It’s hard to believe that the rugged sandstone cliffs of Red Rock Canyon can be found just seventeen miles from the Las Vegas Strip. But while easy to reach, a day at Red Rock Canyon isn’t that easy to plan for, as the Conservation Area is home to more than two dozen hikes.
In the following guide, we’ll be covering essential visiting tips, how I spent my day at Red Rock Canyon and how you might want to do things a little differently.
Red Rock Visiting & Planning Tips
Officially known as the Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area, these lands have been protected by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) since the 1960s. Now consisting of nearly 200,000 acres, the park features numerous hikes that branch off of a 13-mile scenic drive.
ENTRY FEES & PASSES: Despite being on BLM land, which is usually free to access, Red Rock Canyon costs $20 per vehicle to enter. The good news is that if you have an annual America the Beautiful National Parks Pass, you can use it here.
Note that if you’re visiting Red Rock between October 1-May 31, you must also purchase a timed entry reservation in advance (see here).
The entry reservation only costs $2 (in addition to the standard vehicle fee), but without it, you can’t enter the park at all during those months. Unless you arrive before 8:00 in the morning, that is.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT: Red Rock Canyon has no less than 26 hikes to choose from! You can find a comprehensive list and map at this link. Some of these hikes are intensive and take hours to complete, while others are short, easy walks. But which ones to choose?
The most popular hikes are the Calico Hills and the Calico Tanks trails – two separate hikes that are located in the same general area and that can also be combined (check the AllTrails app). While among the most scenic, they’re also the most crowded hikes at Red Rock by far.
Before my visit, I came across a high-ranking article implying that you could string together 5-6 particular hikes in a single day at Red Rock. But now having been there, I realize how impractical this is. And looking over the article now, it’s clear that the author didn’t actually do many of the hikes in her suggested itinerary.
Below, you can learn more details about the hikes I ended up choosing. But if I had to do things over again, this is what I would do: The Calico Hills plus the Calico Tanks trails (either separate or combined), followed by another moderate trail like the Keystone Thrust. I’d then stop to see the petroglyphs, perhaps adding on another easy hike if I had any time or energy left over.
It’s worth mentioning that I happened to visit on a Sunday when I’m assuming the park was even more crowded than usual. That, in addition to time constraints, caused me to make some last-minute changes to my itinerary that perhaps weren’t the best decisions.
RED ROCK TOURS: Not into hiking but still want to experience the beautiful Red Rock scenery during your stay in Las Vegas? Consider this exciting 4×4 Jeep tour, or this highly-rated scenic and informational tour.
WHERE TO STAY: To learn more about accommodation in Las Vegas, be sure to check the end of the article.
Located not far from the entrance, Calico Tanks is an out-and-back hike that’s 2.5 miles (4 km) roundtrip. It’s generally considered a moderate hike – at least for relatively experienced hikers in decent shape.
Being so close to Las Vegas, the trail attracts a lot of curious tourists who aren’t too into hiking and I encountered several people who gave up before making it to the end.
The trail does not begin from the same trailhead or parking lot as the Calico Hills. Instead, it begins from the Sandstone Quarry parking lot, which is also where the Turtlehead Peak hike begins.
And for much of the beginning of the hike, you’ll be able to spot the massive Turtlehead Peak in the distance. While my original plan was to hike Turtlehead Peak following the Calico Tanks, I later realized that I probably wouldn’t have enough time before my flight that evening. But more on that below.
Also near the beginning of the trail, you’ll pass by a group of huge sandstone quarry blocks. Cut in the early 20th century, stone quarrying was one of the first booming industries in the region before Las Vegas emerged as a gambling and entertainment mecca.
Fascinatingly, each block weighed around 10 tons, and they were shipped to California to be used in decorative building facades – back when architects still did that sort of thing.
The path will then veer to the right as it gradually gets steeper and more rocky. Compared with what I’d see later in the day, the area around the Calico Tanks and Hills trails is easily the most beautiful part of the Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area.
At some points, you’ll have to do some light scrambling up the rocks, while you should also always keep an eye on where you step. All in all, I didn’t find it too terribly difficult, but as mentioned, there were a lot of people sitting and resting along the trail during the journey up.
All in all, the Calico Tanks Trail sees an elevation gain of about 420 ft, or 128 m. And after being surrounded by these red sandstone formations for the duration of the hike, the final view from the trail’s end comes as somewhat of a shock.
Standing at the furthest and highest point of the trail, you’ll be able to enjoy a clear view of the Las Vegas Strip, reminding one of just how close Red Rock really is to Sin City.
In general, landscapes like the kind you see at Red Rock are way out in the middle of nowhere, so being able to see a distinct skyline from here is quite surreal.
Looking up, you’ll spot an even higher set of sandstone hills you can scramble up if you so desire. With several people already up there, I decided to make my way back to the parking lot instead, as there were still a few more hikes I wanted to do that day.
All in all, experienced hikers can expect the Calico Tanks Trail to take around 90 minutes roundtrip.
While I still had the energy to attempt Turtlehead Peak, upon further research, I realized that it could take up to 4.5 hours! I simply didn’t have the time before my evening flight and had to make a quick decision on what other hike to try.
Looking back, I wish I’d done the Calico Hills/Calico Tanks combined hike which takes about three hours in total. But as mentioned, it was a Sunday and I wanted to avoid the huge crowds I saw walking into Calico Hills.
For the time being, I decided to continue on with the Scenic Drive.
Along the Scenic Drive
Continuing counterclockwise along the one-way scenic drive, you’ll encounter a number of overlooks and short hikes that everyone can do regardless of fitness level. Whatever hikes you may have planned for the day, it will be easy to fit these into your itinerary.
One of the most impressive viewpoints here is the High Point Overlook, which, as the name suggests, sits at the highest point of the scenic drive.
According to the informational placard, this entire area was once a massive dune field millions of years ago. But the presence of underground water gradually turned the sand into the hard sandstone we see today.
Shortly past this overlook is the turnoff for the Keystone Trust trailhead which, looking back, I wish I would’ve tried. The moderate hike is supposed to take around 90 minutes to complete, taking hikers to one of the park’s most significant geological features.
Instead, I proceeded toward the Petroglyph Wall. Like many other parks or wilderness areas across the Southwest, Red Rock Canyon features a plethora of well-preserved petroglyphs.
It’s not exactly clear when these date from, however, as the oldest petroglyphs in the area were left several thousand years ago. This is so long ago that we don’t even have a name for the people or culture from that time.
More recently, however, we know that tribes like Southern Paiute and Mojave Indians lived here and left glyphs of their own.
In one section, you’ll find red handprints pressed high up along the sandstone rock. (As these are painted, they’re technically pictographs rather than petroglyphs.) Just how the ancients managed to reach this location remains a mystery.
Nearby, meanwhile, is the Petroglyph Wall. For whatever reason, it’s been categorized by park management as an official trail, though the walk to the wall is only 0.1 mile.
We can only speculate on the meaning of these symbols, as the people who left them are long gone. And if they were still here, they probably wouldn’t tell us!
Generally speaking, the ancients likely left petroglyphs to serve as some type of link with the spirit world.
Pine Creek Canyon / Fire Ecology Trail
Next, I proceeded further along the Scenic Drive, stopping at a viewpoint called The Red Wash Overlook. By now I was on the complete opposite side of the park from the Calico Tanks.
As mentioned, I altered my plans for the day due to time constraints. Thinking it would be interesting to see what the other side of Red Rock Canyon was like, I decided to try a combination of the Pink Creek Canyon and Fire Ecology Trail in this area.
In total, according to AllTrails, the full loop is supposed to take a little over an hour. But it would end up taking me longer – more due to poor trail signage than actual difficulty.
All in all, this is quite an easy hike, though it’s not going to take your breath away. Unfortunately, if you’re starting this hike in the afternoon, you’re going to end up walking into the sun for the first half of it. On the other hand, the lighting will be perfect during the return.
While I didn’t realize this in advance, the Pink Creek Canyon and Fire Ecology Trail seems to be more of an educational trail rather than one known for its stunning views.
You’ll occasionally encounter educational signs explaining things like brush control and forest regeneration. While interesting, I don’t think anyone would argue that this part of Red Rock Canyon is on par with the opposite side of the park.
As you can probably tell from the article above, I wasn’t blown away by Red Rock Canyon. But admittedly, I probably would’ve had a better time had I gotten an earlier start and put more effort into research. It was the very last excursion of my long Southwest trip and I wasn’t sure I’d be visiting until a day or two prior.
When it comes to Nevada parks which you can visit as a day trip from Las Vegas, I would much more highly recommend Valley of Fire State Park. Not only is the scenery more impressive there, but the way everything is laid out makes it easy to see and do almost everything within a single day.
I probably need to experience more of the hikes at Red Rock Canyon before fully judging it, but it was easily the most underwhelming park I visited in the Southwest.
And while I would like to explore it further someday, for what it’s worth, I recently passed through the Las Vegas area again between my initial visit and the time of writing. But with so much else to see around the Southwest, I just didn’t feel compelled to include another day at Red Rock in my packed itinerary.
People come to Las Vegas for a variety of different reasons. But those simply using the city as a base from which to explore nearby parks are probably a tiny minority.
Tourists into gambling, nightlife and an all-around typical Las Vegas experience tend to stay on or near the Strip. This area is home to a myriad of hotels and casinos, many of which are household names, such as Mandalay Bay or Luxor.
Las Vegas, however, is a fast-growing city with new residential areas being built each year, and much of the greater metropolitan area feels surprisingly normal.