Located just 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Valley of Fire State Park encompasses over 40,000 acres of blazing red rock formations and Native American rock art in a desert ecosystem. Dedicated as Nevada’s first state park in 1935 and then designated a National Natural Landmark in 1968, this location provides some of the best scenery in the region.
Although Valley of Fire looks best in the bright daylight sun, my first views of the park were just before dusk. Back in 2010 my undergraduate geology group stopped here to camp one evening, but even in the failing light it was apparent this was going to be an amazing place to spend the night.
Each campsite was nestled into the towering rock formations, leaving nothing but spectacular views in all directions:
The rocks themselves provided some fun obstacles to climb around before dinner.
Right after I took the photo above, a desert bighorn sheep (Artiodactyla: Bovidae: Ovis canadensis nelsoni) climbed up on the rock next to me. It looked incredible silhouetted against the setting sun, but before I could grab a picture it scampered back down and disappeared into the darkness.
The next morning we headed out to explore the valley in better light.
The red rocks found at Valley of Fire are made up of a large exposure of Aztec Sandstone. These vast deposits of sand accumulated in a desert during the early Jurassic Period, starting about 200 million years ago. Over time the sand was buried by younger sediment and lithified (turned to rock). Uplift and erosion over the last 65 million years have again exposed the bedding at the surface here. Aztec Sandstone is full of cross-bedding, exhibiting evidence for the sand dune environment in which it was deposited:
Although relatively resistant to weathering, millions of years of erosion have worked much of the sandstone into intricate shapes. One of the more suggestive figures found here is Elephant Rock:
The various symbols used in petroglyphs are known to have various connotations, and through careful analysis it’s possible to decipher distinct meanings the artists were trying to convey. Some petroglyphs record historical events such as an abundance of game, famine, or war.
In still more recent time, the unique appearance of Valley of Fire has made it a favorite filming location for Hollywood. A number of movies and television series have been filmed here, including Transformers, Star Trek: Generations, The Professionals, and Airwolf.
Because of its proximity to Las Vegas, Valley of Fire is a great escape for someone seeking to get outside the city for a day and see some amazing natural, cultural, and scenic wonders. It’s also a great destination for some excellent camping. This was a spectacular location to fall asleep in, cradled by rocks, staring at the stars.