Exploring Valley of Fire’s red burning rocks

In Nevada’s high desert, the Valley of Fire is a crazy sculpture park built by nature’s hand that ignites in flame-red color when the sun is low in the horizon.

The state’s oldest and largest state park (dedicated in 1935), Valley of Fire is a veritable moonscape of beautiful red-orange rock formations just an hour drive northeast from downtown Las Vegas. It covers an area of almost 17,000 ha / 42,000 a. and is actually not really a valley, but stones sticking out from the desert.

On a recent trip to Vegas we took a little time away from the roulette tables and explored the arches, towers, balancing rocks and unbelievable colors that make up this amazing park.

Valley of Fire’s “burning” rocks

Valley of Fire consists of red sandstone formations formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs 150 millions years ago.

Complex uplifting and faulting of the region, followed by extensive erosion, have created the present landscape of bizarre and fantastic rock formations.

These features, which are the centerpiece of the park’s attractions, turn a fiery deep orange-red when reflecting the sun’s rays, especially at sunset and sunrise, and give the place its name.

Valley of Fire

A “burning” rock wall in the setting sun at the Valley of Fire

But it’s not just red that you’ll see here. One of my favorite sites is a stretch of road called “Rainbow Vista” where the late afternoon sun sets ablaze a crazy palette of colors from across the spectrum. If you are driving, pull over to the side of the road to enjoy this, or you might find yourself in the ditch.

Another amazing site is the “Fire Wave”, a beautiful formation of striped layers of red and white sandstone that looks like swirled ice cream.

Thousands of years of erosion have carved all of this beautifully colored rock into crazy shapes. One of the more popular of these is the aptly named “Arch Rock”. An elegantly designed, natural arch that looks like it was formed out of burning red play-dough.

My absolute favorite rock formation is “Mouse Tank”. I am not sure how it got its name, but this crazy maze of bridges and towers looks like it belongs in a modern art museum. There’s a trail here that takes you through “Petroglyph Canyon”. Keep your eyes pealed for the many rock paintings left behind by the Indian tribes that once lived here.

Other areas worth checking out include, the “Beehives”, “Elephant Rock”, “Seven Sisters”, and “Balanced Rock”.

Valley of Fire’s first dwellers and their rock art legacy

According to the park’s rangers, two American Indian tribes lived here between 300 B.C. and 1150 A.D. They were the Basket Maker people, who were semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers and the Anasazi Pueblo farmers from the nearby fertile Moapa Valley.

In order to survive in this arid, harsh, desert landscape, they lived primarily on a vegetarian diet, eating cactus and plants including yucca, mesquite tree, prickly pear and beaver tail. Eventually, they learned to plant corn and beans and hunt animals like rabbit, sheep and antelope.

Besides Mouse’s Tank, petroglyphs can also be found at “Atlatl Rock”, which is a single, large boulder perched precariously atop a sandstone outcrop. The State Park has installed metal stairs that can be used to climb up and see the petroglyphs on the smooth east face of the rock.

Valley of Fire rock art

Rock art at the Valley of Fire’s most famous petroglyph site, Atlatl Rock

Although these are the two areas that have the largest concentration of petroglyphs that are easily accessible, these ancient American Indian drawings can be found throughout the park.

The rangers at the visitor center can best advise you on where to look for them and get the most out of your time at the park. They’ll also tell you what’s not permitted; the desert is very fragile and they don’t want folks trampling all over the place or climbing on the rocks here.

Make a day (or more) of your visit to the Valley of Fire

From the Vegas strip, it’s about an hour’s drive to the park if you head up Interstate 15. However, a much better route is to take Northshore Road (State Route 167), which follows the north and western shores of Lake Mead. It’s not as fast, but way more scenic.

Valley of Fire Lake Mead

A scenic view of Lake Mead while driving along the Northshore Road to reach the Valley of Fire

If you actually want to visit the lake, you’ll have to turn onto a side road. One good spot for this is Echo Bay, which has a nice beach and campsites.

Even if you don’t take a side trip to the lake, this is a beautiful road to drive. The desert landscapes, dry washes and canyons (made from flash floods) and the vistas of enormous Lake Mead, blazing blue against this barren dry desert canvas, are breathtaking. Just make sure you have enough gas, petrol stations are not very common out here.

We didn’t follow this last bit of advice and were running very low on gas when leaving Valley of Fire. We made it, but we both thought we would be sleeping in the desert another night, listening to coyotes yelp.

On that note, pack also enough water and food, because you never know.

Life in the desert around Valley of Fire

Animals are scarce here so you will need to keep your eyes pealed if you want to see them. We were lucky enough to spot a black-tailed jackrabbit right near the visitor center. He was kind of a big guy with very long ears.

Valley of Fire jackrabbit

A black-tailed jackrabbit in the Valley of Fire

Other denizens of the desert include the coyote, kit fox, spotted skunk and antelope ground squirrel. Birds you might see here include ravens, house finches, sage sparrows and roadrunners. Besides these, you might also see many species of lizards and snakes, so mind your step.

A very lucky few might even see the desert tortoise. These are very rare and protected by law, so if you see one, take a picture from a distance, but mostly leave it alone.

Important to note, many of the animals here are nocturnal so keep your eyes open in the evenings (and avoid driving on the roads at night if possible).

Among the rock and dirt there are also a number of bushes and cacti, and if you’re here in the spring, amazing desert wildflowers bloom along side of the park roads.

A blanket of stars covers you at night in the Valley of Fire

Of course, the best way to see the park’s nightly creatures and fully enjoy the sunset and sunrise is to stay in one of the two campsite here (which are equipped with shaded tables, grills, water, showers and restrooms).

Sleeping in the high desert is an otherworldly experience. There’s a quiet here that is something you’ve never experienced anywhere. Also, the air cools down when the sun drops below the horizon, which provides a nice break from the day’s heat.

Valley of Fire campsite

One of the two campsites in the Valley of Fire

Of course the main attraction at night here are the sky. I’ve seen some great displays, but this is just crazy. With little or no humidity to filter the light, and Vegas far enough away not to cause light pollution, this 762 m / 2,500 ft-high vista provides an amazing night of star gazing. In fact, it’s hard to even call it star gazing, as there are some many stars here they start to blend in with one another.

What you want to bring for a night in the desert depends on when you go. Winters are mild during the day, with temperatures of around 24° C / 75° F, but this drops significantly at night, often below freezing. Daily summer highs usually exceed 38° C / 100° F and may reach 49° C / 120° F. Luckily it cools down a little at night, although it’s still above 20° C / 68 ° F.

As the average annual rainfall is only 10 cm / 4 in, you don’t have to worry about bringing an umbrella. That being said, there’s nothing as impressive as watching the rain bringing fresh life to the dry desert.

As one might expect, the best times to visit her are, spring and fall when temperatures are not extreme. However, we were there in mid summer, and while you had to be a little careful about heat stroke (stay hydrated, seek shade), it was fine.

For some it might be hard to imagine spending a good portion of their precious vacation time in a hot desert. But once you see the Valley of Fire, you’ll understand what all the buzz is about.

Valley of Fire

Burning rocks in the sunset at the Valley of Fire

What’s your favorite desert spot? Let us know in the comments!


Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.

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