Desert Road Trip: Exploring Valley of Fire, Red Rock Canyon, and Kelso Dunes

As a SoCal native I’ve vacationed in nearby Las Vegas on numerous occasions. A fun city to escape to for the weekend, full of exciting night life, fancy restaurants, and entertainment galore! However, this year I opted out of the glitz and glamour and took a weekend road trip through the surrounding desert landscape. A whirlwind weekend trip, I explored day hikes through Valley of Fire State Park, Red Rock Canyon, and Kelso Dunes.

Valley of Fire State Park: The Valley of Fire State Park is Nevada’s oldest state park, aptly named after the red sandstone rocks, formed from the shifting of sand dunes nearly 150 million years ago. Uplifting and faulting, coupled with extensive erosion created the now present flame like rocks that litter the park. Summer temperatures can be unbearably hot, reaching up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit! I visited the first week of April and enjoyed mild Spring weather, active wild life, and abundant wild flowers!

The park spans over 42,000 acres with a 2 mile scenic road that loops around the park. It’s filled with incredible rock formations named after things they resemble, i.e. Beehives, Seven Sisters, and the iconic Elephant Rock are to name a few!  Some of the best hiking trails in the park are short and easy treks right off of the main road. Mouse’s Tank is an easy 3/4 mile hike, named after an outlaw that used the area as his hideout. The canyon is filled with numerous prehistoric petroglyphs etched in the rock face. “The Fire Wave”, a highlight of the park, is a picturesque pink and white landscape that resembles swirls of taffy. Best photographed in early morning hours or late sunset to observe the whirl of red and orange colors. The White Domes is a short 1.25 mile hike that winds through a slot canyon of color contrasting sandstone, and was also a set for the movie The Professionals. 

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Red Rock Canyon: Red Rock Canyon is a National Conservation area of Nevada, located 15 miles west of Las Vegas, easily visible from Highway 15. A 13-mile scenic drive offers stunning views of the large sandstone peaks. The red streaks of color in the outcroppings is caused from the presence of iron oxidizing or rusting, resulting in a red and orange color.

“If you could travel back in time, about 180 million years, you would find yourself standing in a vast field of towering red sand dunes that stretched across much of the southwest. This immense dune field was one of the largest that has even existed on earth. The region was very arid and looked similar to the dune fields of the modern-day Sahara Desert in Africa. Over time, underground water moving through the dunes carried away much of the red color and left behind calcium carbonate. This process cemented the sand into rock. This rock forms the colorful sandstone cliffs and hills of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.”—Red Rock Canyon Keystone Visitor Guide

There are 26 hiking trails in Red Rock ranging in difficulty from easy to strenuous, but one of my favorite hikes is Calico Tanks. It’s a fairly easy hike—at 2.5 miles that starts in the Sandstone Quarry and meanders through a canyon wash. I enjoyed climbing over the sandstone boulders and observing the abundant wildflowers blooming along the trail! The desert heat can be oppressive, but the unexpected wind can be even more uncomfortable! The 50-60 mph wind almost knocked us off the boulders at times!

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Kelso Dunes: Located 20 miles outside of the small town of Baker, the Kelso Dunes are the largest field of sand deposits in the Mojave Desert. They are five stacked sets of dunes, composed primarily of minute white quartz and feldspar stones. I had heard of these mysterious white desert dunes—although a little out of the way, I knew I had to make a stop on my drive home from Nevada.

Have you ever hiked in sand? It’s exhausting! It feels like a never ending uphill battle—but with that being hiking in the soft, squishy sand felt like I was trekking on the moon! I noticed fellow hikers were smart enough to bring boards and sleds so they could enjoy an exhilarating downhill ride after a tough hike.

The Kelso Dunes are also notable for “singing sand”, an audible, low frequency hum that can be heard when wind passes over the dunes or by walking on the sand.

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I wish I could have spent more time in each location! Too many hiking trails to complete in one weekend, but had so much fun exploring the desert and observing it in a different light. If you’re looking for a quick weekend escape, consider skipping the Vegas strip and opt outside—with a hike in fire and a walk on the moon, you won’t regret it!

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