A DAY AWAY FROM THE STRIP
(Red Rock Canyon, Spring Mountain Ranch State Park and Bonnie Springs Ranch and Old Nevada)
By, Dale Day
When you grow tired of artificial mountains and waterfalls or replicas of the Eifel Tower, Venice and The Land of Oz with its bronze lion, take a short drive to savor the real beauties of nature.
The Riviera Hotel
It’s just a brief drive from the bright lights of The Strip and Glitter Gulch to mountains and rock formations that reveal the geological history of the Southwest.
The area between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and south of present-day Canada was millions of years ago an inland sea. A rich abundance of marine life created deposits of their exoskeletons sometimes up to nine thousand feet thick. The water and then sand, when the water receded, compressed this matter into limestone.
It is estimated the water became shallower about 225 million years ago and streams and rivers created swamps where mud and sand turned into shale and sandstone. These deposits became exposed to the sun where they rusted, creating brilliant red colors.
The winds blew sand and piled it up more than a half-mile deep in spots. Old dunes were leveled and new ones created to leave a record of curving, angled lines in the sands. They were buried by other sediments and became the brilliant Aztec Sandstone.
Aztec Sandstone at Red Rock Canyon
It only took another 10 million years until the earth moved and the massive plates shifted, creating what is called The Keystone Thrust Fault that fashioned an awesome folding and shifting of the earth to reveal the millions of years of the area’s history. It also mixed things up a bit putting old layers atop new ones.
As you near the Red Rock area, glance to your right and you will view a spectacular upthrust revealing slanted layers of Earth’s history.
With towering manmade casinos and hotels behind, you enter Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Take a tour on the scenic drive, spend the day hiking and camping and stop at the Visitor’s Center to learn more about the area, all for a minimal fee.
Despite its barren looks, there’s plenty of life. Trees and shrubs range from Piñon Pine whose nuts provided a major food source for the Paiutes who lived in the area, to shrubs, bushes and grasses such as Curl-Leaf Mountain Mahogany, big Sagebrush and Black brush, Nevada Bluegrass and Cheat grass.
You’ll see Joshua Trees which are really members of the Yucca family. As you drive through the Southwest, you don’t have to guess your elevation as they only grow between 3,600 and 4,200 feet and receive between 8 and 10 inches of rain per year. This plant is also interesting in that Indians used the tough fibers for a variety of uses to include exceedingly durable footwear.
Black brush is plentiful as well as Creosote Bush which has a marvelous scent after brief rains. Another plant is Mormon Tea which was also known as Whorehouse Tea for its purported healing properties after cowboys had visited Bawdy Houses. One will also see Burro Brush which, for some reason, is also called Cheese Brush..
You will have to hike some distance to reach higher elevations where180 year old Ponderosa Pines live in harmony with Agave and Prickly Pear, two more plants of great value to the Paiutes. Agave leaves were woven for a variety of uses. Prickly pear fruit added sweetness to their diets and the leaves themselves were cooked and eaten with some medicinal benefits such as aiding in controlling diabetes. These are commercially available in present-day markets that specialize in Hispanic foods under the name Nopales.
There is an amazing plethora of birds and animals, although the vast majority are nocturnal to avoid the extreme day-time heat. Raptors may circle high overhead and one very unique bird is the Loggerhead Shrike which, though a predator, has weak feet and can’t hold struggling prey in its grasp. To immobilize prey, the shrike will often impale it on cactus spines where it takes its time to dine.
The most visible wildlife are the Wild Burros. They were left by the Spanish and miners. Don’t let them fool you. They will come up to you to beg for food. But, whatever you do, DON’T FEED THEM! They can get very mean and no few visitors have left with severe bites requiring immediate medical care.
Part of the Scenic Drive takes you to Willow Creek with picnic facilities. It also provides a good starting point for a hike up one of the mountain canyons to view Riparian areas with different plants and wildlife. Icebox Canyon has a maintained trail which leads in for an 8-tenth of a mile; the end of Icebox Canyon is reached in another half-mile by "boulder hopping" in the canyon bottom.
Willow Creek Picnic Area
Wildlife ranges from Jackrabbits and Cottontails to Roadrunners and a wide variety of lizards. There are, of course, the feared rattlesnakes who’re actually very mild-mannered creature who’d rather run than have to bite you because they feel trapped. If they warn you with their rattle, freeze and they will go their own way leaving you with the view of an animal truly adapted to extreme conditions.
Coyotes can also be seen, especially in early evening when they seek out trash containers, a far easier source of food than quick Kangaroo Rats, Ground Squirrels, or Desert Gophers. I know an individual who hikes on the pristine backside of Red Rock who says he’s seen signs of but never an actual Puma. It is highly possible there’s one or two due to the Mule Deer who live there. The deer may show up on the NCA but it is an extremely rare event.
And, if one’s able to be there at night, it is highly possible to see a number of night-flying birds and, of course, Mexican Short-tailed Bats. (An aside: When it rains here in the desert, in a few days, insects emerge and millions of them are attracted to the huge laser light atop The Luxor. More than a few times, I’ve been awed to watch Nature’s Ballet as bats swarm to feast upon the flittering insects. In my opinion, it’s because of these marvelous animals of the night that we who live here in Las Vegas are not plagued by night-flying insects as those who live in other parts of the country.)
Park Visitor Center
So now, you done the tour and are about to leave the park. Where to next?
That’s easy -- Spring Mountain Ranch State Park just a short drive down the road from the NCA. Because of many springs in the Wilson Range, Paiutes lived in the area and 520 acres were developed into a combination working ranch and luxury retreat in the early 1900’s. Owners who’ve given the area a long and colorful history include, Chester Lauck of the comedy team "Lum & Abner," German actress Vera Krupp, and millionaire Howard Hughes. (Another aside: Hughes has a long history in Southern Nevada long before his famous taking over of the Desert Inn and buying binge of hotels up and down The Strip).
There is a modest entry fee that allows one to picnic, hike in the area behind the park and enjoy guided tours by The Spring Mountain Ranch Docents, a volunteer, non-profit group that also gives living history programs.
And in the Summer months is a well-accepted Super Summer Theater, a series of outdoor performances. The "Theater under the Stars" also features musicals and plays for the whole family.
But, that’s not all to your drive on Blue Diamond Road. Just a short distance from the State Park is the entrance to Bonnie Springs Ranch and Old Nevada.
It's a hangin'
There are more sumptuous and grand theme parks around the country. But, in my opinion, this is worth the stop on your tour. The parking lots are dirt and tucked in between Desert Willow, Salt Brush and Creosote Bushes. On weekends, you can ride a hokey little train to the entrance to the Old West Town.
You will enter a replica of an 1880’s mining town with boarded sidewalks that creak pleasantly under your feet, saloons, tumbleweeds, stagecoaches, and even a Boot Hill Cemetery.
There is a "posse" show where kids can help track down the 'bad guy". This little old mining town offers plenty of rousing, rough-and-tumble action; simulated gunfights in the streets, an 1830's melodrama complete with mustachioed villain in our authentically recreated Saloon (Which I thought was hilariously funny), and a public hanging, with an obliging Stuntman swaying in the wind. All shows are kids friendly and they encourage audience participation.
In addition, there's a wax museum with figures from our frontier history, They serve great homemade meals in their restaurant, have a beautiful and romantic 1800's style wedding chapel along with convention facilities and plenty of shopping for those looking for turquoise and silver and other western souvenirs.
And, when you leave Old Nevada, just a few steps away is the Petting Zoo where the kids can wander around and see animals that are native to our country.
I will never forget when my current family first came here and I took them to the above sites. The looks on their faces as the savored the magnificence of Nature and the fun of Old Nevada with its petting zoo will stay with me forever.
And I’m certain you and your kids will feel the same. So, take a day off from the lights and noise of The Strip and see something you’ll remember forever.
[all pictures but the Vegas Sign where taken by yours truly]
Oops! Hastily added April 15th when somebody told me I forgot something - direction on how to get there!
There are two ways:
- Take Charleston Blvd west from Downtown - or take the beltway around to Red Rock Casino and catch Charleston there.
- go south on I-15 to the Silverton Casino exit - state road 160 and go west past the salt mine to see the road for Old Nevada/Red Rock Canyon.