When it comes to blazing colors and monumental shapes, there is a spot in Nevada that might just rival the spectacle of the Las Vegas Strip.
The Valley of Fire State Park glows with pink-and-beige-pinstriped waves, rainbow valleys, and crimson arches. And for some Vegas-style flare, there’s also a whimsical elephant, a fierce spear-thrower, and a beehive valley.
Unlike glittery Vegas, though, the Valley of Fire is all natural, featuring sandstone rock that was formed 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. Fittingly, the natural wonder is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park.
At less than an hour’s drive northeast of the major tourist draw of Las Vegas, the Valley of Fire State Park attracts about a quarter of a million visitors a year. Still, the park retains an aura of remoteness -- so close yet so far away from the big city.
I recommend planning your visit to Valley of Fire during the cooler weather of the spring or fall. Because, really, the name says it all -- it’s fiery hot in the summer months.
The average high temperatures in June, July, and August all top 100 degrees: 101 in June, 106 in July, and 103 in August. March and April are optimal, with average highs in the 70-degree range. October is warm and sunny, with an average high temperature of 83, while November is noticeably cooler, with an average high of 67. The winter months are cool but still comfortable, with average highs of 57 degrees in both December and January.
I visited in June, and the temperatures were already too hot to be comfortable on many of the sand-and-rock trails of the state park. But if you’re planning to sightsee mostly from your car, you can still take in the beautiful scenic drive and several of the notable rock formations without too much exertion during the hot weather.
Overall, if you’re traveling to Las Vegas, the Valley of Fire State Park is a must-visit Nevada destination. In fact, it might just be the best Vegas day trip available. Here are just a few of the unforgettable scenic spots you’ll find there.
1. The Scenic Byway
Majestic is the word that the Travel Nevada website uses to describe the Valley of Fire Scenic Byway, and I would second that. The long ribbon of blacktop beckons as it winds its way past scarlet cliffs and peculiarly shaped rocks.
“Mimicking the dance of a flame, the rocks change from benign oranges and browns to deeper, more dramatic shades, while the sun and its shadows seem to mold the rocks into new shapes,” says the website.
If possible, try to time your drive through the park for either sunrise or sunset. That’s when the rocks are at their most luminous. But even if you arrive at midday, expect to be captivated by the ruddy rocks against the royal blue backdrop of the Nevada sky.
The scenic byway is just under 11 miles, and it connects the east and west entrances. A number of side roads are available for exploring off the main road. Expect to spend 2 to 3 hours driving the route and stopping at the overlooks and attractions.
2. Elephant Rock
Among its many splendid rocks, the Valley of Fire’s signature formation has to be the elephantine rock perched high above the scenic byway at the eastern end of the park.
Don’t worry about not being able to visualize an elephant in the rock’s famous shape. Featuring a long “trunk” and lumbering legs, the formation is unmistakably Elephant Rock.
Although the formation can be seen from the scenic byway, the park does not allow parking alongside the road. So, if you want a longer look at the elephant, you’ll need to park in the nearby lot and walk the less-than-half-mile round trip to the attraction.
It’s an easy hike with little elevation gain, but the surface is rocky, and there is no shade along the way. Expect to take a half hour or so to explore Elephant Rock.
3. The Petroglyphs
If you like your animal shapes to be a little more literal and come with plenty of history, be sure to stop by Atlatl Rock. The rock face, which can be reached via a long, steep staircase, features prehistoric carvings (petroglyphs) of a variety of animals, as well as of an atlatl -- a throwing stick or a dart thrower used by ancient tribes to give more force to their darts or spears.
The rock art dates to prehistoric times when the Ancestral Puebloan people, also known as the Anasazi, farmed the nearby Moapa Valley sometime between 300 B.C. and A.D. 1100.
Along with the historic carvings, a climb to the top of the staircase offers great views of the surrounding valley. Expect to spend about a half hour at the site.
Excellent petroglyphs can also be seen on the park’s Petroglyph Canyon Trail, a 0.75-mile round-trip route that passes by rock faces covered in carvings. The trail ends at Mouse’s Tank, a natural basin of water in sandstone, which features multiple rock art carvings.
The Petroglyph Canyon Trail is mostly flat and is rated as easy. It takes less than a half hour to complete. Expect to walk through some loose sand and rocky terrain on the trail.
4. White Domes
Along the scenic byway, be sure to take the detour off the main road onto White Domes Road, a route that rises and dips as it passes by some of the most scenic vistas in the park.
The name is instantly understandable when you arrive at the parking lot at the end of the road. Massive white-dome rocks rise before you, offering a striking contrast to the reds and oranges in the rest of the park.
From the parking lot, a 1.1-mile round-trip hike is available, featuring far-off desert vistas as well as a historic movie set from the 1966 film The Professionals. The trail is rated as easy. Expect to take an hour or so to hike the loop.
5. Rainbow Vista
For a walk that takes you to the edge of a scenic canyon, consider making the trek along the Rainbow Vista Trail.
At less than a mile round trip, the route is short but intense, with much of the trail consisting of deep red, shifting sand. Once you arrive at the Fire Canyon Overlook, though, you’re treated to sweeping 360-degree views. Expect to take about an hour to hike the Rainbow Vista Trail.
6. Fire Wave
The flowing contours of the Fire Wave were the images that initially attracted me to the Valley of Fire. Because it looked similar to The Wave -- the popular but difficult-to-access flowing rock formation in Northern Arizona -- I couldn’t resist visiting the much more available Fire Wave.
Consisting of slickrock in a distinctive pink-and-beige pattern, the rock really does resemble a crashing sea wave. The trail to the Fire Wave is about 1.5 miles out and back and takes about an hour and a half to complete. The trail has less than 300 feet of elevation gain and is rated as easy, although the route includes deep sand alternating with rocky surfaces.
7. Seven Sisters
For a cool stop along the scenic byway, be sure to check out the Seven Sisters. The row of seven massive sandstone boulders offers plenty of semi-private and shady picnic areas, as well as rocks to climb.
I loved the Seven Sisters pull-off because it reminded me of the old-school scenic rest stops that families once frequented for picnic breaks while on cross-country trips. It also offers plenty of great vantage points from which to capture photos of the twisting, open road.
8. Natural Arch
It’s not the largest rock arch you’ll run across in the Southwestern United States, but the Valley of Fire’s Natural Arch still offers a beautiful glimpse of blue sky beneath a vivid red-rock archway.
A sign at the Natural Arch site notes that the gap in the rock was formed when the rock was “unable to withstand the blasting of strong winds and the slow dissolving away by rains of the cementing materials holding its sands together.” It adds that nature’s forces will eventually complete their “work of destruction,” and the arch will collapse.
Until then, though, Natural Arch offers a lovely scene along the scenic byway. Expect to spend less than a half hour checking out the site.
9. The Visitor Center
For a crash course in the geology, history, and ecology of the Valley of Fire State Park, the visitor center is a great place to either start or end your visit.
Located right in the midst of the park’s 40,000 acres, the visitor center is a wealth of information about the area. The Valley of Fire State Park dates to the 1930s, when the Great Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps spent years building campgrounds, trails, ramadas, and roads. The park was opened in 1934, and it got its official state designation in 1935.
Along with the informational exhibits, I enjoyed the visitor center’s well-stocked store and the cool respite from the hot, dry winds. If you’re planning to hit the park’s trails, be sure to stock up on drinks and salty snacks while you’re at the visitor center. Refreshment options are fairly limited in the area.