Red Rock Canyon is an awe-inspiring area of the Mojave Desert that has been sculpted by geologic forces, wind and rain. Evidence of various phases of its development from shallow inland sea to hot dry desert 600 million years later can be seen in limestone deposits, petrified logs, petroglyphs and pictographs.

The city of Las Vegas is teeming with a variety of exceptional activities. Visitors from all corners of the globe travel to Las Vegas in order to experience world-class gaming, sumptuous cuisine, and top-name entertainment. Yet, there are those who visit Las Vegas for more than just a chance to win big at the slots or take a spin at the roulette wheel. If you have the opportunity, take time to venture beyond the glitter of Las Vegas’ famous Strip, or the nostalgic downtown region, and your family can enjoy a day outdoors exploring the natural wonders of Red Rock Canyon.

Officially known as Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area, but referred to simply as “Red Rock” by locals, this national treasure may just be one of the best-kept secrets in Las Vegas, and one of the most photographed places in Southern Nevada. The main type of rock found here is Aztec (or Navajo) sandstone, formed years ago through the natural cementing of ancient sand dunes. It is referred to as ‘Red Rock’ by locals because of the striking red-colored sandstone formations found throughout this small valley and can be seen from almost anywhere in Las Vegas.

The Red Rock area was, for most of the last 600 million years or so, originally part of a deep ocean basin. Movements of the Earth’s crust began occurring about 225 million years ago, causing the seabed to rise slowly. Exposure to the atmosphere caused the sediment in the seabed to oxidize, resulting in the striking red and orange-colored hues streaked across the rocks and hillsides. More changes occurred in the canyon, giving the area its very distinctive appearance. About 65 million years ago, a large system of thrust faults extending as far north as Canada developed, resulting in many unusual effects.  This particular thrust created one of the most unique feature in Red Rock Canyon, the Keystone Thrust, where older layers of rock were essentially pushed, or “thrust” over younger layers of rock. Geologically speaking, this is quite unusual, yet it resulted in some visually impressive formations.

Red Rock Canyon is 17 miles west of the Strip on Charleston Boulevard, also known as Highway 159. The Bureau of Land Management, the largest administrator of public lands in the west, protects Red Rock Canyon. In addition, they receive volunteer as well financial help from two non-profit organizations, Friends of Red Rock Canyon and Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association.

Red Rock Canyon encompasses 197,000 acres within the Mojave Desert. The area includes a visitor center, 30-plus miles of hiking trails, a campground, and a 13-mile drive that gives you an up-close look at the magnificent rock formations and indigenous plants and animals. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of wild burros and horses, or even bighorn sheep on your drive through the canyon. An abundance of activities are available at Red Rock Canyon, such as backpacking, rock climbing, bicycling, and picnicking. Special programs are also available, including astronomy programs presented by the Las Vegas Astronomical Society.

The BLM and the Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association have provided interpretive signs throughout the park. They also offer outdoor family activities such as lectures by local experts on desert plants and their medicinal uses, programs about the owls of Red Rock Canyon, yoga instruction, and junior ranger classes. A special program for kids ages 3 and 4 is called “Desert Babies,” where they can come out to “play” while learning about nature.

by Julie Engelhardt