Shade of red and orange on a rock formation in the Valley of Fire

Blazing Deserts: Exploring the Unique Valley of Fire

Beehive-like shapes, rainbow valleys, multicolored rocks with strips in wavelike patterns, Valley of Fire State Park showcases striking rock formations. In fact, the Nevada state park gets its name from these rocks. Showcasing all shades of red, its natural hues and shapes rival the nearby Vegas Strip’s artificial colors and lights.

We visited the state park during a road trip adventure through the deserts of the US Southwest. After exploring Death Valley, and returning to Las Vegas for the night, early next morning we got on the road back towards Phoenix. We drove a different route, crossing the Valley of Fire. Though used to red rocks closer to home, I still appreciated the colorful visual experience.

Valley of Fire features sandstone rock formed millions of years ago, during the Jurassic period. Less than an hour drive from Vegas, it could not be more opposite from the famous city. Just driving through it you’ll experience some of the most stunning shapes and colors of these sandstone rocks. Add a few short hikes, and you have an unforgettable experience. And, if you’d like to spend more time there, you’ll find campsites surrounded by all shapes and shades of red rock formations.

We didn’t camp this time, but spend a good part of the day exploring the park, and here is what we found.

Great Sites To Stop in the Valley of Fire

Even if you just travel along the Scenic Byway, you’ll see enough dramatic shades and shapes of rocks in the colors of fire, from oranges to browns and deeper reds. Though I heard the colors are at their best during sunset, we drove through the park in the morning, and the show was still spectacular. Since we entered the park through the West Entrance, the first site we stopped for was Beehive Valley.

Beehive Valley

Beehive Valley. Valley of Fire Nevada
Beehive formations in Valley of Fire

The huge beehives you’ll see here are of the rock kind, colored in shades of oranges and reds. These unusual red sandstone formations resulted from rocks eroded by wind and water. A short trail leads through them, but you’ll have a spectacular outlook even from the parking lot on the road.

Atlatl Rock

Petroglyphs on the Atlatl Rock
Petroglyphs in the Atlatl Rock

You’ll find Atlatl Rock on the Scenic Loop Road, showcasing a number of petroglyphs on a rock face high enough to be only reachable by a long, steep staircase. Just climbing the metal stairs near the steep rock is an adventure, but if you take your time to examine the drawings, you’ll learn about the ancient people who lived in the area before us. The rock is named for the petroglyph depicting an atlatl – giving you an opportunity to understand what the ancient tool is. A throwing stick, or dart thrower, the atlatl was used by ancient tribes of the area to propel their darts or spears, giving them more force.

Other petroglyphs on this rock include different animal figures. Far from the area I learned to associate with the Ancestral Puebloans, these petroglyphs are nevertheless their work. They also lived in the nearby Moapa Valley in farming communities between 300 B.C. and A.D. 1100.

Besides the historical significance, climbing up to the ancient rock art offers a higher views of the surroundings.

Arch Rock

Arch Rock in Valley of Fire State Park Nevada
Arch Rock in Valley of Fire

Those of us who ever visited Arches or even Bryce Canyon, might find the small arch anticlimactic. However, it is still worth a short stop. You don’t have to hike to see it, the viewpoint is right on the road.

If you want to spend the night at the park, one of the campgrounds is in the shadow of the rock formations where Arch Rock stands.

Rainbow Vista, Fire Canyon, and Fire Wave

We drove through the viewpoints and hiking trails at Rainbow Vista, Fire Canyon, and Fire Wave, only because these sites were crowded; seemed to be the most popular stops in the park. The views are spectacular, and certainly worth the stop, though you should choose what to see and do in such a large park with many opportunities for scenic stops.

White Domes

By the time we got to White Domes we were ready for a hike. The 1.25-mile scenic trail lads through some gorgeous rock formations in shapes and colors, besides a few slot canyons. Though we noticed quite a few cars at the trailhead parking lot, we were alone for long stretches of the trail.

Hiking in the Valley of Fire

We started the trail walking through sand, eventually passing through two large rock formations. Past it, the trail dropped dramatically. Descending on a steep slope through large boulders, we were surrounded by colorful rock formations with color swirls in all shades of red.

The beginning was the only steep part of the trail. Once past it, we had a mostly easy stroll, with only occasionally scrambling through rocks and boulders. Throughout the trail, we were surrounded by stunning rock formations, in all colors, shapes and sizes.

Elephant Rock

Before leaving the park, we stopped to see Elephant Rock. The short walk from the parking lot led to it, though at first I could not figure out where it was or what it was. It wasn’t until I stopped in front of the sign and looked up when I noticed it. Well, I saw more than one elephant, and a couple of other shapes, but I did get the name.

I felt better about not recognizing it at first when another visitor walked by and asked where it was. Yes, it is hard to see, but once you do, you can’t unsee it. I felt very smart being able to point it out to her. Rather I just told her to stop in front of the sign and look up. So, here is the whimsical red rock elephant:

The Elephant Rock in the Valley of Fire
The Elephant Rock

History, Geology, and Other Things to Know about the Valley of Fire

We didn’t stop at the Visitor Center, since it was still closed when we started driving through the park, but it would have been a great resource for information about the park. If you have a chance, stop there, either on the way into the park or at the end of your visit.

From a geological point of view, the rocks in the park include red sandstone, limestone, shale, and conglomerates. The park gets its name from the red sandstone formations, most prevalent throughout. Sandstone may be any color, depending on the minerals it contains but the most prevalent here is red, in all its shades. The shapes we admire were formed from sand dunes in the age of the dinosaurs, about 150 million years ago.

People lived in the Valley of Fire in prehistoric times. They were the Basketmakers and later the same Ancestral Puebloans, who lived in the area between 300 BC and 1150 AD.

How to Visit the Valley of Fire

You can drive through the park, camp, hike or picnic there, but always remember to stay on designated roads and trails. The desert is extremely fragile, we need to make sure we don’t destroy it. You’ll find designated campground sites with grills and fire-pits, only use those sites when spending the night. Plants and animals are protected in the park, please do not remove or harm them; also if you ar traveling with your pet, keep them on leash.

Remember that you are in the desert. The best time to visit the Valley of Fire is spring, fall and winter. Summers get very hot, especially mid-day, so you should not hike then. But you can still enjoy the park’s beauty when driving through. If hiking, remember to wear good hiking shoes, carry water (and conserve it), wear a hat and sunscreen, no matter when you visit.

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