Southwest

Nevada Naturally

A Land of Rugged Terrain and Wide-open Views.

Beyond the neon and glitter of Las Vegas lies the unspoiled landscape ripe with uncluttered views, wind-sculpted rock formations and wide open skies. Just outside the city lies a world rich of natural wonders.

The Las Vegas strip celebrates a delightfully unnatural world, a place where the Eiffel tower rises just blocks away from the Statue of Liberty, where pirate ships do battle in the city streets and gondolas glide through the desert.

But just beyond the surreal urban playground of this fast-growing community stretches a world of natural wonders: towering mountains, wind-sculpted sandstone, sparkling high-desert lakes and miles of quiet hiking trails.

Head due west out of Vegas and you can experience the raw, craggy landscape of red rock Canyon, just minutes away by RV, auto or bicycle. Amble northward and sample the varied geographic flavors along the Great Basin Scenic Byway, a region that boasts Nevada’s highest concentration of state parks. Aim eastward and explore the expansive, rippling shoreline of lake Mead and the engineering marvel of Hoover Dam. Choose a northeasterly route, and you’ll find yourself gawking at the ancient, multi-hued palette of the Valley of Fire.

Nevada RVBest of all, the sites are really no gamble — they’re close at hand with entrance and camping fees that won’t break the bank. Most of these natural attractions are an easy drive from the frenetic pace of downtown Vegas, yet feel a galaxy apart. For many, the serene, open spaces are a perfect antidote to the clatter of casinos.

A welcome change of scenery, a place to catch your breath.

In southeastern Nevada, it seems, it really is possible to have the best of both worlds.

North: Seeking the Solitudes

Diane and Patrick Filbin make their home in northern Nevada and have camped throughout Nevada and Arizona in their travel trailer. So they’ve figured out one of the big secrets to desert driving: Stop. Get out. Breathe. Experience it.

“You really have to stop and get out and look around,” Diane explained. “Otherwise, you miss so much.”

Desert driving may well be an acquired taste. One driver may gaze upon the dry, sweeping landscape, see monotonous sameness, and rush to move through it. Another driver will revel in the spice-colored scenery, see it as a fascinating geological sculpture garden, and pull into every scenic turnout.

Count the Filbins among the latter.

“When you bother to stop, you notice different things every time,” Diane Filbin said. “Just driving through you don’t always appreciate the beauty.”

“Plus, at this altitude, things really cool down at night. It’s not as hot out here as it is in Las Vegas,” Patrick Filbin added.

Around the start of the new year, the Filbins found themselves cruising U.S. Highway 93, which stretches north of Las Vegas through the Sheep Range and Delamar Mountains. It’s a trek that’s well known to snow birders and routinely populated by RVers en route to the next big adventure.

But the region is also a worthy destination in itself, ripe with uncluttered views, rugged undulating terrain and wide-open blue skies. To people like the Filbins, it is desolate and vast and beautiful in its simplicity. Little wonder Nevada has dubbed this portion of the state “the Solitudes.” as state tourism literature touts, the wide unbridled landscape is “an hour north of Vegas and a million miles away.”

While on a return trip from visiting their daughter, who lives in Las Vegas, the Filbins took some time to appreciate the scenery and scout future camping spots for family gatherings. There are plenty to choose from.

“There are all these parks available all the way up through here,” Patrick explained.

That’s seven state parks, to be exact, with a spectacular national park thrown in for good measure. Just wandering from state park to state park makes for some great, scenery-packed driving. But be sure to poke into some of the small towns along the way, each offering their own peculiar history.

Here’s a quick primer on the variety of views that await you:

Nevada landscapeBeaver Dam State Park: Caliente, Nevada

With deep canyons of wrinkled volcanic rock, rolling pinion, juniper and ponderosa pine woodlands, meandering streams (that actually host beaver dams) and a small reservoir, this is considered Nevada’s most primitive and rustic park. The drive to reach it is one clue of the remoteness — head 28 miles east of U.S. 93 on a graded gravel road, which is actually not advised for large motorhomes.

But those who make the journey find dancing rainbow trout break the waters on well-stocked Schroeder reservoir, quiet camping and hiking that takes you past a 20-foot waterfall.

Facilities include three campgrounds with some sites suitable for trailers up to 20 feet long. Water hydrants are available May through October. There is no trash collection. Call first  (775) 726-3564.

Cathedral Gorge State Park: Panaca, Nevada

A well-appointed regional visitor’s center along U.S. 93 marks the entrance to this scenic canyon, so take time to stop in. the center offers an excellent orientation to the region and indoor toilets … a welcome amenity in the desert, we found.

The picturesque park is only a short drive away, located in a long, narrow valley that really does appear to be some kind of natural wonderland. Centuries of erosion have sculpted the native soft bentonite clay into fantastic caves, gothic pillars and cathedral- like spires. Hiking trails abound, offering hands-on adventure for kids.

Shaded picnic areas and a no-frills tree-shaded 22-site campground (with dump station, restrooms and showers) are available. Camping is first come, first serve. Pay a small entrance fee and drive or hike about, or simply drive a mile north on U.S. 93 to Miller Point. It’s a popular scenic overlook located just off the highway where the view is spectacular and free.

Cave Lake State Park: Ely, Nevada

Considered one of the most scenic mountain parks in Nevada, Cave Lake State Park sits high in the Schell Creek range at an elevation of 7,300 feet. The park is 15 miles southeast of Ely and boasts a 32-acre reservoir. Boaters are welcome, but boats must not exceed 5 mph or create a wake.

Open year-round, the park is popular for camping, boating, fishing and winter sports including ice fishing, cross-country skiing and ice-skating. Given the park’s elevation, visitors can expect harsh winters and mild summers. Sheepherders are known to make summer camp in the area, and deer hunters use park campsites in the fall, but hunting is not allowed within the park.

The park features two designated campgrounds: Elk Flat and Lake View. Both offer flush toilets and showers. All campsites are level and include a fire pit with grill, table and parking. Access roads to the campsites are generally unpaved.

In mid-January, the park is also home to the White Pine Fire and Ice Show, a popular regional snow and ice-sculpting competition.

Nevada landscapeEcho Canyon State Park: Pioche, Nevada

Anglers will certainly want to check out this 65-acre reservoir and campground located 12 miles east of Pioche. The waterfront features a boat ramp, fish-cleaning station and picnic area. The reservoir is stocked with rainbow trout, but also attracts a variety of water birds, including an occasional trumpeter swan.

You’ll also find 33 campsites, with flush toilets and an RV dump station. Drinking water is available near each site. Hikers will enjoy the Ash Canyon trail, which leads into the park’s vast back-country. The 2.5-mile trail begins in the upper campground, climbs 800 feet in 1/3 mile to the valley rim and descends into Ash Canyon. It joins the highway in Rose Valley near the eastern park entrance and returns to the campground through Echo Canyon. Indian artifacts and ancient hieroglyphs can still be found in the area, but are protected under federal law and should be left untouched.

Great Basin National Park: Baker, Nevada

Nevada’s only national park is located an hour’s drive east of Ely and includes access to a glacier, Lehman Caves National Monument, and the popular 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, with its ancient bristle-cone pine forests. Schedules for ranger-led tours of the limestone caves with their breathtaking geologic formations are posted at the visitor center. Park elevations range from 7,000 to 13,063 feet above sea level.

There is no entrance fee for the park. The main entrance is five miles west of Baker, Nevada. Four developed campgrounds offer water (in the summer), restrooms, fire rings, and picnic tables.

Camping fees are based on the campground selected and paid dump station are available. The lower Lehman Creek campsite offers a limited number of pull-through sites for small RVs or trailers. However, RVs are not recommended at the Grey Cliffs Group Campground or Wheeler Peak Campground. In fact, vehicles over 24 feet in length are not recommended beyond Upper Lehman Creek Campground. Campers will also find a restaurant and small grocery store and unmanned gas pumps in nearby Baker. All camping is first come, first served.

Kershaw-Ryan State Park: Caliente, Nevada

Situated just three miles south of Caliente off U.S. 93, the steep, rugged walls of this hidden canyon once sheltered homesteading settlers. Today, a lush curtain of grapevines covers the 500-foot cliffs. This secluded park presents a visual surprise in the arid desert, featuring hiking past cold running springs, waterfalls, thickets of gambel oak trees and picnic sites. Camping is not yet allowed, but mark this mini-oasis as an ideal spot for an impromptu picnic. Small entrance fee required.

Las Vegas nightPahranagat National Wildlife Refuge: Alamo, Nevada

The name comes from a Paiute word meaning “Valley of Shining Waters,” and the four masses of water that make up this 5,380-acre wildlife refuge stand in sharp contrast to the miles of sun baked desert that surround it. Located along the famed Pacific flyway, the lakes and marshes provide habitat to over 200 species of migrating birds, including songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors.

The refuge is adjacent to U.S. 93, is easily seen from the road and offers a welcome break. It’s a good place to stretch your legs, get out the binoculars or enjoy a picnic. Primitive camping is permitted along the eastern shore of the upper lake and restrooms are available.

Spring Valley State Park: Pioche, Nevada

The sprawling contours of 65-acre Eagle Valley Reservoir appear in the desert like a great liquid mirage, offering water-oriented recreation and trophy-class walleye fishing. Anglers can cast for rainbow and cutthroat trout, and rainbow and brown trout can be caught in the stream below the reservoir.

The park is located 20 miles east of Pioche via State Route 322. Snow may make winter access difficult although it is open year-round. In addition to boating, hiking and picnicking, visitors will find campgrounds; restrooms with showers and RV dump stations. Small park entrance and camping fee. Group camping is also available.

Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park: Ely, Nevada

In the shadow of Great Basin National Park lies a historic curiosity: six beehive-shaped charcoal ovens. The ovens were used in the late 19th century to produce charcoal for use in smelters at nearby silver mines. Today, the area also offers facilities for picnicking, hiking and camping, and memorable views of the nearby Steptoe Valley.

The 33-foot-tall ovens were said to be built by Swiss-Italian charcoal workers called “Carbonari.” The ovens were crafted from native quartz quarried from near the ovens. The distinctive beehive shape was thought to be a more efficient way to render pinyin and juniper into charcoal. Each of the massive ovens held about 35 cords of wood.

Located seven miles south of Ely, then 11 miles southwest via Cave Valley Road, visitors must travel a graded dirt road that is accessible most of the year. The park also offers primitive camping. Those who spend the night are said to be treated to some of the starriest skies in the Western United States.

Willow Creek Campground has 14 campsites with two large pull-through sites, one handicapped designated site and two restrooms. A yurt is also available, by making reservations. Drinking water is available May through September from a hydrant near the campground entrance. There is a fee to cover park entrance and camping.

West: Red Rock Canyon

Let’s say you prefer the desert in small doses, so driving for hours through sand and sun doesn’t appeal.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area is the place for you.

Here, craggy sandstone rises like great knobs of muscle — a striking contrast of rich russet rock against an achingly blue desert sky.

Don't Forget

Located just 17 miles west of Las Vegas off State Route 159 (straight west out busy Charleston Boulevard if you’re coming from town), the 83,100-acre canyon features a winding 13-mile, one- way scenic drive with plenty of scenic turnouts, a visitor’s center with restrooms and cold water.

Over a million people are drawn here every year for the hiking, rock climbing, biking and terrific Mojave Desert scenery. Best of all, it’s an easy trek from Las Vegas and a fine way to fill an afternoon.

For those who prefer to linger, seasonal camping is available at the Red Rock Canyon Campground from September through May. The campground is located two miles east of the Visitor Center on State Route 159. Campsites are first come, first served and offer barbeque grills, picnic tables, and trash collection, a water tank and pit toilets.

Red Rock Canyon presents an amazing array of hiking possibilities, with 19 designated trails, ranging from short and easy to long and strenuous. Hikes can take you past desert flora, Triassic fossils, prickly Joshua trees, towering canyon walls, old homesteads and dramatic rock formations. Desert Bighorn sheep, wild horses and burros are often spotted along the barren hillsides. In fact, wild burros often wander onto roadways, so be alert.

With more than 2,000 climbing routes, Red Rock Canyon has become one of the nation’s top five climbing destinations. Vertical routes routinely draw climbers from around the world, who are fun to watch, even if you don’t want to attempt any big wall climbs yourself. The scenic drive remains a favorite with cyclists, and is relatively safe. Just bring lots of water.

Per vehicle entrance fees are required.

Northeast: Valley of Fire State Park: Overton, Nevada

Wind and water have carved a masterpiece in the red sandstone valley that lies less than an hour northeast of Las Vegas. Valley of Fire may be Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, but the scenery seems to change constantly, with the shifting slant of the sun coaxing a variety of colors from this rugged land.

The drive north on I-15 out of Las Vegas doesn’t provide an adequate hint of the scenery that lies in store just beyond the Muddy Mountains. To reach the park, take Nevada Route 169 at Crystal to reach the entrance. A visitor’s center explores the region’s complex geologic history, and is a recommended first stop. But be sure to bring your own water or beverages; you won’t find a concession stand here.

The park is famous for both its human and geologic histories. Here, you’ll find ancient Indian hieroglyphics and a smorgasbord of unusual rock formations, including such landmarks as Arch Rock, Piano Rock, Elephant Rock, Seven Sisters, Poodle Rock, Rainbow Vista and Fire Canyon. All sites are generally accessible through the park’s scenic roads.

Open year-round, the park offers generally mild temperatures in the winter, though spring and fall are considered the best seasons to visit. Don’t forget your camera.

Entrance and camping fees required. Two campgrounds offer 51 sites, with shaded tables, grills, water and restrooms. A dump station is also available.

East: Lake Mead National Recreation Area/ Hoover Dam

From the air, the sprawling body of water that straddles the border between Nevada and Arizona seems to meander forever. Restrained by the great Hoover Dam, this is where the Colorado River becomes America’s largest man-made reservoir.

The Lake Mead National Recreation Area actually encompasses two large bodies of water, the 110-mile-long Lake Mead and 67-mile-long Lake Mohave.

It may come as a bit of a shock to look at this massive body of water and realize that the water level in Lake Mead is lower than it has been in over 40 years. High water marks linger on surrounding rocks like a dirty bathtub ring. Small islands rise above the water like abnormally yeasty loaves of bread.

Hoover DamHydrologists say water levels are falling because the Colorado River runoff has been far below normal in recent years. The lakes are usually at their highest elevation in late fall and early spring. But variations in water levels can create fresh dangers to boaters and challenges at launch ramps.

Still, the region remains the heart of a rich recreation zone. At 1.5 million acres, this recreation area is twice the size of Rhode Island and conjoins three major deserts, the Mojave, the Great Basin and the Sonoran Desert. That makes for an intriguing blend of water and land activities, including fishing, boating, camping and hiking.

It’s also an easy 25-minute drive from downtown Las Vegas via Lake Mead Parkway. Visitors can get their bearings at the Alan Bible Visitor Center, located four miles northeast of Boulder City, Nevada, on U.S. 93.

Per vehicle entrance fees are for those who plan to stay one to five days, or you can buy an annual pass and may be paid at four locations, including east Lake Mead Drive, East Lake Mead Boulevard, Boulder Beach and Katherine Landing.

Here, camping is considered a year-round activity. Visitors will find a range of accommodation, including hotels, campgrounds, multiple marinas and RV Parks. Reservations are accepted only for group campsites. All campgrounds offer restrooms, running water, dump stations, grills, tables and some shade.

Park concessionaires provide RV sites with full hook-ups (electric, water and sewage) at Callville Bay, Echo Bay, Lakeshore Trailer Village (Boulder Beach), Overton Beach, Temple Bar, Cottonwood Cove and Lake Mohave Resort (Katherine).

But you really can’t make it this far without paying a visit to nearby Hoover Dam, widely considered the greatest dam constructed in its day and the historic springboard for the economic growth of Las Vegas.

With its distinctive arch-gravity construction, Hoover Dam is said to be the highest concrete dam in the Western Hemisphere, rising 726 feet above desert bedrock. A visit to the dam offers a dramatic spectacle with majestic views and hands-on history lessons.

It’s an impressive sight . . . a massive sweep of a smooth concrete apron hugged by the rugged walls of Black Canyon. Parking is limited. Over-sized vehicles, including RVs, will likely be directed to overflow parking on the Arizona side.

Guided tours are available into the dam and around the generating rooms inside for a fee. But if lines are too long, it’s worth it to simply walk across the dam and soak in the view.

If you want to avoid crowds, try visiting in January or February, and try to arrive early in the day.

 

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