Recently, DH and I took a trip to Las Vegas, and I couldn’t get out of the city fast enough. Vegas can be fascinating. I’ve seen some amazing shows there, and I do love the dancing fountain, but ultimately it is autism hell as far as I’m concerned, with all the lights, noise, crowds, chaos, unpredictable drunks and the blatant sexual trafficking. But Nevada has a lot to offer to those with a more mellow and nature-oriented disposition. One such place is Valley of Fire State Park. Yes, please. So off we went.
If you go nowhere else in this state, go there. I adore National Parks, and I was stunned, frankly, that this was “just” a state park, because it was so jaw-droppingly spectacular. But I can’t blame Nevada for wanting to hold on to it rather than passing it off to the feds. It’s a treasure.
There is so much to see in the Valley of Fire that I strongly urge you to go hiking there as much as you possibly can. I’m glad I had the foresight to wear hiking boots with good ankle support and take along a hiking stick. Without those, I probably would have pooped out halfway through and then spent the rest of my life kicking myself for what I missed. Water is also a must. Bring lots of it.
I’m glad we went in March, because I can’t imagine what the heat must be like in July. They say it can get up to 120°F. Needless to say, hiking at that time is not recommended. This is part of the Mojave Desert, after all, and, as with water, there’s very little shade to be had.
No matter what time of year you choose to visit, though, start in the early morning, because there is a lot to see, and beating the crowds makes your experience all the more appealing. Pack food, though, because this park is 40,000 acres, and if you really want to do it justice, you’ll be there a while. There are no readily available restaurants.
Despite your early morning start, it’s also highly recommended that you be present about an hour before sunset, because that’s the time when the rocks glow like fire. I suspect you could visit this park again and again and never see the same things twice.
A little history about Nevada’s first and largest state park is warranted before we start our journey: about 150 million years ago, this land was covered in sand dunes which have since turned into red sandstone formations. Even earlier than that, the land was covered by sea, and the whitish limestone that you see among the red sandstone comes from that period. There is evidence that humans that we now call the Gypsum people first occupied the area 11,000 years ago. The ancestral Puebloan people lived nearby from AD 500-1100, but then left the area due to a harsh drought. Later, the Southern Paiute people moved in, and are still there to this day. Mormon settlers arrived in 1865. The area became a state park in 1934.
Sadly, DH and I got a later start than I had hoped, and there is a significant bottleneck at the park entrance where you pay your fee, so we did not have time to hike out to what is perhaps the park’s most iconic view, that of the Fire Wave. I had hoped to fly a kite out there. I checked in advance, and while drones are not allowed, kites are acceptable. That would have made for some gorgeous photos!
One thing that always surprises me about the people who visit epic parks like this one is that relatively few of them take advantage of the expertise of the park rangers. Ask questions. Make a travel plan. That’s what they’re there for! And nerd that I am, I always love wandering about in the informational displays at the visitor’s center.
When we arrived at the center, I sidled up to the front desk and said, “We have x amount of time, and we were hoping to see this, this, and this. Will that be possible?” That’s when she broke the news that I could see everything I wanted to within that timeframe except for the Fire Wave. Bummer. But if I hadn’t asked and had tried for it, not only would I have had to turn back before seeing it, but I’d have missed the White Domes Loop, too, which is also amazing. So, thanks, ranger! I wish I had thought to get your name.
The park is known for its desert tortoises and Gila monsters, as well as its kit foxes, quail, jackrabbits and bighorn sheep. I would have liked to have seen any one of those, but the place seemed devoid of life on that day, unless you count the invasive humans, the occasional creosote bush, mesquite, wild rhubarb, and evening primrose. I am rather pleased that I didn’t come upon any rattlesnakes, though. They make their home here, too.
Another thing the park is known for is its petroglyphs. I adore petroglyphs, so I made a point of seeing as many as I could while there. I’m guessing that I saw hundreds of them. So many, in fact, that I’m breaking that out into a separate blog post. So you can look forward to that next time, if you, too, enjoy earth’s most ancient public art.
The first place we stopped in the park, even before the visitor’s center, was Atlatl Rock, which is all about the petroglyphs, so let’s put a pin in that one until next time. After that came the visitor’s center, and then we hiked out to Mouse’s Tank. It’s a 0.75 mile trail out and back. The name alone would have intrigued me enough, but the story behind it is even better.
Mouse’s Tank is named for a Southern Paiute Indian named Little Mouse, who hid out in this area after having been accused of killing two prospectors and getting up to some other lawless shenanigans back in the 1890’s. As we hiked toward Mouse’s Tank, I could just imagine him hiding in the many nooks and crannies along the way. He’d have been nearly impossible to find. His only challenge would have been water. Because of this, he stuck close by the natural water tank that is now named for him. It is believed that a manhunt managed to track him down and kill him rather quickly for that very reason.
When we gazed down into the tank, I have to say that my impression of this fetid pool was less than stellar. One would have to be pretty desperate to drink from this muddy puddle. It’s probably teeming with bacteria and parasites. I’m surprised that Little Mouse didn’t die of diarrhea before the posse got ahold of him. But it was cool to gaze down there and imagine the thirsty desperado that most of us only get to see in old spaghetti westerns.
Another cool thing about that hike is that you have to walk through Petroglyph Canyon to get there. (I tell you, I was in petroglyph heaven!) Consider that little tidbit pinned for my next post as well. But here are some non-petroglyph photos from the hike.
Like seeing dragons in the clouds, I kept imagining things in these otherworldly formations. Can you see the one of two adults, side by side, one of whom is holding a baby, or is it just me?
From Mouse’s Tank, we drove northward. My lip kind of quivered as we drove past the parking area for the Fire Wave trailhead. It was jam-packed with cars, so we might not have been able to go there anyway, and if we had, we’d have been jockeying with about a hundred other people for good view and a decent photograph. I’d rather go there during whatever is considered to be low season, and have the place to myself. Yet another thing for the bucket list.
Instead, we headed toward the end of the road, to the White Domes Loop, which I had been secretly assuming would be a consolation prize. Silly me. That loop is 1.1 miles long, and unlike Mouse’s Tank, which is barely a challenge except for the sandy trail beneath the unrelenting sun, this next place really was a hike. It presents you with 108 feet of elevation change, and lots of scrambling up rocks and stepping over rubble. But it was worth it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Each section of the trail is wildly different from the last. At one point you go through a cool (in temperature as well as in vibe) slot canyon.
The different rock formations you encounter on this hike are stunning. There are caves and windows along the way. You become dazzled by the stripes and curves. You revel in the light and shadows.
At one point, you stumble upon the remains of an old movie set for a movie called The Professionals, starring Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, and Ralph Bellamy. I have got to see this movie now. Just watching the trailer makes me realize that I stood on some of the very spots where Burt Lancaster stood. (Swoon!)
According to Wikipedia and the park signs themselves, that’s not the only movie that has been shot here. Viva Las Vegas, Electric Horseman, Total Recall, and even an episode of Star Trek Generations used this park as its backdrop. Captain Kirk was cinematically buried at the Silica Dome. (I wonder where William Shatner will wind up?)
That Hollywood was drawn to this place doesn’t surprise me. How could any director pass up such spectacular scenery? But I do feel for all the crew members who probably had to schlep the camera equipment and lighting out on their backs.
Oddly enough, the thing I thought about most while wandering through this gorgeous arid landscape was the wind and water that has shaped it over millennia. At one point I lay back on a slope and imagined exotic sea creatures from the Cretaceous Period swimming overhead where the birds of prey now fly. The Niobraran Sea that covered this area may be long gone, but its legacy remains. What we see today is a shadow of the drama that nature played out here, but the results are like nothing else you’ll ever see.
I’m honored that I got to bear witness to such beauty. What a gift. Sometimes I feel like the luckiest person on earth.
I’ll leave you now with some more stunning images from the park and its environs. Enjoy!
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