Hiking, Camping, and Rock Climbing Minutes from the Strip
Widely known in the rock climbing world as a sandstone climbing Mecca, Red Rock Canyon offers the stunning contrast of high-rising deep red colored sandstone rock formations, mountains, and steep canyons — all just a short drive from the Las Vegas Strip. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (NCA) offers dozens of hiking trails, and a 13-mile Red Rock Canyon Scenic Loop with a slew of breathtaking viewing areas.
For the definitive guide to the climbing routes at Red Rock Canyon, check out RockClimbing.com’s website. Instead, our focus will be the hiking trails, back country camping, and outdoors wonder that is Red Rock.
Red Rock Canyon was designated as Nevada’s first National Conservation Area. Red Rock Canyon is located 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip on Charleston Boulevard/State Route 159. The Red Rock NCA is 195,819 acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under the Department of the Interior and is visited by more than one million people each year. Red Rock is one of our favorite Southern Nevada attractions – yet, so many visitors to the Vegas Strip never wander the 20 minutes off of Vegas Boulevard to explore this natural phenomenon!
Red Rock – Adventures for Kids
Red Rock is a vast park and you will not be able to take in all of its sights in one day – so plan your visit accordingly. The best place to start is at the Visitor’s Center. Here you can grab a bunch of maps of the park, hiking trails, register for a permit, and ask about which activities would be best suited for your group or family.
If you have kids in your group (even as young as 3 years old), here is what will interest them while you hike at Red Rock. Kids love a trail that is sandy or takes you nearby sand (bring a few toy cars and a shovel along and they will be entertained for hours). Kids love to scramble and climb on rocks… big rocks! Kids love a trail that ascends with exposure and a view. Kids love narrow slot canyons. Kids are very interested to check out all the large pools of water that collect in the deep pockets of the rocks (also known as Tinajas). Kids do not like long, boring walks across flat gravel trails. Don’t worry about the distances of the hikes, you don’t have to hike to the end of the trail to have a lot of fun with your kids at Red Rock. Turn your hiking into true adventures for your kids – if you have a GPS, let your kids carry it (show them how to navigate). If you don’t have a map, let your kids carry a map – teach them how to orient themselves with a good map. Bring outdoor adventure tools for your kids such as magnifying glasses (to view bugs and specimens), a compass, and binoculars. If your kids really take to climbing on the rocks, take a side trip to the Kraft Boulders in nearby Calico Basin (just outside the Red Rock Park).
The Best of Red Rock
There are a myriad of websites that cover the popular highlights of Red Rock Canyon. Our purpose is to shine the spotlight on a few wonderful gems the park has to offer that you might otherwise miss out on. At each trail head, there is a sign indicating which way to hike and the trail distance. Don’t worry too much about the trail distance – you don’t have to hike to the end of the trail; some of the trails listed below we simply hiked as far as we wanted (or as far as we had time for) then turned around and headed back to the parking lot.
1.) Calico Overlook #1
This is the first overlook on the scenic loop just after the visitor’s center. This is not just a boring overlook, but an exposed viewing area where you park your car and follow the trail head that leads you down into the dry river bed, in between the large sand stone formations, and even up and over the ridge. It is a fantastic opportunity to hike, scramble over rocks, and even blaze your own trail (there is no formally marked trail here). Kids love the opportunity to climb on the rocks and enjoy the views. Calico Overlook #2 offers similar views of the red rock, but the hiking is not as varied or extensive as at Calico #1.
2.) Lost Creek / Kid’s Discovery Trail Hike
This is a wonderful and diverse hike that begins near the Willow Springs parking lot about half-way round the Scenic Loop. The trail is about 1.5 miles round-trip and takes you across a dry river bed, then up slope through brush and tree vegetation while paralleling a stream (often flowing with water in winter months). Eventually this hike leads you to a hidden waterfall in a slot canyon that is fed by melting ice and snow up above (December through March). Look closely and you will see icicles on the tree branches at the base of the waterfall. Kids will love the varied terrain and scrambling over the rocks during this hike. We took a 5 and 3 year old with us and they loved this trail – especially the part where you scramble over rocks to get to the water fall.
3.) Rocky Gap 4×4 Trail
This unmaintained 4×4 trail begins at the end of the road near Willow Springs (the paved road ends, and Rocky Gap trail begins). This road winds you up into the mountains and eventually up and over into Lowell Canyon. The road is challenging but the incredible views make the trip worth it. Initially, the trail starts at the end of the Willow Springs road, then the dirt road crosses a dry river bed, ascends, and turns into a red-dirt road. Eventually there are tight switch-backs and a rock-crawling area before it hits Lowell Canyon.
4.) Camping inside Red Rock NCA
Normally, campers are required to camp down at the semi-improved Red Rock Campsite (2 miles below the park entrance). However, the park rules allow unimproved and back country camping above 5000′ elevation – this means navigating the Rocky Gap 4×4 Trail up past 5000′ (bring your multi-function altimeter watch!) You will find absolute tranquility and privacy as you camp up in the higher elevations of Red Rock.
5.) Ice Box Canyon Hike
This is another wonderful hike starting in flat desert lowlands, then eventually leading you into a high-walled slot canyon with towering sides. Initially, the hike takes you across the desert flatlands with the high cliff walls ahead of you, in the distance. As you cross the wide plain, you will slowly gain altitude as the trail winds its way through the wash paralleling a steep gorge to your left (where you can sometimes here the rush of flowing water). Eventually, the canyon walls close in on the trail and you wind your way around the canyon eventually leading to the waterfall fed by melting snow and ice. In the winter you can expect to see snow-capped mountain peaks in front and around you.
6.) Sandstone Quarry Hike
Sandstone Quarry is about half-way around the Scenic Loop. There are two hiking trails that start here – the first leads you back to Calico, towards the east. The second trail leads you towards the north eventually climbing to a high point on the ridge several miles away. We prefer the second hike – it is more diverse, and offers great opportunities to go “off trail” and climb up large rock formations several hundred feet above the valley floor. If you have kids in your group, they will love this hike which initially leads through a dry riverbed, then winds around a sandy wash with rocky walls on either side. Then, you can begin your ascent up numerous rock formations with picturesque views of the valley below and the tall rocky cliffs to the west. Last time we tried this hike, we had a 5 and 3 year old with us and they absolutely loved it!
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Red Rock Canyon Hiking Trails
This trail spans a length of approximately 2.2 miles and takes around 1.5 hours to complete. The path gradually rises and decreases by only 100 feet, making the journey suitable for all visitors aged five and up. The interpretive trail follows a looped pattern and crosses a limestone ridge. At the crest of a hill, there are picturesque views of the Wilson Cliffs and the opportunity of seeing Triassic era fossils. Along the way, cacti and flowering plants decorate the path. Blackbush, creosote bush and Joshua trees are some of the natural flora in the area. The trail also connects with the Calico Hills region.
There are two trails that run through this area, Calico Hills I and Calico Hills II. The first travels about 2 miles and takes around 1.5 hours before completion. The second trail spans an additional 4 miles taking another 2 hours to complete. The path varies from easy to moderately difficult, as the majority of the trail follows a dry creed bed, but occasionally requires climbing over rocks. The elevation rises and falls approximately 175 feet during the course of the trails. Surrounded by wide-open country, the path follows the base of the picturesque red rocks. Native vegetation blankets the landscape, which is a favorite grazing place for wild burrows.
This trail derives its name for the unique indentations in the rock, which collect rainfall and snowmelt. The water source sustains local vegetation and wildlife. In the past, the water preserved the lives of settlers who passed through the canyon. The path spans 2.5 miles and takes around 2 hours for completion. The combination sandstone/gravel trail climbs 450 feet and may prove moderately difficult for some because of the rough terrain. The trail’s peak offers an amazing view of Las Vegas. Varied and colorful sandstone create a picturesque background for the many flowers, shrubs and trees that bloom in the spring.
Turtlehead Peak Trail
Once at the top of this peak, individuals have a spectacular view in all directions. The climb to the top is rather strenuous, spanning a distance of 5 miles, with a climb of over 2,000 feet in elevation. The total hike takes anywhere from 3.5 to 4.5 hours to reach the canyon peak. The higher the path travels, the less clear the trail becomes, often joining previously hiked side paths. The combination of loose rock and steep falls require careful footing and a slow pace. Exposed to the elements, the trail becomes hazardous after rainfall. Climbers should carry a jacket for wind protection and start the hike early in the day to escape the heat.
The 2.2 mile Keystone Thrust Trail follows a dirt trail over a ridge and down into a red sandstone canyon, which forms a natural fault line. The usual area contains both limestone and sandstone in an array of colors, which developed millions of years ago when a horizontal shift in geological plates caused older formations to climb atop sand dunes, causing the canyon. Geologists believe the shift also formed the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In the spring, blooming vegetation adds to the overall color palette. The moderately difficult trail rises and falls at a total elevation of 540 feet.
White Rock to Willow Springs
This easy to moderately difficult trail begins in the parking lot and descends down into an old creek bed, over a slight ridge and down into Willow Springs. The hike travels 4.4 miles to and from the springs and takes around 2.5 hours for completion. Though once a sizable creek, the springs now barely contain a trickle of water. The area features a picnic area, with tables and barbecues protected by shade trees. The location also has a typical outdoor restroom facility. Journeying back requires climbing a total elevation of 1,000 feet. The entire trail gets direct sun exposure and usually becomes gruesome during the warmest time of the day.
White Rock/La Madre Springs/Loop
This well marked trail takes hikers around the White Rock Hills, past Willow Springs and into the La Madre Mountains. The moderately difficult journey extends for 6 miles round trip and takes approximately 3.5 hours. Hikers climb an estimated 1200 feet in elevation throughout the path. Once In the La Madre Mountains, hiker’s encounter a desert forest comprised of Juniper and Pinion trees. Big horn sheep often travel up and down the sides of the steep cliffs. The trail continues over a sandstone formation where cacti, wildflowers and other native vegetation comprise the terrain, which also serves as home to a number of reptiles.
Lost Creek Children’s Discovery Trail
This trail is often used as a means of introducing school children to the wonders of desert life. The easy path extends for about three quarters of a mile and takes approximately one hour for completion. The elevation only varies by 120 feet, making the walk suitable for all ages. Along the way, hikers encounter many forms of native vegetation that include flowering plants, shrubs and trees. The interesting little trail also affords the opportunity to see ancient rock art, a natural rock grotto and a waterfall, which usually flows after rainfall or snowmelt. Mid-way around the loop trail is a spur leading to a waterfall (there is a small brown sign with an arrow pointing and the words “waterfall” marking this way). This short detour from the main trail takes you under forested canopy, across a dry river bed, then eventually parallels a small creek that leads you to a beautiful waterfall at the cliff’s edge – normally fed by melting snow, this is a seasonal waterfall best viewed in the late winter / early spring.
Willow Springs Loop
This easy looped trail ventures down into a wash and back up the other side for a total elevation difference of about 200 feet. Much of the trail is paved and takes only little more than one hour for completion. Though short, the path presents a variety of color. The many hues of the rocks and soil contrast with the colors of the vegetation that include small shrubs, oak and pine trees, sustained by two springs. Ancient Native American rock paintings and roasting pits enhance the trail experience, along with the opportunity of seeing long horn sheep scurrying along the cliffs.
La Madre Springs
This moderately difficult trail extends for just under 4 miles and climbs an elevation of 900 feet in less than 2 miles distance. The gravel path follows varied terrain into a canyon that features a popular wildlife watering hole, made possible by an old dam. This water source enables the canyon to have an abundance of vegetation that creates a desert forest comprised of shrubbery and trees. The area was once used as a mining site and above the dam, hikers may climb a steep slope, traveling a little over 0.5 miles to find a miner’s cabin, a waterfall and finally the old mine.
Spring Mountain Youth Camp Trail
This trail was named for the group of young men housed at the correctional facility, Spring Mountain Youth Camp (SMYC), who constructed the moderately difficult path. The journey spans about 2.5 miles between the Lost Creek and Ice Box canyons. The terrain undulates gradually, for the most part, and climbs 650 feet, but there are two steep gradients along the way that offer excellent views. Besides the local vegetation and the chance of viewing native wildlife, the trail offers various views of the La Madre, the sandstone quarry and Turtlehead Peak.
Ice Box Canyon
This trail is moderately difficult because of the boulders hikers must navigate around or over when entering the canyon. Hikers then climb over or around the formation and 670 feet back up to the desert floor. The entire path traverses around a 3 mile stretch and takes about 2 hours for completion. There is a well designated path, but some prefer to repel into the canyon via professional climbing equipment. As the canyon hardly ever receives direct sunlight, cool air and water keep the temperatures significantly lower than that of higher elevations. The temperate climate and various waterfalls make this area a favored location on extremely hot days, but hikers must first cross open desert before accessing the scenic canyon.