At first we thought crossing the Utah-Nevada state border might be a bit boring, after being totally wowed by southern Utah during the past few weeks. But on this route into the state we enjoyed stretches of gorgeous mountain ranges, a vast treeless valley floor, and seas of sagebrush on dry desert. Continue reading
I thought two posts would cover our stop at this gem in Nevada, but there’s so much breathtaking beauty here that I had to cover some of it in more detail. I promise this is my final post on Valley of Fire!
After taking the scenic drive and hiking around the area, we revisited the valley (pictured above) at sunrise and again at sunset to further immerse ourselves in details of the formations. We wanted to answer some questions, like how did all of these colors and textures come about?
We knew from past experience that the presence of iron gives rocks that red hue in the soil and mountains. Tumultuous earth events over millions of years, plus the handiwork of wind and water erosion over time have left us with the incredible vistas here.
Geologic forces and erosion in other places we’ve visited have left landforms that took our breath away. But the forces that created Valley of Fire are concentrated in a relatively small land area when compared to places like the Pictured Rocks in Upper Michigan, Painted Desert in Arizona, Artist Pallete at Death Valley or the badlands in North Dakota and South Dakota. The colorful array of rocks, swirls, patterns and folds are always extraordinary, but this place was really top notch!
As usual, my photos can’t do justice to what we saw, and be forewarned that this will be a rocky post!
These photos were taken at Wash #5, the 5th dip on the scenic drive. If you don’t want to leave your car in the wash, park at Lot #3 and cross the road to follow the Firewall Trail. Then prepare to be awestruck!
Our question as to why there are such color differences in the rocks was answered by a visitor center display. It advised that the Aztec sandstone does indeed derive its characteristic red color from iron oxide in the rock. How the iron got into the various layers is a subject of debate among geologists. Some theorize it leached downward through the porous sandstone through overlying rock. But others note that some areas in the upper layers are white and do not contain iron oxide. This suggests that the rocks have actually been stained from the bottom up by water circulating minerals from the iron-rich layers beneath. Whichever is true, the result is gorgeous!
Back I went at the end of the day to have another look around. First I went out onto the Fire Canyon Trail to check it out. We had not followed this short trail because we’re not crazy about hiking in deep sand. But what caught my attention here were the desert plants that seemed to glow in the sun’s reflection as it bounced off the red rocks.
From there I drove back to the scenic road and stopped at Lot #2 for a walk down the hill. The sun was low and the rocks were aglow! I named this area the Peachy Swirl Sundae or Orange Sundae. I was happy to be all alone, and so giddy that I didn’t know which way to point my camera! Sure enough, the formations at this time of the day had been transformed into a dramatic and lively landscape.
This was such a stunning place that I eventually put my camera down and just sat there savoring the panorama until the sun dipped below the horizon. I was blown away!
And this is just the beginning of our adventures in the land of multi-colored rocks. Our next stop begins a 3-month adventure in the mother lode of vividly-colored rock formations – Utah!
Next up: Hello, Utah!
Our scenic drive into Valley of Fire (click here if you missed it) and the breathtaking trail explorations left us wanting more. Fortunately we had a week to explore this park, and did we ever rock out!
The park didn’t have extensive trails, but the ones we followed took us past many intriguing rock formations and colors that wowed us again and again. The story of how the earth moved to cause the folding, thrusting and shoving of ancient seas millions of years ago resulted in what we saw as a geologists’s dream.
This was our first trek, and it led us to a cluster of sandstone towers. The high gray mountain ridge here is made up of the oldest exposed rocks in the park, estimated to be 550 millions years old. The red rocks in front of it are younger, “only” 66 million years old.
After going around the southern edge of a ridge of dark gray-green rock and doing a bit of scrambling, the pinnacles came into view:
On this trail we were fascinated by eroding large and small sedimentary rocks cemented together by minerals:
After climbing the pinnacles we were rewarded with beautiful scenery in every direction:
The shrubs near the top of the pinnacles displayed a bluish-green tinge that made Steve take notice:
Approaching our campground, we stopped by groups of ancient sand dunes that have hardened over millions of years. This is part of the cluster seen on my header image:
Another trail we followed took us behind those huge sandstone formations that make up most of the state park. We began our hike from the campground and crossed open desert before hiking into the enormous sandstones. The cacti were beginning to bud, and we could only guess how vibrant this area would be in a few weeks.
The sandstones here are ginormous, weathered by wind and time and forming odd shapes and forms. These formations were originally sand, mud, silt or lime that became stone over 300 million years ago.
The trail ended at White Dome Rock, and the oppressive dry heat was getting to us so we headed back.
Natural Arch Trail/Elephant Trail
We had planned to see the natural arch on this trail, but after walking a while in deep sand in the wash we decided to try another trail.
It’s a good thing we detoured to the Elephant Trail just up the road. The Big Horn Sheep were out for their breakfast in big numbers:
Back at the campground, Betsy was parked right in front of a large sandstone rock that Steve wanted to conquer:
We spent a day exploring in and around our campground, and checked out whimsical formations that were close by:
I’ll stop now or you’ll be yawning like that indian. But the beauty is in the details, as you’ll see in my next post!
Next up: It’s really in the details
The drive along the north shore road from Lake Mead National Recreation Area was a colorful and rocky landscape that lead us to one of Nevada’s hidden gems, Valley of Fire State Park. I must warn my readers that this post and several succeeding ones will be laden with geologic rocks in various forms, shapes and colors.
Steve was happy that the road was well paved, unlike the many crappy roads in Tucson, AZ. Since it was so nice, he was able to enjoy the scenery more than usual as we negotiated the curvy and hilly roads snaking through the dramatic landscape.
Valley of Fire S.P. is located just 50 miles northeast of the bright lights of Las Vegas. It’s named for the red sandstone formations that have been carved by shifting sand dunes that were formed and solidified during the age of dinosaurs. It’s really an island of red rocks in the desert, and because the sun was hitting it at just the right angle when we arrived it looked like the rocks were ablaze. Amazing!
We arrived early in the morning, as the campground sites are on a first-come first-served basis. At 40′ plus a car we had a choice of three spots, and fortunately site #24 had just been vacated. Although many of the electric/water sites were very out of level, we were able to get close in this one (Steve’s review here).
The forecast for the following day called for wind and possibly rain, so once we were hooked up we immediately drove the scenic drive. I had seen pictures of this park, but we were not prepared for the out-of-this-world landscape here!
We first pulled over at the Petroglyph Canyon Trail, where evidence of human use of the area was etched on the canyon walls. Nobody knows the meaning of these symbols, but the art reflects the thoughts of these people 4,000 years ago. The trail was short, but walking through deep sand along a rocky drainage area made the going a bit difficult.
Not only did the petroglyphs keep us constantly looking up at the canyon walls, but also the many eroded rocks in fascinating forms grabbed our attention..
At the summit the road opened up to reveal an amazing display of rocks in many colors, aptly named Rainbow Vista. We parked and climbed up a huge outcropping to enjoy a 360-degree panorama of 150 million year old colored rocks, canyons, domes, ridges and valleys. The panel described the view as a wild and virtually untouched wilderness carved from sand deposited during the time when dinosaurs walked the earth.
Its spectacular, its amazing, its surreal!
Next we swung by Fire Canyon Road and viewed the dramatic change from white to red in the sandstone which was caused by small quantities of iron that produced rust-like stains.
Back on the road, we drove slowly so we could ogle the many layers of multicolored rocks. There were pull-outs and parking lots that allowed more close-up exploration, but for now we just drove leisurely as we “oohed” and “aahed” on our way to White Dome Rock.
“Wow!” was all we could say at every turn. The short White Dome Rock Trail showcased a little bit of everything here, and a walk in the cream-colored sand led us past a slot canyon where we gawked at massive formations with contrasting colors amidst the Mohave Desert landscape.
We saw a sign that listed movies that had been filmed in the area over the years. We plan to keep our eyes open for them to see how the locations were used.
After a short hike we backtracked and stopped at parking lot #3 to access the famed “Firewave”. It’s reminiscent of the Coyote Buttes in the Vermillion Cliffs, which are called “The Wave”. Since we haven’t been able to get a reservation at The Wave so far, we’re content to see a sampling of it here. This place is incredible and I’m running out of adjectives to describe it!
The scenic drive and short trails can be done in a day. For those of you visiting Las Vegas, take a day off from gambling if you have a car and make a day trip out here. It’s a seriously wild place, with the fascinating details yet to come!
I took so many photos that I couldn’t decide which ones to post, but you really need to come here and see this fascinating place for yourself.
Next up: Life is in the detail
We had thought a week at Lake Mead National Recreation Area would be long enough – wrong! Being active in the Nevada heat induced us to take a couple of days off to just lounge around and enjoy the view from our site (Steve’s review of Lake Mead RV Village here). But what is it that wore us out, you might wonder?
First we spent a day walking over 14 miles on the Historic National Railroad Tunnel Trail (if you missed that story, click here). On other days we zip-lined over the top of Bootleg Canyon, drifted lazily down the Colorado river, and finally we hiked out to the Arizona Hot Springs. Between all of those activities and trying to explore the area a bit, time flew by.
Zipping over Bootleg Canyon
When Dave and Faye visited us last Christmas, they mentioned that they’d had a great zip-line experience at Boulder City. That was enough for Steve to list it as a “must do” while at Lake Mead. Steve had zipped over the Royal Gorge in Colorado, and he’d been ready for more ever since. And I must have been feeling a bit crazy myself, as I decided to join him!
The 4-segment course run by Flightlinez boasts over 1.5 miles of zipline cable running different lengths and at progressively lower elevations down Red Mountain.
The day began with a scenic van ride to the top of the mountain, with a light-hearted narration containing historical, geological and ecological information along the way. That was followed by a short but fairly strenuous hike to the 3,800′ peak of the mountain, with Steve carrying the trolleys we would use for our zips. The views of Las Vegas, Lake Mead and the Eldorado Valley were awesome from up there.
Click below to see our first zip down the mountain at 60mph:
Our fun lasted for about three hours and covered 8,000′ on the cables. Between runs we relaxed and enjoyed the vistas, and even spotted a trail that John and Pam had followed here. Red Mountain is known for its Bootleg Canyon Mountain Bike Park, an internationally renowned venue for mountain bikers with different types of trails designated as “epic rides.” We saw some bikers hitting the trails below, but we’re pretty sure zipping down was a lot easier.
It was quite a thrill and we had a blast!
Floating through Black Canyon
The following day we embarked on a 12-mile river rafting trip. It followed part of the river’s 30-mile section designated as the National Water Trail of the Lower Colorado River Black Canyon. We learned that it’s one of only 16 National Water Trails, the only one in the southwest and the only one that passes through a desert.
Our adventure began near the base of Hoover Dam, and almost under the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, giving us a different perspective of these man-made marvels from below.
This was a slow float downriver through historic Black Canyon, and it passed rock walls that rose up to 2,000′ above water level.
Our informative guide taught us to note that the east (Arizona) side of Black Canyon, which has steep volcanic cliffs, was cut by water – while the west (Nevada) side has more gently rolling hills formed by erosion and basalt flows.
Floating along, we saw several sandy beaches, stopped to examine active hot springs and rode into Emerald Cave, one of several caves on both sides of the river.
In 1934 the Civilian Conservation Corps built a gauging station in the Black Canyon on the Nevada side. It’s purpose was to determine the impact on the environment after Hoover Dam was completed. Engineers measured the height of the river, water flow rates and water purity. But the most interesting story was how the workers commuted across the river to work each day.
Gaugers would spend months at a time in isolation monitoring the river. The gauger’s house was on the Arizona side and getting to work involved a strenuous hike followed by a self-propelled pull across the river. The station was in operation for 10 years, and the remnants of this crude method of water testing demonstrate the endurance of the human spirit in isolation and remoteness.
Who knew that just a few miles from the neon lights of Las Vegas is such a quiet and refreshing place to recharge and get away from it all? This area is really a great place to kayak, and we saw several folks doing just that. Our tour ended at Willow Beach on the Arizona side of the river.
Hiking to the Arizona Hot Springs
There were many trails to blaze in the Lake Mead area, but we pick one that John and Pam had followed because it had a reward at the end. The Arizona Hot Springs consisted of thigh-deep hot pools in the bottom of a deep, narrow slot canyon near the Colorado River. To get there we took the White Rock Canyon route, following a wash downhill to the river with the canyon towering over us to provide welcome shade.
White Rock Canyon gets its name from the many huge white boulders that were carried down the canyon by flash floods from Wilson Ridge.
Next up: The Valley is on fire!
As we crossed the state line into Nevada, we had officially started the 5th year of our journey – we were excited! Nevada has many excellent things to offer besides “Sin City”, one of them being the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Mind you, we have since discovered several other natural gems in this state, and some of them will be detailed in future posts. But for now let’s talk about a couple of human creations.
The construction of Hoover Dam, completed in 1935, harnessed the Colorado River and created two lakes – expansive Lake Mead and Lake Mohave. These lakes and the vast rugged desert land surrounding them became Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the first one in the United States. Our campsite at Lake Mead RV Village was within this recreation area and featured a commanding view of the lake and surrounding mountains.
The nearby Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail is a national recreation trail that follows the route trains took while hauling supplies to build Hoover Dam in the early 1930’s. We were eager to take an early morning walk on this very popular easy and flat gravel trail.
The trail by itself would have been only 4.4 miles round trip, but we started from our campground and continued on to Hoover Dam. And since by then we were close to the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, we added a walk across its span to really rachet up the miles.
The journey was more than we’re used to, and ended 14.1 miles later with sore legs and foot blisters. If we were to do it again we’d start from the trailhead at the visitor center, which would cut almost 5 miles off the trek.
We passed through five tunnels leading to Hoover Dam. They were all 25′ in diameter, oversized to allow huge penstock sections and large equipment to be transported on the railcars.
Along the way, plaques displayed what life was like during construction of the dam, and the hardships that the worker’s families endured. These were some extremely tough and resilient folks!
We continued a couple more miles to walk on two modern marvels. First, Hoover Dam, which is considered one of the exceptional engineering achievements of the 20th century.
Several walking tours are offered there, and we highly recommend them to all visitors. We opted out this time, as we had taken one during a visit several years ago. We also skipped the visitor center this time, as a courtesy to other folks who probably wouldn’t have wanted to smell our sweaty bodies after all that walking!
The art at the dam’s Monument Plaza, including Winged Figures of the Republic, was created with a message. The artist believed that the orientation of many ancient structures included messages from their creators to people of the future. Oskar JW Hansen designed the art here with that in mind. For descriptions and meanings click here.
Click here for stories and essays about the dam itself.
Satisfied that nothing major at the dam (except the very low water level) had changed since our last visit, we headed for the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. Now this was something we hadn’t seen before!
The bridge is perched 890′ above the turquoise Colorado River, and wedged between the rocky cliffs of Nevada and Arizona. It was constructed to re-route most traffic off the narrow and busy two-lane road atop the dam.
If you have a fear of heights this may not be your kind of experience. We learned that eight people have jumped to their death since the opening in October 2010.
The pedestrian walkway provided us with spectacular views of the dam from a new perspective:
The walk from the bridge entry to the far end of the span is 1.3 miles, and there’s no exit on the Arizona end. After walking across and back we were more than ready to head home.
Back on the trail we cooled off a bit while walking through the tunnels again, and took a break to enjoy the panorama of Lake Mead.
It was a long day of learning many superlatives about these man-made marvels; Hoover Dam as a great American technological achievement, the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge supported by the longest arch in the western hemisphere, and Lake Mead as the largest reservoir in the U.S. (when full).
And for us personally, it was the longest walk we’ve taken since starting our adventure.
What a day it was!
Next up: Zip – Float – Hike – Yay!
After soaking in the natural hot springs and enjoying a therapeutic massage with Karin Pine (who managed to hit all the spots that needed healing) at Tecopa Hot Springs, it was time to get rolling again. The view while on highway 127 W continued to keep a smile on our faces and the camera shutter clicking.
After only a couple hours of landscape-gawking, we made a (diesel) pit stop at Primm Valley near the stateline of Nevada and California. We thought it might be fun to hang out at the casinos there for a free night of camping, plus we could fill up Betsy’s 100-gallon tank with reasonably-priced fuel.
We parked in one of the biggest parking lots we’ve ever seen, behind Buffalo Bill’s Hotel Casino where we had the place almost to ourselves that night. It was so huge that Fedex and McDonald’s use it for a couple of hours a day as their transfer point for trucks heading east and west. Steve was amazed at the show they put on as several tractor-trailer rigs arrived and then transferred one or two or three trailers to other trucks heading to their appropriate destinations.
Since we don’t gamble, why stop here? Is there anything else to do other than gambling? Oh yes! Buffalo Bill’s houses the one-time tallest roller coaster in the world, the Desperado. In fact, it made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s tallest roller coaster in 1996.
Steve rode this coaster with his Dad soon after it was completed, and again with me in 2000 (it scared the bejesus out of me). Since this was sort of along our route, he planned to ride it again. This time he is doing it alone, no sir not me, I’m done with roller coasters, no thank you. And so he did a tripeat alone on the Desperado and was happy as a clam after his exhilirating 2 min and 43 second ride.
Across the freeway is another interesting attraction, if you know who the outlaws Bonnie and Clyde were. Personally I didn’t know anything about them until we went to Whiskey Pete’s Casino. We visited the free mini-museum depicting their outlaw careers. I learned that Bonnie and Clyde, in their early twenties, were a notoriously violent bank robbing couple during the depression. The museum holds the actual bullet-riddled car they were in when they were ambushed by a police posse. Also displayed were Clyde’s clothing and other personal effects.
Having been in the quietness of the desert for many days, this was a fun stop in the midst of the noisy casinos, at least for one night. After purging our water tank of the Tecopa mineral water, we headed on to Arizona, the Grand Canyon State….back to the desert landscape we go!
Since we are back in CA where we began, we decided to take a break from our travels to visit family and friends as well as unloading some unwanted items from Betsy. Our drive took us from Tionesta to Susanville, to Truckee in California and finally we parked at Sparks, Nevada. We followed the Volcanic Legacy highway, scenic byways and along the way we saw beautiful autumn colors on display, huge ranches of happy cows and migrating birds.
Truckee is only a 3-hour drive from our old hometown of Tracy, CA, yet we had never visited the Donner Memorial State Park. We spent a day checking out the park and driving around the lake with our good friends Vic and Pam. Of course, this was the location where many members of the Donner Party spent their ﬁnal days. We had heard about the Donner Party, yet we had not really learned the detailed story. Their fate is known to be the dark side of the California dream, one of the most gruesome stories of the Old West: The Donner Party.
In April 1846, a group of Midwestern families left Independence, Missouri, bound for California. Their wagon train rolled over the Great Plains and through the Rockies, but was seriously delayed when a “shortcut” leading southwest was anything but. A breakdown in civilized behavior followed: the emigrants quarreled constantly; one man killed another; an old man was left on the trail to die. When their provisions and oxen were consumed, the desperate emigrants ﬁnally cannibalized their dead friends and relatives. Eweww! Forty-one of the 89 would-be settlers perished.
While Betsy was parked in Sparks, Nevada, Steve took care of his doctor’s appointment and most importantly the air chamber leak on our Sleep number bed. I drove down to the East Bay where we used to have our stick house and dropped off the extra stuff at our storage room. I spent bonding time with my sisters Thelma and Becky in Pleasanton, nieces and nephews, Joel and Hazel in Roseville and friends Fely and Lita in Sacramento.
When the bonding and visiting was over I drove back up the mountain and met up with Steve where our friends Manny and Elvee from Sparks prepared a delicious and sumptuos feast. We are still enjoying the leftovers!
It was so great spending time with our good friends and family, but because the weather is trying to catch up with us we had to resume our migration to the south.
Here are some snapshots that I managed to capture while having fun.