Less than an hour’s drive northwest of Las Vegas, Valley of Fire State Park is an excellent day trip. Highlights include red sandstone formations, a scenic drive, a couple of short hiking trails, petroglyphs and desert flora and fauna. Our mid-winter visit meant a comfortable temperature for hiking without carrying too much water. Day use entry fees apply and there’s limited/no cell phone reception in some areas of the park.
On the Road
We left our Las Vegas hotel around 7:30 am. Between a stop for groceries, the 55 minute drive and a few quick photo stops, the west entrance booth was just opening (9 am) when we pulled up to pay the $10 entrance fee.
Mr GeoK was on a business call, with me behind the wheel. His call dropped about 10 minutes off I-15, so the most important question we had for the park ranger was about cell phone reception. We ended up parked in the tiny parking lot at the west entrance until the call ended. The good news is that while we were parked, the clouds blew off so that we were under blue sky and sunshine when we headed off to our first planned stop at Beehives.
Yes, the sandstone Beehives are unusual. But we were more interested in the small group of Desert Bighorn Sheep that were browsing just off the parking lot. The reminded us of the more-familiar-to-us Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, but with a wider spread to their horns. The five rams were clearly accustomed to humans, because they barely looked up from eating to notice the phone-wielding tourists trying for selfies-with-the-sheep.
White Domes Road
An out and back scenic drive, White Domes Road starts at the Visitor Center and ends at the White Domes trail parking lot, with several stops of interest along the way. For more than half its distance, posted signs make it very clear that visitors are not to stop on the shoulder.
Our first stop was a quick one, at Rainbow Vista, which was quite busy. After deciding “hard pass” on the short, crowded walk to the photo lookout, we continued to Parking Lot 1 where tan-coloured sandstone domes caught our attention.
Parking Lot 1 is also a good spot to photograph the road as it winds its way north, deeper into red sandstone country.
The posted speed limit of 40 kph (25 mph) makes it just barely possible for passengers to get some decent photos through the window, like this hollowed-out sandstone pillar that I really wanted to try climbing into!
White Domes Hike
We opted to drive all the way to the end of the road to do the White Domes Hike first, so that we’d have a better sense for how much time we’d have available for our other planned stops. Due to the length of Mr GeoK’s business call, it was after 11 o’clock before we pulled into the trail head parking lot.
As soon as we stepped out of the vehicle, it was obvious we’d be hiking in a bit of a sandstorm. The wind was blasting sand at our faces and we were more than a little concerned about our camera gear. After all, hiking New Zealand’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing in strong winds resulted in dust inside my not-weather-sealed 14-150 lens – bad enough that I had to replace it.
Since we are now equipped with weather-sealed Olympus camera bodies and PRO lenses, we decided to risk it, and headed out to tackle the 1.8 km (1.1 mi) loop trail in the clockwise direction, which put the wind at our backs to start.
As soon as possible, Mr GeoK headed up onto the red rock slabs to get away from the blowing sand.
By staying down low, I enjoyed a closer-up view of the remains of a “hacienda” constructed in 1965 for the filming the western movie The Professionals, starring starring Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Claudia Cardinale.
The trail includes a short slot canyon, which would provide a welcome bit of shade for those hiking in warmer months.
After the slot canyon, the landscape opens up to show off striking sandstone formations in contrasting colours.
Some include false arches…
…which we did our best to incorporate into a few compositions.
Looking north from the top end of the loop, yet more sandstone formations spring up from the desert landscape.
Back in the parking lot about an hour after we started, it was getting close to lunch time. We drove back to Parking Lot 3 (trail head parking for the Fire Wave Hike), before deciding whether to eat lunch before our after our second short hike of the day.
Fire Wave Hike
After seeing the clouds of dust and sand blowing along the start of the Fire Wave trail, it was an easy decision to hunker in the car to eat our picnic lunch while hoping the wind would die back. By the time we headed out, conditions were slightly better.
The towering red sandstone block near the trail head is not the Fire Wave – but it dominates the first part of the hike.
Even approaching the Fire Wave, it’s still the most dominant element of the landscape.
Because the Fire Wave is quite fragile, Mr GeoK looped around, off the sandstone formation while I hiked to the end of the trail, which allowed for this composition with me at the official end of the trail.
This is what the Fire Wave looks like under harsh, midday sun… from above…
…and down below.
Once Mr GeoK looped back around to the main trail, he walked as far east as he could, to shoot a panorama looking east…
…and another looking north.
Having soaked in the magnificent scenery until sated, we headed back towards the parking lot…
…with one fun(ny?) stop along the way!
On the return drive along the scenic White Domes Road, we stopped once to try for “the” road shot that I saw everywhere while doing pre-trip research. Midday light meant the RAW file needed a fair bit of processing, and you can tell by how much of the overlook rock protrudes into the foreground that I’m still leery of heights, but overall I’m satisfied with the result.
At the intersection of White Domes Road with Valley of Fire Road, we had the choice of turning towards Seven Sisters and Elephant Rock or heading back towards Las Vegas. Feelings carried over from the previous day’s extra long road trip to Death Valley made for any easy decision to head back.
But that didn’t mean a direct return…we made two more quick stops along the Scenic Loop Road (which turned out not to be a loop because it deteriorates into a gravel road that’s really only for campers at the Arch Rock seasonal campground).
We spent a fair bit of time at the top of the metal staircase at Atlatl Rock, trying to figure out how the artist climbed up to the precariously balanced rock and admiring the variety of the petroglyphs.
Back home, additional research revealed that we missed more petroglyphs than we saw. That same research suggests the petroglyphs are roughly 4000 years old! Sadly, there is also some rock graffiti that is much more recent.
Our final stop was Arch Rock, where we first spotted several false arches in the distance. Were those the arches of Arch Rock? We were a bit perplexed and pulled out of the parking area thinking it was all a big deal about nothing. As we pulled back onto Scenic Loop Road I glanced out of the passenger window and saw the real Arch Rock – a delicate arch atop the large sandstone formation that abuts the parking lot.
It was an altogether great day trip: beautiful and unique (to us) scenery, a couple of short hikes, a very manageable 200 km (125 miles) of driving, all in 8.5 hours (including 1.5 hours at the west entrance parking lot for Mr GeoK’s business call). Thanks to the sand blowing around, we had to wash grit out our eyes, ears and hair, but the weather-sealing on our cameras and lenses lived up to its name!
NOTE: We traveled to California, Nevada and Arizona in late January/early February 2020, many weeks before WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. For me, one way of coping with the potential overwhelm of 24/7 “more bad news” coverage is to spend time every day focusing on something else – like writing, a photography project or something else that occupies mind and hands. For once, our usual time lag between being on vacation and writing about it is a plus – a ready-made backlog of new posts to write. 🙂