike to the 600-foot-deep Fire Canyon gorge, they should take the gravel spur road to Silica Dome for a glimpse of one of the park's best examples of cross-bedded layers of gold and red sandstone.

Continuing to the far end of the park, walkers will come to White Domes. There, two huge white silica formations melt into the red sandstone, creating tints of lavender and pink that usually are in sharp contrast against the cloud-less, cobalt-blue sky.

The White Domes Loop trail is slightly over a mile long, dips about 500 yards into a ravine then eventually returns to the parking lot. It leads past the filming site for the 1965 film “The Professionals,” slips through a narrow slot canyon and runs across the open desert. The area is spotted with creosote bush, brittlebush, beaver tail and cholla cactus and surrounded by peach-, purple- and cream-colored canyon walls.

So the next time clients say there’s nothing in Vegas but the clanking of coins, blinding neon and the crowds on the Strip, remind them that solitude is just a short drive away.

Detailed information on visitor’s center hours and other park features is posted at Entry fees are $5 per vehicle. Camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis at $13 a day, which includes the vehicle entry fee. The park is open all year. 702-397-2088