Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area: The Complete Guide

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Michele D'Amico supersky77 / Getty Images

Nevada’s first National Conservation Area spans nearly 200,000 acres and has 30 miles of incredible hiking trails, mountain biking, and rock climbing up the stunning faces of deeply red Aztec sandstone cliffs. Red Rock National Conservation Area, only 17 miles west of the Strip, is hugely popular with Vegas visitors who want to take time out from the gaming tables for Mother Nature, and a beloved backyard adventure zone for locals. Since it’s so accessible from the Strip, it’s a great place for those who want a day trip away from the glitz.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area sits only minutes west from the Summerlin area, a large development west of the Strip with a vibrant downtown. So you can easily take a half- or whole day of adventures and break for great meals only five minutes away.

Ahead you’ll find everything you need to know about planning your trip to Red Rock.  

History

Red Rock’s history depends on whom you ask. Geologists will tell you about its complex geological history. The area sat under an ocean during the Paleozoic Area (600 million years ago), which is why you’ll see up to 9,000 feet of greenish-blue limestone sediment among its red cliff formations. In the Mesozoic Era, 250 million years ago, the rocks shifted with the earth’s tectonic shifts. The iron minerals in the sediments oxidized into the bright reds you see today. By 180 million years ago, the area became a desert of shifting dunes—the colorful Aztec Sandstone you see today. And around 66 million years ago, a fault called the Keystone Thrust developed, whose movement forced the gray sedimentary rock over the red rocks, resulting in the colorful stripes Red Rock shows visitors today.

Its modern history is a bit simpler. In 1990, special legislation changed the status of what was then called the Red Rock Recreation Lands to a National Conservation Area—the seventh to be designated nationally and the first for Nevada. That means funding for the protection and improvement of the area for the more than two million visitors who come to see this geological marvel up close each year.

How to Get There

Red Rock is a 30-minute drive from the Las Vegas Strip. And while tour buses, commercial tours, and private car service can be booked from many hotels on the Strip, public transportation doesn’t enter Red Rock Canyon. If you are driving yourself and using GPS, set the location to Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center or 3205 State Highway 159, Las Vegas, NV 89161.

Or if you’re staying at Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa, it's only five minutes away. Tip: Ask about its Red Rock Adventures program, which runs morning and afternoon horseback rides and guided hiking, biking, and rock climbing in Red Rock. And for the full effect, ask for a room facing west toward the cliffs.

What to Do

There are several ways to explore the park, whether in your car, on foot, or one of the other adventurous ways.

Driving: A great way to get your bearing is to stop at the Visitor Center just inside the entrance, pick up a trail map, and then drive the 13-mile, one-way scenic loop (there’s only one road, so you can’t get lost). You’ll pay a $15 fee per car. Inside the Visitor Center, you’ll find indoor and outdoor exhibits, plant specimens from the canyon, and life Desert Tortoise habitats.

Hiking: There are 26 hikes and trails that go from the deep canyons to the highest points of Red Rock canyon.

  • Easygoing trail: Most hikes start from the loop. One easy hike that’s great for kids is Lost Creek, toward the back of the loop, and takes you through cultural sites that include pictographs, petroglyphs, and an ancient agave roasting pit.
  • Moderate trail: If you’re up for a longer hike, take the two-mile hike to Keystone Thrust, a jagged series of limestone rock layers formed by a geologic fault an estimated 65 million years ago, and one of the most important geological features of Red Rock. Here is a complete list of hikes.

Biking and Climbing: Rock climbers love the range at Red Rock, from boulders to sheer rock faces. The Bureau of Land Management’s Red Rock Canyon page has rock types, ratings, and access advice for all levels of climbers. Click on “Road Biking” or “Mountain Biking” on the same page to get information for cyclists. Bicycles are allowed on the Scenic Drive, paved spur roads, and designated mountain bike trails, but not on hiking trails.

Other ways to explore: There are lots of alternative ways of seeing Red Rock. Get the best views with Sundance Helicopters, whose City Lights Picnic (from $250) flies over Red Rock, then lands in a spot adjacent to the canyon for a Champagne picnic at sunset. Cowboy Trail Rides, a private company whose stables are near the Red Rock entrance, books short and long rides on its horses and mules (there are sizes to fit nearly any rider). Its two-hour Red Rock Camp ride takes you along a canyon rim to see the colorful Red Rock Escarpment, as well as ancient caves and geological formations.

The Best Time to Visit

Keep in mind that Vegas summers can be punishingly hot, and winter temps can be surprisingly cold. The best time to visit Red Rock is in the spring and fall, when the Conservation Area’s hours are longest, anyway. The Visitor Center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Scenic Drive is open every day of the year at the following times:

  • November to February: 6:a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • March: 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • April to September: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
  • October: 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
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