When you go to a place called “Red Rock Canyon”, you expect to see some brightly-colored rocks. If you hike the Calico Tanks Trail, that’s exactly what you’ll find — the park’s best display of jumbled-up geology capped by a stunning view of Las Vegas. As the name suggests, you’ll see a couple of “tanks” (ponds) along the way, but the colorful hills are the star of the show.
Red Rock Canyon is located on the west side of Las Vegas. From the south end of the Strip, take the Highway 215 beltway clockwise (west, then north) to the Summerlin area. Take exit 26 (you’ll see the big Red Rock Casino on the right). Turn left, away from the casino, and follow Highway 159 (Blue Diamond Road) 5 miles to the scenic drive entrance.
The trailhead for Calico Tanks is the same as Turtlehead Peak. Park at the Sandstone Quarry parking area, roughly 3 miles into the scenic drive.
The Calico Tanks Trail is rated as moderate, according to the park guide. It’s a 2.5-mile round-trip to the viewpoint at the end and back, with an elevation gain of about 450 feet. There is some rock-hopping and maybe some minor rock scrambling along the way, but some of that depends on how far off the main trail you wander. For most people, this is a moderately-challenging trail, but it’s doable.
Calico Tanks Trail
As you start on the Calico Tanks Trail, you’ll have a great view of another option. Turtlehead Peak looms in the distance. It’s 2.5 miles (one way) to the top, with a 2,000-foot elevation gain. If you don’t have the time or the energy to tackle it, put it on your list for later. It’s worth it.
The trail to Turtlehead Peak soon splits off. After that, the Calico Tanks Trail heads up into the canyon that it will follow until the end.
This is the most colorful part of the hike. The larger canyon soon disappears behind you…
… as you head towards the tanks. While the path is fairly straightforward…
… there are many worthwhile diversions along the way. With a little effort, you can find your way up to the top of this outcropping.
Also, keep an eye out for this tiny arch…
…and this gigantic turtle (I’m not the only one that sees it, right?). They’re all located just off the main Calico Tanks Trail.
So are some interesting tree skeletons…
… and depending on the season, you might see some bushes blooming with purple flowers (and buzzing with bees).
The first tank is not very impressive (although the second one isn’t, either). Still, you might get a good reflection of the sky in the water, depending on the time of day.
The Calico Tanks Trail continues on up the canyon, with a fairly steady climb the entire way. Once you reach this point, you can almost see the viewpoint at the end.
Just before you reach the viewpoint, you’ll pass the second tank. You can hike down to it, or find a route around it on the surrounding rocks. It looked even less appealing than the first tank, so I left it alone and continued on to the end of the trail.
Once you reach this spot, there is a multitude of good viewpoints, and it’s easy to find a nice spot for sitting and enjoying the view.
Just beyond the end of the white, pink, and red rocks of the Calico Hills, you can look out towards the Las Vegas Strip.
Zoom in closer, and you can see the Stratosphere tower on the left, and several of the other casino buildings on the right. In the foreground is the Red Rock Casino and the community of Summerlin — a very nice development in ever-expanding Las Vegas (and also a good place to get some lunch after hiking around Red Rock Canyon).
The view to the south shows more of the Calico Hills and the entrance to the park’s scenic loop drive. When you enter the park, after the visitor center, the first stop is along the Calico Hills, just on the other side of those red rocks.
Take some time to enjoy the view, then head back the way you came. It’s worth noting, on the return trip, in between the second and first tanks, I got separated from the main trail and ended up on the left-hand side of the canyon. Even though there’s a fairly well-worn trail over there, it’s not the right place, and as far as I could tell there’s no return to the main trail. Watch for the stair-steps carved into the rock. If you go down these steps, you’re in the right place — but if you look across the canyon and see those steps on the other side, you’re going to need to backtrack rather significantly, until the two trails meet up again. When in doubt, between the two tanks on the return trip, stay to the right, and you should avoid this unnecessary detour. (Of course, you can always intentionally hike out there — it is a beautiful spot, away from the crowds.)
I didn’t drivelapse on this trip, but here’s another video of Las Vegas from a different trip for you to enjoy:
The Bottom Line
The Calico Tanks Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in Red Rock Canyon, and with good reason. It’s a beautiful hike past some very jumbled and colorful rock formations, and it has a big payoff — the sweeping view of Las Vegas. If you need to choose just one trail to hike in Red Rock Canyon, the Calico Tanks Trail is a good choice.