Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

If anyone thinks the desert is a bleak, boring landscape devoid of any color or character, the Valley of Fire would prove them wrong in a heartbeat.  I really didn’t know what to expect, as I made the detour off Interstate 15, on the final day of my trip.  All I knew was, there was a big state park on my map, and the name sounded interesting.  That’s all I needed.

Valley of Fire State Park is located east of Interstate 15, north of Las Vegas.  NV Rte. 169 runs through the park, and connects with I-15 in two locations.  Since I came from Utah, I took the Moapa Valley/ Logandale/ Overton exit (exit 93).  After passing through the farming area of Logandale and Overton, Rte. 169 turns west and runs through the Valley of Fire before reconnecting with the interstate. (Rte. 167, Northshore Road, continues south–we’ll cover it on the next page).  Here’s a copy of the park map.

After driving through the somewhat uneventful farming towns of Logandale and Overton, Nevada (a rare patch of green, thanks to Muddy River flowing through the Moapa Valley), I arrived at the eastern entrance of Valley of Fire State Park.  Rte. 169 runs through the park, and there are a few sights to see along the main road, but the best scenery awaits along the scenic side road that cuts through the heart of the park.

Entrance to Valley of Fire State Park is $6 per car.  Since this is a state park, and not a national park, your National Parks Pass won’t be accepted.  Also worth noting: you must pay at a “self pay” station, so be sure you have exact change to drop in the envelope.

The scenery gets off to a great start, almost immediately.  If you look at the aerial view on Google Maps, you see that Rte. 169 cuts through the southern end of a huge area of red rock.

View Larger Map

After paying your entrance fee, one of the first attractions you pass is Petrified Log:

Yes, it turns out this is just about as exciting as the name suggests.  You step out of your car into 110o heat, climb a small hill (which feels much higher, given the aforementioned 110oheat), and at the end of the trail there’s a log, which for some reason, bazilions of years ago, turned to stone, yada yada yada.  The only thing you care about now is the air conditioning, back in your car.

The Cabins

The next stop along the main road is a little more interesting.  It’s called The Cabins: three rustic, one-room stone shelters built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935.

Valley of Fire is Nevada’s largest state park, and it was also the first–dedicated in 1935.  The following year, about 9,000 people visited the park (some of whom stayed in The Cabins).  Nowadays, about 200,000 people visit every year.

Early park visitors had a nice view.  They also had a fireplace.  But one thing was missing: the air conditioner!

Just beyond The Cabins is the scenic drive, which leads to Petroglyph Canyon, Fire Canyon, Silica Dome and White Domes.  I decided to explore the side road before covering the rest of the main-road attractions.

Valley of Fire State Park has a modern and refreshingly cool visitor center, complete with educational exhibits and a nice gift shop.  You’ll find it at the turnoff to the scenic drive.

Petroglyph Canyon Trail

The first mile or two of the scenic road passes through a brilliantly red canyon.  Along the way there’s a trailhead for Petroglyph Canyon (aka Mouse’s Tank) Trail.

Petroglyph Canyon really isn’t the best trail to hike on a very hot day.  There is no shadeanywhere along the way, and the path is sandy–making the walk more difficult.  However, the trailhead sign said it was only 1/2 mile round trip.

It was a brutal half mile, that felt like it took forever.  The canyon is beautiful, don’t get me wrong.  But within a few minutes, I was forcing myself to trudge along.

Near the end of the trail, the path hooks to the left, and moments later you come upon Mouse’s Tank: a pocket of stagnant water which remarkably doesn’t evaporate.  You can’t go any further, and you don’t want to.   Upon arriving back at the trailhead, I took another look at the trailhead sign, and realized I had completely forgotten to look for any petroglyphs along Petroglyph Canyon Trail.  Oops.

Mouse’s Tank did not receive its name from a rodent.  Legend has it, a renegade Indian named Mouse hid out in this canyon, and the “tank” of water allowed him to survive.

Rainbow Vista, Fire Canyon, & Silica Dome

A little further up the scenic drive, you emerge from the red canyon, and a rainbow of color spreads out before you.  This is, obviously, why Rainbow Vista received its name.  The above picture, and every other one I took, simply doesn’t do it justice.

There’s a short side road that takes you about a mile off the main road. At the end, you can look one direction and see Fire Canyon…

… and the other direction, Silica Dome.  Fire Canyon shows signs of rock being forced up from inside the earth, forming jagged folds at odd angles.  Silica Dome is a sandstone formation made of sand grains that are almost pure silica.  Small quantities of iron turn the white dome red near the base.

Back on the scenic road now, you’re about to pass over one of the most beautiful stretches of pavement in the world.  As the perfectly black asphalt travels uphill, it casually curves back and forth, navigating its way around an impossible array of colors.

White Domes Loop

Just before you reach the very end of the scenic road, it makes a hook to the left around a mountain of rock.  The dead-end forms a parking area, with a few picnic tables, and another tempting trail: the White Domes Loop.

I seriously considered not hiking this trail, even after I had started.  The first few hundred feet of the 1.25 mile route is uphill, and sandy.  As I reached the top, I paused for a moment.  I was carrying enough water to survive the walk, even in the stifling heat.  That wasn’t my issue.  Instead, I was asking myself if I really wanted to hike it.  If I didn’t, I thought, all that was left was to leave the park.  This would be the last hike of my trip; at the end of the day I’d be on a plane, flying back to the very flat landscape of my home.  Yes, I did want to hike it, no matter what the temperature.

After you go up to the top of that sandy pass, it’s time to go down.  And yes, you lose altitude pretty quickly.  Some of the trail is sandy, but most is rock, and on a few occasions you need to use your hands and your posterior to safely climb down.  The reward is passage through a beautifully colorful mini-canyon.

This landscape has been beautiful enough for Hollywood on several occasions.  About 3/10 of a mile from the parking lot, you come upon these ruins, left here in the 1960’s from a film crew shooting the movie The Professionals.  (The movie’s main set, a Mexican hacienda, was constructed where the parking lot is today.  You can still see railroad ties sticking out of the rock there.)  Park rules now require any filmmaking to include a complete clean-up.

In addition to The Professionals, these movies were also made, at least partially, in the Valley of Fire:
The Good Son
Star Trek – Generations
Beast Master
When Fools Rush In
1,000,000 Years B.C.
Stephen King’s The Stand
Kill Me Again
Father Hood
Ballad of Cable Hogue

From the film set area, take a look back at the canyon, through which you just passed.

As you reach the bottom of the loop, the trail turns to the right, and you’re headed into The Narrows.  The slot canyon comes not a moment too soon, because for the first time so far on this trail…

… you’re about to find some blissful, refreshing shade.  I stumbled into the narrow passageway and found a nice spot to lean against, then quickly sucked down about half my water supply.  I knew after this, I’d be back in the sun, and headed uphill.

After emerging from The Narrows, the trail hooked to the right again.  Now, I was headed back in the general direction of the parking lot, my car, and its wonderful air conditioning.

The trail was a little more difficult to follow along this stretch.  There are markers to point the way, but even so, I ended up in the wrong place a few times.  Sometimes, I discovered, it was actually better to avoid the official trail, since it was sand, and everything else was rock.

This is what makes the Valley of Fire so amazing.  Look closely at the side of this hill.  There are at least six distinctly different shades of color here, piled one on top of the other.

The White Domes Trail saves one great treat for the end.  Just before you make the final curve back around to the parking area, you’ll pass this arch in the mountainside next to the trail.  With a little rock scrambling, you can climb up into the middle of the arch–making it just the second shady spot on the trail.

Atlatl Rock

Once you’re done with the scenic drive, hook back up with Rte. 169, and head towards the west side of the park.  You could also take Rte. 169 on to I-15, for the quick trip back to Las Vegas.

Take the side road to Atlatl Rock.  You’ll find some great examples of ancient Native American petroglyphs here, if you’re willing to climb the large metal staircase.

At the top of the stairs, and on the other side of some not-quite-transparent plexiglass, you’ll see ancient art like this…

… and this, depicting animals, weaponry, and who knows what else.  Among the designs on the rock is a depiction of an atlatl (pronounced AT-lat-l), a notched stick used to throw spears.  The atlatl was the predecessor of the bow and arrow.

Natural Arch

Beyond Atlatl Rock, the side road turns to dirt, but is still easily passable in just about any vehicle.  Shortly after, you’ll find another reason to pull off the road: Arch Rock.  The arch is very small (only a few feet tall) and it’s nearly hidden, unless you stand in exactly the right place.  As I took this picture from the road, I watched another tourist take pictures in the wrong place, clearly out of sight of the arch.  As he drove away, he must have looked back and noticed what he had missed.  He threw the car in reverse, and returned for more pictures.


When the Atlatl Rock loop road came back to Rte. 169, I turned back to the east (headed west would have taken me back to I-15, and I wanted to drive down Northshore Road instead).  I made just one more stop, for a close look at the Beehives.  There are several of these sandstone rock formations, which look like a bunch of thin layers of rock piled on top of one another.  You can see them from the car.

I stopped at most of the Valley of Fire’s attractions, but not all of them.  I did not see Elephant Rock, which is just a short hike behind the east entrance station.  It’s a natural arch that looks like the head and trunk of an elephant.  I passed on Duck Rock as well, which is located near White Domes.  I stopped at the Seven Sisters, but didn’t take any pictures, since the park had ruined the view by putting picnic shelters in between the seven rock formations.  Take a look at the park map to plan your strategy.

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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