One of the best hikes in Valley of Fire State Park isn’t terribly long or difficult, and it leads you to an especially scenic area — and in this corner of Nevada, that’s really saying something. The hike to the Fire Wave is only about 3/4 of a mile, one way. When you get there, you’ll get to see a beautifully sculpted hill with streaks of colors flowing through the rock, like a wave.
Valley of Fire State Park is located northeast of Las Vegas. From The Strip, take Interstate 15 to exit 75, then follow Valley of Fire Highway into the park. Alternatively, for a more scenic and time-consuming drive, you can take I-215, Nevada 564, and Nevada 167 through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
To access the Fire Wave trailhead, park at parking lot #3 on White Domes Road. Parking is restricted on this road to designated parking lots, so try to get there early, or be prepared to make a few loops, until a spot opens up.
I didn’t hike the Fire Wave trail on my previous visit to Valley of Fire, because it didn’t exist. Of course, the rock formation existed, but the official trail was only developed back around 2012. On this trip, it looked like a great hiking option — one that I could knock out in an hour or so.
The Fire Wave trail didn’t go the way I was expecting. I thought it was going to head towards this wide-open space to the north…
… but instead, it headed directly towards this big sandstone hill. I still expected it to turn north eventually, but instead, it went the other way, circling around to the right, almost directly below the road.
I must admit, there were a few things that annoyed me about Valley of Fire. It had been tough to find a parking spot, and I wasn’t allowed to stop along the road to get the photos I wanted to take. This was all understandable, to a point, in the interest of managing the crowds and protecting the land. But this sign, I thought, was too much. Sure, I don’t want people leaving graffiti behind, or vandalizing the park, but seriously… “including stacked rocks”? That counts as vandalism?
The trail drops down and passes through this strange little valley as it circles around that hill. On the other side…
…you climb back up onto a wide-open plateau of slickrock. This area is beautiful enough to be an attraction on its own, but if you follow the cairns a bit further…
… you reach the main attraction. This is the Fire Wave, and it’s pretty impressive.
Oh, and those are the people standing in your way of taking a picture. You may experience slightly different people, but trust me, they’ll be there.
During my visit, there was a group of about a half-dozen young adults who had thoughtfully brought a Bluetooth speaker with them, so everyone could enjoy their music. They were clearly on a mission to become social media influencers, and therefore decided to spend their day taking a lifetime supply of Instagram photos while ignoring everyone else on the trail.
After waiting a few minutes for a chance to take a picture that wasn’t full of millennials, I decided to develop a different strategy. I realized that just about everyone was gathering on the rock, but nobody was walking around it, to see it from a different angle.
Climbing down and circling around turned out to be a pretty good idea. Granted, it’s not the photo of the Fire Wave that you’ll see on park brochures, but it’s still pretty interesting.
And with a little effort, I managed to line up a shot that also included some snow-capped mountains. That might be Virgin Peak, on the Arizona-Nevada border to the east.
I circled on around the hill, and discovered that the red-and-pink bands continue, although they’re not quite as dramatic as what you’ll find in the actual Fire Wave formation.
On the backside, it’s quite pretty.
I hiked up and over that slope to get back to the Fire Wave again, just to see how things were progressing.
With the crowd getting even bigger, I knew I had done the best I could, and I should probably head back.
Looking back towards the trailhead, I was reminded that the Fire Wave was just a distraction from the overall beauty of this area. I mean, look at those rocks!
All my complaining aside, this really was a nice trail, and it provides access to a nice spot. Big crowds, though, are simply a reality at Valley of Fire. Las Vegas is less than an hour away, so it only makes sense that lots of people would drive up here to experience the colors of the desert. Also, I was here on a Saturday, which is probably the busiest day of the week. For my next visit, I’ll try to be more strategic. It would be great to shoot the Fire Wave at sunset, perhaps on a less-crowded weekday. Let the Instagrammers have Saturdays.
Here’s a look at the drive into Valley of Fire State Park:
The Bottom Line
Avoid the most crowded times, if you can, and hike the Fire Wave trail early or late in the day, possibly on a weekday instead of a weekend. Be prepared for a very hot hike, with no shade, during the summer months (bring plenty of water). No matter when you hike it, or how many strangers you hike it with, you’ll still be able to appreciate the beautiful scenery.
I also got annoyed on this trail. In my case, it was families and kids, running over the rocks. And only these rocks. I don’t begrudge letting kids run around, but there’s a whole park full of rocks the kids would have been just as happy to run over that didn’t have the unique “firewave” striations. Everyone else is coming to see these rocks. At some point, you ought to let people enjoy the view without you in it. Admire the view, snap a few shots, then move on!
However, unlike you, I also dislike the rock stacking. It’s become a thing, and you wind up with stacks and stacks of rocks, everywhere you go. It destroys the feeling of being in nature, and turns it into someone else’s private play space. On some trails, there are literally hundreds of these stacks in a relatively small area. Not good for the local plant and wildlife, who grow and hide on the leeward side of rocks. Also, from a more selfish point of view, these excessive rock stacks make following a trail over slickrock impossible.
Down in Red Rock Canyon, I couldn’t find my way to Bridge Mountain, because once I got to the top of the escarpment, there were rock stacks in every direction. Normally, for trails over slickrock where no erosion path is apparent, the official trail is marked by occasional “ducks” or small cairns or rocks. You go from one stack to the next, and you’re on the right path. Twenty years ago, I had no problem following the occasional cairn to the painted markers to the slot up Bridge Mountain. Thought it would be the same last year, but it was not. Near the escarpment, cairns were in every direction. Following them just took me to deadends at the top of dropoff after dropoff. After going up and down rocks, only to reach a deadend, I just got too tired to want to risk the exposed climb up Bridge Mountain. Very frustrating!