Toiyabe National Forest: The Complete Guide

The largest forest in the lower 48 has a spectacular gateway close to Las Vegas

Couple hiking, Mount Charleston Wilderness trail, Nevada, USA
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Toiyabe National Forest

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Toiyabe National Forest, Nevada 89422, USA

To understand the Toiyabe National Forest, where there are a couple of fantastic getaways from Las Vegas, you need to understand just how large it is—and how inextricable from a larger forest area: The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

The two forests have been administratively joined and managed as a single body since 1995, and only a fraction of that land touches the Las Vegas area. In fact, with an area of 6.3 million acres, the Humboldt-Toiyabe is the largest U.S. National Forest in the lower 48 states. Its area extends from the eastern Sierra Nevada range in California to the borders of Idaho and Utah. Only portions of it are accessible from Las Vegas.

There are 24 designated Wilderness Areas in this huge forest area, the most of any national forest. Other fun facts: It contains 24 wild horse and burro territories as well as the largest gold mine on National Forest System lands. Part of it traverses the 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the California/Mexico border to British Columbia; hike the Toiyabe Crest National Recreation Trail that runs 67 miles along the Toiyabe Range in the central part of the state of Nevada or explore the deep red volcanic rhyolite and gray limestone peaks of the Quinn Canyon Wilderness on the eastern side of the forest. And if you’re looking for archaeological sites, this is the place. The Humboldt-Toiyabe contains an estimated 100,000 prehistoric and historic sites, from prehistoric rock art to 19th-century mining towns and pioneer trails.

While it would be impossible to give a complete guide to this forested area in a single article, we can give some insight into the Toiyabe lands that are close and easily accessible to Las Vegas, and what to do in them.

The largest part of the forest system is the Toiyabe—an ancient Shoshone word meaning “mountain”—which stretches across central, western, and southern Nevada and into eastern California. One of the most popular parts of the forest, and the most accessible from Vegas, is the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area (known to locals as Mt. Charleston); it’s located just 45 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip. You’ll find 316,000 acres of alpine snow-capped mountains and distinct climate zones, which you can actually see in layers as you drive up the mountains. Its elevation ranges from about 3,000 feet in the valley to nearly 12,000 at the top of Charleston Peak; on your way up, you’ll see Joshua trees, Ponderosa pine and white fir, pinyon-juniper woods, and forests of ancient bristlecone pine. When the Las Vegas Valley becomes unbearably hot in the summer, this is where locals head.

History buffs will love the relics that still exist from President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Program in 1933, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was created to provide jobs for young men during the Great Depression. A camp was established in the Spring Mountains, and you can still find many of the trails, campgrounds, water systems, and the ranger station that were built by the CCC. Look for the signs that tell the story of the “CCC boys.”

The best times to hike the Spring Mountains are in spring and late autumn, when the weather is generally dry; although it can still be hot, you’ll appreciate the cooler temps of the mountains. Summer can bring thunderstorms and flash floods, and winters are cold.

Things to Do

One of the best ways to explore the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest area is to visit the Spring Mountain Visitor Gateway. This section of the forest, close to Las Vegas, may sound like a visitor center, but it is actually a destination all its own. The nearly 130-acre complex was built in 2015 on reclaimed golf course land using natural and sustainable energy. It leads to all the hiking fun of Mount Charleston, but you’ll want to stop here first for some notable attractions. The Silent Heroes of the Cold War Memorial was built to commemorate the thousands of people who died while working covertly for the United States government during the Cold War. It's located here because it is close to the crash site of a U.S. Air Force flight that was en route to Area 51 in 1955. You can read about the silent heroes here, and then hike the Pack Rat Trail that begins at the Gateway and has a view out to the crash site.

You won’t want to miss Seven Stones Plaza, sacred to the Southern Paiute tribes since they consider the Spring Mountains area of the National Forest to be the place of creation. Central to the plaza is a massive stone representing Nuvagantu, the creation place; the seven stones surrounding it symbolize each Southern Paiute tribe.

The visitor center gives you a great education on this part of the National Forest through exhibits and a great gift shop. The nearby education building houses all sorts of fun activities, and you’ll find two amphitheaters. The Kyle Amphitheater holds the Junior Ranger program, and the Mt. Charleston Amphitheater hosts year-round concerts for up to 300 people.

One of the best ways to enjoy the Spring Mountains is to bring a picnic, and there are both fee-based picnic areas (with nearby facilities, plus some with charcoal grills, fire pits, and more), and no fee/no reservation areas. The per-day fee areas include Foxtail Group Picnic Area, Kyle Canyon Picnic Area, Spring Mountains Visitor Gateway (where you’ll find the Pinion and Ponderosa Group Picnic Areas), and Old Mill Picnic Area. Or go first-come, first-served at Deer Creek Picnic Area, Desert View Outlook, or Sawmill Picnic Area.

In the winter, local skiers love to head to the end of Lee Canyon, where you’ll find the Lee Canyon Ski Area—a 45-minute shuttle bus ride from Vegas. Its Foxtail Picnic Area is a designated snow play area and has heated restrooms.

Best Hikes and Trails

The hikes in the Spring Mountains offer great views and some wildly interesting flora and fauna. There’s also a hike for every skill and fitness level. Here are a few local favorites.

  • Sawmill Short Loop: All fitness levels can take on the Sawmill Short Loop, which is a relatively flat walk. Popular with birdwatchers, it's only 1.2 miles round trip.
  • Mary Jane Trail: One of the prettiest hikes is Mary Jane Trail, which takes you 2.5 miles in and out on a clear trail. It leads to a pretty waterfall, where lots of people picnic.
  • The Upper and Lower Bristlecone Pine Loop: Usually heavily trafficked without strenuous climbing, this 5.7-mile loop trail gives you the chance to see mountain wildlife. Leashed dogs are welcome.
  • Trail Canyon Trail: Hikers, runners, and horseback riders love this 4-mile, out-and-back trail near Mount Charleston; the path takes you about 1,500 feet up in elevation.
  • Bonanza Peak Trail: This 8-mile round-trip trail will take you up over 3,000 feet in elevation.
  • Griffith Peak Trail: You’ll start climbing almost the moment you get on the Griffith Peak trail, which is 10 miles round trip. You’ll hike through some of the most beautiful forestland in the Spring Mountains and reach a 360-degree view at the peak.
  • Charleston Peak’s North Loop: You’ll want to devote a full day to Charleston Peak’s North Loop, which is a 20-mile, round-trip journey. It’s strenuous, takes you up at least 5 miles in elevation, and includes some slippery switchbacks. However, the vistas and the famous “Raintree,” a huge bristlecone pine said to be 3,000 years old, make it worth the climb.

Where to Camp

Considering the Humboldt-Toiyabe is millions of acres, there are plenty of places to camp (in fact, there are more than 50 campgrounds in the Toiyabe section of the National Forest alone). To make it more manageable, there are essentially two groups of campgrounds in the Spring Mountain Recreation Area: those in Lee Canyon and a cluster in Kyle Canyon.

  • Fletcher View: This spacious campsite is located on the banks of a dry wash in the dramatic shadow of the sheer rock walls of Cathedral Rock. Those who don’t want to totally rough it will appreciate the electric hook-ups at each of the spots.
  • Hilltop: Hilltop is about halfway between Lee and Kyle Canyons, on Forest Route 158. It sits on a steep mountainside covered in Pinion pines, and has some of the best views in the Spring Mountains. History buffs can see the old nuclear test site in the distance and reach a viewing area via the nearby Desert View Trail, where people in the mid-20th century Atomic Era liked to watch nuclear explosions. Bonus: It has the only hot showers in the Spring Mountain Recreation Area.
  • McWilliams: This campground is close to the Lee Canyon ski area, so you’ll definitely feel the cooler temperatures. You’ll also get a great view of Mumm Mountain, which looks like a white, reclining mummy. And you can start the Bristlecone Trail hike from here.

Where to Stay Nearby

For those who don’t love to camp, the Las Vegas Strip has plenty of hotels. But if you’d like to stay closer to this area and Red Rock next to it, there are some good options within just a few miles.

  • Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa: Located at the base of the Red Rock Conservation Area, this resort is full of great restaurants. It has the best views of Red Rock and the Spring Mountains.
  • Delano Las Vegas: This hotel took the place of what was Mandalay Bay's TheHotel at Mandalay Bay, transforming the somewhat dated tower into a boutique that celebrates the surrounding desert environment. Don't miss an evening on its 64th floor at Rivea and Skyfall, both by Alain Ducasse, which have the best panoramic views of the Las Vegas Strip.
  • Element Las Vegas Summerlin: For those who want to avoid the casino scene altogether and stay close to nature, these open-flow hotel rooms are a low-key and convenient choice. Amenities include kitchens, dishwashers, coffee makers, and work desks. The hotel is near Downtown Summerlin, the walkable retail and dining center of the neighborhood.

How to Get There

From the Las Vegas Strip, the Spring Mountains Visitor Gateway (and its trails beyond) is between a 30- and 45-minute drive (depending on traffic). Follow US-95 N and NV-157 W/Kyle Canyon Rd. to Mount Charleston.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Pets are welcome, but they must be kept on a leash; look for specific trail rules about dogs before you arrive.
  • State and federal laws protect the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and its historic structures, artifacts, rocks, plants, and fossils. Leave things where you left them, and as always, leave no trace.
  • Some of the trees here are more than 5,000 years old. Don’t climb them.
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Toiyabe National Forest: The Complete Guide