Some 50 miles out of Las Vegas lies Nevada's oldest and largest state park, Valley of Fire. As many travelers before me, I took a day trip from California in our Mazda CX-9 to see one of Nevada's most remarkable red sandstone valleys.
I headed north on the I-15 just as the sun began to rise. The open highway sang to me as I passed miles of empty desert valleys. The user-friendly cruise-control buttons on the steering wheel helped me maintain an even speed on the open highway. At times, I was tempted to see what the CX-9's 3.7-liter V-6 DOHC engine could do if I gave it a little more gas, but the 273-horse powerplant was still new and needed a good brake-in period before any kind of performance driving could be done. I pressed for two and a half hours, passing Primm, Nevada, and an hour later the flashy casinos that line Las Vegas Boulevard.
I continued north on I-15 until the highway signs for Valley of Fire started appearing some 35 miles later. I knew I was close, and the nav system was right on target as I took the State Route 169 cutoff exit. Route 169 was a popular scenic route in the early 1900s, and settlers used it as a reference point on their travels. The fiery, prehistoric sand dunes could be seen for miles as wagon trains heading west crossed the Mojave Desert.
I headed up the two-lane road located on the Paiute Indian Reservation for another 11 miles making my way on some twisty mountain loops. As I approached the park entrance, a large ram leapt from the roadside. I came to a fast stop as I watched the ram scamper across the road's soft shoulder and then disappear into the brush. That was just a sneak peek of what nature's beauty had to offer as I paid my entrance fee at the park's gate.
I made my first stop at an area know as the Beehives. These sandstone rock formations were named for their beehive shape carved by thousands of years of heavy wind and erosion. I got out the Mazda to stretch my legs from the five-hour drive and to see these beehives up close.
The park's roadways were freshly paved and screamed for me to use the six-speed manual mode as I climbed the hillsides and twisty roads. The speed limit of the park is only 35 mph so I barely left second gear as the CX-9 hugged the roads like a sports car.
I kept on the roadway, passing the visitor's center, and traveled up the steep sandstone mountainside. Vibrant red walls blazed on both sides of the Mazda and eventually opened up at the top of the mountain. That site, called Rainbow Vista, overlooks the entire valley. I left the SUV again to hike down a trail to Mouse's Tank that starts just beyond the Rainbow mountainside. Along the red walls lay evidence from ancient Anasazi Indian dwellers who carved petrographs into the almost burnt-black markings caused by ice and wind millions of years ago.
In the 1800s, this Valley was home to the Anasazi and Paiute Indian nations. Mouse's Tank got its name from a renegade Paiute Indian called "Little Mouse" who was known to hide out in the area in the 1890s. It's believed "Little Mouse" hid out here for several years after killing two pioneer prospectors. He was later hunted down in 1897, refusing to give up. At the end of the trail, the rock forms a natural well that collected rain water in its small basin for Indian people. The hike is only a half-mile round trip, but gives you a closer look at how life was for the people that lived here.
I jumped back in to the CX-9. The road was still wavy and the rocks began to change colors. The red sandstone was interwoven with white sandstone as I got closer to my next stop at White Domes. The road came to an end, and the sandstone turned white but remained an amazing sight. I opted to skip the hiking trail around white dome and headed back down to the main highway. It was getting late and there where two other spots I wanted to see in the park.
Once back on the highway, I continued east on the 168 and the rocky hillsides opened up to a large desert valley. As I looped around the edge of the hills, seven large red sandstone formations lined the highway -- the "Seven Sisters." When cross-country travel became popular in the early 1950s, adventurers coming from the east were greeted by these large formations as they entered the park. A handful of travelers came through the park back then, but now it has over 200,000 visitors a year.
Just beyond the Seven Sisters, I passed Lone Rock (the name speaks for itself) and made a left down a gravel road following the signs to the Cabins. High on the mountainside are three little one-room cabins built of native sandstone. These cabins were built for passing travelers who crossed this valley in the 1930s. The thought of people using these cabins for shelter as they made their way west is just amazing. There's history in these hills and I was leaving my footprint in the dirt that's been traveled by millions before me.
Photo courtesy of Evan Klein.
As the sun began to set, I dusted of my shoes and got back into the SUV. I decided not to turn back and exit the way I came in. I left the gravel road and continued east on the 168. Off to the right side of the road, I saw a white cross dedicated to a pioneer named Captain John J. Clark. His story is rather sad but typical of that that time. It's told that Clark was making his way west when he decided to stop and rest. He tied up his horse and sat to rest -- and there he died of thirst.
A few hundred yards from the John J. Clark monument, the 168 takes a sharp turn north and I drove through the town of Overton. This small town is a product of the early years of American travel, when little villages boomed along roadsides before large Interstates where built. Overton is one of the few boom towns that remains alive and growing along this old route. Old rusty cars in barns and horses running in green fields dotted the highway until I reached the I-15 some thirty-minutes after leaving the state park.
I was again on the open Interstate heading south back into Las Vegas. Night had fallen and thick clouds had rolled in from the west. I was miles from Vegas, but could see the city lights glowing as I got closer. I passed through Vegas and watched lightning in the distance. It grew closer as I kept west. With my cruise control set again, I braced myself for a long and wet drive home to California.
For more information about this location, call Valley of Fire State Park at (702) 397-2088.