Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is located 20 miles west of Las Vegas, Nevada. This 197,000-acre area provides a 13-mile scenic drive, more than 30 miles of hiking trails, picnic areas, and a Visitor Center with exhibit rooms and a bookstore.

The unique geologic features, pland and animals of Red Rock Canyon represent some of the best examples of the Mojave Desert. In 1967, the Secretary of the Interior designated Red Rock Canyon Recreation Lands to be managed by BLM’s Las Vegas District, Nevada, for the enjoyment of the public. In 1990, special legislation supported by the Nevada congressional delegation, changed the status of the recreation land to a National Conservation Area (NCA), the seventh to be designated nationally. This legislation provides protection and the funding to protect and impprove the area. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is enjoyed by the local population as well as visitors from the United States and many foreign countries. More than one million visitors each year enjoy the spectacular desert landscape, climbing and hiking opportunities, and interpetive programs sponsored by the BLM.

Scenic Drive

The 13-mile scenic drive is a one-way road (bicycles are allowed). Sightseeing, photography, and hiking trails are accessible from the designated pullouts and parking areas. The scenic drive is open daily from 7:00am to dusk.

Interpretive Activities / Visitor Center

Activity schedules for naturalist-guided walks, programs, and talks are posted at the Visitor Center between the hours of 8:30am and 4:30pm. or call 702-363-1921. The Visitor Center has a small bookstore which carries books and map about the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

For further information, contact:


Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area A Bird Haven

Red Rock Canyon national Conservation Area is an oasis in the desert. Its deep sandstone canyons provide a perennial water supply, cool temperatures and a wide variety of vegetation which serves as Ideal habitat for many birds species. In fact over 100 bird species have been identified within the recreation lands.

Many birds, such as birds of prey, although not exclusively found in the desert, exhibit specific behavioral traits which allow them to survive in arid lands. Eagles and hawks conserve water by soaring In high altitude air currents where strong winds allow them to stay aloft with little exertion, and temperatures can be 20 degrees cooler than at ground level. Obtaining water is no problem for these birds; their water needs are satisfied by eating the moisture-rich flesh of small animals. The dark silhouettes the red-tailed hawk, cooper’s hawk, golden eagle and other raptors can be seen against the blue sky above the recreation lands.

Some birds have learned to use desert plants, especially those of the cactus family, for protection of captured prey. The Loggerhead Shrike, though a predatory bird, has weak feet and is unable to hold struggling prey in its grasp. To immobilize prey, the shrike will often impale it on cactus spines. It will eat the prey immediately or allow it to sun dry for later consumption. The cactus wren, identified by its downturned bill, heavily streaked body and fan shaped tall, uses the spiny branches of the cholla cactus to protect its nests. The nests, which resemble a football, are built from desert plant stems and flower stalks. Up to 10 nests may be built by one pair of cactus wrens, but only one will be used to raise young. The unoccupied nests may serve to confuse and frustrate predators not hampered by cholla spines. The cactus wren does not wander far from Its nests, rather it hunts succulent spiders, Insects and larvae in the nearby vicinity. Watch for the cactus wren and loggerhead shrike throughout the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

A few birds have not only adapted behaviorally, but also have special body modifications to meet the demands of desert life. One such bird is the roadrunner. This desert member of the cuckoo family is a large bird, about the size of a chicken. It is heavily streaked, has a bristle tipped crest and a long tail. It is most easily identified, however, by its habit of streaking across the desert on foot, much like the Roadrunner cartoon character. It rarely flies, but will make short, hopping flights to escape danger or aid In the capture of lizards, snakes, ground squirrels and insects. These prey have a high percentage of body moisture which satisfies the roadrunner’s need for water. The roadrunner pants to keep cool and voids excess blood salts through special nasal glands similar to those found In marine birds. Watch for this lively bird throughout the Scenic Loop Drive.

Many birds found in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area have no special behavioral or body adaptations. It is only the presence of water in perennial streams or potholes after rains which allows them to survive in this area. Such birds include the rufous-sided towhee, mourning dove, white-throated swift, chukar, and Gambel’s quail.

The rufous-sided towhee is usually seen in oak tree and shrub vegetation near water. Its red sides, dark head and black and white underbelly identify this bird. It has a strong bill for crushing seeds, but it will also eat insects and berries.

The mourning dove, recognized by its plump, brown body and wedge shaped tall, needs daily drinking water in order to survive. It arrives in the Conservation Area during the spring months and constructs flimsy nests on shrubs or the branches of the cholla cactus within one mile of water. These nests often fall apart during high winds or stormy weather, killing the young. However, the high reproductive rate of these birds allows a few nests to be lost without much harm to the overall productivity of the breeding pair. The parents feed their young a white liquid produced in their crop; the liquid is so rich in protein that young can fly in 10 days. Some young doves have left the nest within one month. The parents will then begin a new nest. Adult doves may raise up six separate groups of young per breeding season in this manner. Watch for this bird as it flies to and from water sources throughout the recreation lands.

The white-throated swift is a small bird with long narrow, stiff wings and a short tail. It can be distinguished from other swifts by the contrasting black and white pattern on its underside. Its small size and pointed wings grant it great speed and maneuverability that aid in the capture of insects. Swifts are frequently seen flying in steep canyons and over pools of water throughout the area.

Both chukar and Gambel’s quail need a supply of water supplement the moisture they derive from seeds they eat. Although in the same family, they prefer different habitats within the Conservation Area. The Gambel’s quail occurs in the desert thickets near washes, while the chukar prefers steep, rocky slopes where grasses are plentiful. Both rely on their feet for travel, but will make sustained flights in times of danger.

Many more bird species inhabit the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area; too many to detail here. You are encouraged to explore the diversity of bird life in the region and to learn about the desert environment. Only through close observation can the beauty and majesty of the desert and its associated life forms be appreciated.


Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area Burros – Please don’t feed the Burros!

The burros at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area provide a unique experience we hope you will enjoy, but please remember they are undomesticated animals and can be dangerous.

Feeding burros encourages these animals to congregate on roadways where many have been killed and injured by vehicles. Each year people are injured from kicks and bites from burros, as well as from automobile accidents caused by burros on the roadway.

To observe these animals safely:

  • Pick a safe place to stop; pull completely off the roadway.
  • Observe the burros from a distance. The safest place is from your car. Do not try to coax them closer with food.
  • These animals can bite and kick. Do not feed them, stand close to them, or get on their backs.
  • Drive carefully and be cautious when you see animals on or near the road. Burros may step out in front of your car unexpectedly.

The burros you see in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area survive high temperatures and long periods of time without green forage by using shade and being most active in early morning and late afternoon. They eat grasses and shrubs. They are generally less than half the size of a horse. The average weight of an adult is 400 pounds with the males (jacks) being slightly larger than the females (jennies).

Foals can be born at any time during the year, but about half of them are born in June and July. The gestation period (pregnancy) is about 11 months. Burros have been known to live past 30 years when well fed and cared for by man. In the wild, they average about 10 years.

Burros evolved in the deserts of northern Africa where the average rainfall is about two inches a year. Two populations of burros from northern Africa that were separated from each other by natural barriers are attributed with being the ancestors of today’s feral burro in the American southwest. These are the Nubian and the Somalian. The Nubian’s characteristics are a black stripe across the shoulders and another down the middle of the back giving the appearance of a cross when viewed from above. The Somalian has leg stripes on both front and hind legs resembling a zebra’s markings. These characteristic differences may be seen in the numerous individual burros which freely roam Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Early explorers brought both horses and burros to the New World. Some of these animals were released or escaped to the deserts of the southwestern United States and Mexico. With the discovery of more gold and silver in the 1800’s, miners brought more burros with them. These animals added to the small early populations and began to breed and increase in numbers. At one time more than 10,000 wild burros were found in California, Arizona, and Nevada. Today there are about 7,000 burros in this region.

Burros have only two natural predators. The mountain lion preys on all burros. The coyote usually preys on the young, very old, crippled or sick animals as nature’s way of maintaining a healthy population. With today’s reduced number of mountain lions, there are few natural predators to check the growth of wild burro populations.

The Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (Public Law 92-195), passed in 1971, stated that the Bureau of Land Management should manage wild burros with other plants and animals in the environment. The desert in Red Rock Canyon is a very fragile area that is hard to restore when damaged. The BLM is currently managing the burros within Red Rock Canyon so that there will always be burros, but not so many that other animals and plants can’t also share the area.

Wild burros can be domesticated. When burros are removed from the Red Rock Canyon area, they are adopted by individuals through the BLM’s adoption program. If you are interested in the Bureau’s wild horse and burro management efforts or you wish to adopt a wild horse or burro, please contact:

  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Las Vegas District Office
  • PO Box 26569
  • Las Vegas, NV 89126
  • 702-363-1921

Climbing and Camping Information

With the increased popularity of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (NCA) for camping and technical climbing, certain impacts associated with these uses have become noticeable. Outdoor enthusiasts should be aware of the following considerations and take steps to minimize impacts on natural and cultural resources within Red Rock Canyon.

Cultural Resources – Because of the potential of impacting cultural resources in the NCA, camping and climbing is prohibited at archaeological sites including rock faces on which rock art (etched petroglyphs or painted pictographs) is present. Climbing on or within 50 feet of any rock art is prohibited by law. Also, do not climb on rock faces that must be accessed through archaeological sites. In the Willow Spring Canyon, these climbs are: Lower Butler, Upper Butler and Paradox. Presently these are the only locations closed.

Natural Resources – Many climbing routes are located adjacent to developed hiking trails, but final approaches require cross county travel. In some areas this activity causes serious vegetation damage and soil erosion. Vegetation regrowth is very slow in the dry desert climate, and damage to vegetation is occurring faster than it can be repaired. Try to minimize damage when traveling off constructed trails by using established trails and contouring around steep slopes where possible.

Clean Climbing – With the shift towards wedge-type anchors, the old issue of beating Iron into the rock is no longer common, but is still a concern. In some locations nylon webbing has been left hanging from fixed anchor points and is a visual intrusion to other visitors to the area. Please remove all webbing at the conclusion of a climb. The use of chalk is causing a visual problem in many popular climbing areas of Red Rock Canyon. Many routes and practice boulders are covered with unsightly layers of chalk on various holds. Clean off chalk as you leave the route. The use of bolts or other permanent protective devices on climbing routes within wilderness study areas (La Madre Mountain and Pine Creek) is prohibited.

Extended Hours Permit – All climbers who desire to make long multi-pitch climbs and leave their vehicle parked on the scenic loop drive may obtain an extended hours permit at the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Vehicles found on the scenic loop outside of posted hours without a permit may be ticketed and impounded.

Extended hours permits expire upon return to your vehicle and you must immediately exit the scenic loop.

Camping – You may camp in Oak Creek, located approximately four miles south of the Visitors Center on State Route 159. Backpack camping above 5000 feet along the Rocky Gap Road is also popular. Visitors must register at the Visitor Center to backpack. All camping at Red Rock Canyon is primitive, and there are no facilities.

Back country camping within the NCA shall be conducted with minimum impact techniques, as we strive for no disturbance to vegetation. There is a 14 day camping limit. Camping is prohibited within archaeological sites and within 200 feet of any spring or water source. The protection of natural and cultural resources can be accomplished with your assistance.

Fires – Please help prevent the destruction of Red Rock Canyon from wildfires. Fire grates are provided for your convenience at Oak Creek Canyon. All firewood must be brought in. The collection of any firewood is prohibited in Red Rock Canyon. Due to the desert vegetation’s dry condition, no open wood pit fires are allowed.

Litter and Trash – Please pack all of your trash out. Litter bags and information on where to dispose of bagged trash are available at the Visitor Center. Decomposition of human waste is slow in the desert. We request that visitors assist in removing solid human wastes along with trash where sanitary facilities are not provided at camping and hiking areas.

Water – Potable water is available at the Red Rock Canyon NCA Visitor Center and Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. Water from streams, springs, or potholes may not be safe for drinking unless it is boiled, filtered, or chemically treated. Water could be contaminated with Giardia cysts or other parasites. Many persons claim they drink untreated water with no ill effects, but the time, effort and personal expense that you have invested in planning a trip to Red Rock Canyon should not be wasted due to preventable waterborne illness.

Safety – For safety, hikers and rock climbers should be properly equipped and have knowledge of the area. Hikers, climbers, and campers should have sufficient water, food, clothing, and equipment for the planned activity. A check of local weather is also advised. Leave word with someone where you are going and when you plan to return.

Search and Rescue – Emergency services are provided by the Bureau of Land Management and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. In the event of an accident, contact the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily. After 4 p.m., a phone call to the number listed below will initiate a response. Pay telephones can be found outside the Visitor Center and in Blue Diamond, six miles south of the scenic loop exit, and in Las Vegas.

Cultural Resources

The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area provides scenic and recreational opportunities for hundreds of people each day. Modern visitors are drawn to the Red Rock area for the recreational change of pace and beautiful scenery it has to offer. But, the Red Rock area has been utilized to meet man’s needs for thousand of years. It is an area rich in cultural resources. Cultural resources are anything that man has used, made or altered. These resources tell a story of prehistoric Americans in a desert land. Over the thousands of human activity in southern Nevada, as many as six different Native American cultures may have used the Red Rock area.

Why Were They Here? – The key to the area’s prehistory is water. In the desert areas surrounding Red Rock Canyon and the Spring Mountains water is scarce. However, the Red Rock Canyon area contains over 40 springs, as well as many natural catchment basins (known as tanks or tinajas). With the presence of dependable water, plant and animal life is richer and more concentrated than in the surrounding desert. The abundance of plant and animal food sources made the Red Rock Canyon area very attractive to hunters and gatherers such as the historical Southern Paiute and the much older Archaic, or Desert Culture Native Americans. These peoples traveled in small mobile groups that ranged over large areas of land following the ripening of various plant foods. Red Rock was an important stop on their seasonal round.

Even the more settled agricultural groups such as the Payayan Culture, from the banks of the upper and lower Colorado River near Hoover Dam, and the Anasazi either traded or traveled to Red Rock for its resources. Red Rock is considerably higher in elevation than the river valley homelands of these two groups. Because of the increased elevation Red Rock has several higher altitude plant and animal types that would have been unavailable at the lower elevations.

How Do We Obtain Knowledge of Early Native Americans? – Since the Southern Paiutes were still in the area when the first non-Indians (Europeans) entered southern Nevada, we have some written records of their presence and lifestyle here. For the most part, however, all of our knowledge of ancient Native Americans comes from the cultural resources they left behind. For example, we know that the Anasazi Indians either visited the Red Rock Canyon area or traded with its residents because we have found pieces of broken pottery that can be identified as their type of ceramics. Some pieces of pottery not only tell us who was In the area, but when they were there. Pottery decoration styles, clay color and manufacturing techniques change with periods of time and vary from group to group. Even projectile points (arrowheads) can serve as time markers to archaeologists famillar with the prehistory of the area. Since these resources are our only source of information on American’s, prehistory, It Is important to preserve and protect them in their original location. But, cultural resources are more than storehouses of Information. They can also be part of a very important and personal experience of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Seeing a projectile point where it was dropped or shot hundreds or even thousands of years ago can provide the basis for a meaningful experience linking you with a person who walked or hunted here long ago. If you choose to remove the point from its place, not only have you broken the law and caused the loss of potential scientific knowledge, you have denied others a similar experience. Any artifact loses almost all of its value when it is removed from its original location. We all have the responsibility to preserve and protect these resources.

Roasting Pits – Roasting pits are perhaps the most common cultural resource found in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Roasting pits are circular areas of fire-cracked and whitened limestone. They can vary in size from ground level circles five to six feet in diameter, to huge piles several yards high with large sloping sides. Roasting pits were used to roast various foods such as agave hearts, desert tortoise and possibly other plant and animal foods. The limestone was gathered, heated by the fire and then used to cook foods. After prolonged heating, the limestone was raked aside and replaced with new rocks. This process caused the circular ring of rocks to grow with use. There are several roasting pits at the Willow Spring picnic area, including one of the largest in southern Nevada. The large pit is located at the base of the sandstone cliffs just behind and downhill from the restrooms.

Rock Art – Rock art comes in two varieties, petroglyphs and pictographs. The difference between the two types is the manner in which they were made. Petroglyphs were pecked into the surface of the rock. Pictographs were painted on the rock. In Red Rock Canyon a coating of dark “desert varnish” on lighter sandstone provides the perfect medium for petroglyphs, which are the most common of the two types of rock art found at Red Rock. If you want to discover some petroglyphs first hand, the Red Spring area has a wide variety of different styles on the cliff faces and fallen boulders.

Rock art is both enduring and fragile. It has lasted hundreds of years; yet many panels have been recently defaced by graffiti. Climbing on panels can also damage the art, as can attempts to embellish the petroglyphs for photographic purposes. These practices are destructive and should not be done.

Other Cultural Resources -In the places where native Americans who visited Red Rock Canyon camped and lived, they left behind the tools and trash of everyday living. Broken pots and stone tools are pieces of the puzzle that, when put together, tell the story of ancient ways of life and human adaptation to the desert. If you see these cultural resources, enjoy them, but please leave them to tell their story and to be appreciated by others.

The Cultural Chronology of Southern Nevada

  • Southern Paiute 900 A.D. to modern times
  • Patayan Culture 900 A.D. to early historic times in the 1800s
  • Anasazi 1 A.D. to 1150 A.D.
  • Pinto/Gypsum(Archaic) 3,500 B.C. to 1 A.D.

Water – Potable water is available at the Red Rock Canyon NCA Visitor Center and Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. Water from streams, springs, or potholes may not be safe for drinking unless it is boiled, filtered, or chemically treated. Water could be contaminated with Giardia cysts or other parasites. Many persons claim they drink untreated water with no ill effects, but the time, effort and personal expense that you have invested in planning a trip to Red Rock Canyon should not be wasted due to preventable waterborne illness.

The above dates are approximate and subject to considerable debate. Some are likely to be modified as our understanding of this region’s prehistory increases. These dates are based on a number of techniques and methods including references in early historic writings, radiocarbon dates, ceramic (pottery) cross dating and comparisons with surrounding areas that have more established chronologies.

Two other groups were present in southern Nevada and probably utilized the Red Rock Canyon area, although no evidence of their presence has yet been found.

  • San Dieguito 7,000 to 5,500 B.C.
  • Paleo-Indians (Tule Springs) 11,000 to 8,000 B.C.


Ocean – For much of the past 600 million years the land that is now Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area was the bottom of a deep ocean basin and the western coast of North America was in present day western Utah. A rich variety of marine life flourished in those waters and left behind deposits of shells and skeletons more that 9,000 feet thick which were eventually compressed into limestone and similar carbonate rocks.

Swamps – Beginning approximately 225 million years ago crustal movements caused the seabed to slowly rise. Streams entering the shallower waters deposited mud and sand which later consolidated into shales and marine sandstones. Changing land and sea levels trapped large bodies of water which later evaporated leaving behind layers of salt and gypsum in some areas. Exposure of the sediments to the atmosphere allowed some of the minerals to oxidize, resulting in red and orange colored rocks. Streams meandering across the broad plain deposited sand, mud, gravel and other debris such as logs. In some cases, minerals in the groundwater replaced the organic materials in the buried logs forming petrified wood. Petrified wood is one of the few fossil remains found in the rocks at the foot of the cliffs.

Deserts – About 180 million years ago the area was completely arid, much as the Sahara Desert is today. A giant dune field stretched from this area eastward into Colorado, and windblown sand piled more than half-a-mile deep in some spots. As the wind shifted the sands back and forth, old dunes were leveled and new ones built up leaving a record of curving, angled lines in the sand known as “crossbeds”. These shifting sands were buried by other sediments, and eventually cemented into sandstone by iron oxide with some calcium carbonate. This formation, known locally as the Aztec Sandstone, is quite hard and forms the prominent cliffs of the Red Rock escarpment. In some areas the iron minerals in the rocks have been altered and concentrated giving the rock its red color.

Thrust Faulting – The most significant geologic feature of Red Rock Canyon is the Keystone Thrust Fault. The Keystone Thrust is part of a large system of thrust faults that extends north into Canada and began to develop approximately 65 million years ago. A thrust fault is a fracture in the earth’s crust that is the result of compressional forces that drive one crustal plate over the top of another. This results in the oldest rocks on the bottom of the upper plate resting directly above the youngest rocks of the lower plate. At Red Rock Canyon, the gray carbonate rocks of the ancient ocean have been thrust over the tan and red sandstone in one of the most dramatic and easily identified thrust faults to be found. The Keystone Thrust Fault extends from the Cottonwood Fault along State Route 160 north for 13 miles along the crest of the Red Rock escarpment. It then curves east along the base of LaMadre Mountain before it is obscured by very complex faulting north of the Calico Hills.

References – Technical reference: Final Environmental Assessment, Oil and Gas Leasing in the Red Rock Canyon Recreation Lands, U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, 1980.


Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area – Hiking

The following is a brief list of the more popular hikes in the area. Many of these hikes do not follow developed trails, so it is best to carry a map of the area. Topographic maps of the Red Rock Canyon area are available for sale at the Visitor Center information desk. If you have any questions about a route, ask a Red Rock Canyon ranger.

To protect resources, please do not collect plants, rock specimens or fossils or disturb the wildlife in the National Conservation Area.

Lost Creek Loop (.7 mile round trip, easy) – From the Lost Creek parking area follow either the left or right loop to the creek, where water can be found all year. One can continue upstream to a box canyon to a seasonal waterfall shown at left.

Moenkopi Loop (2 miles round trip, easy) – The loop starts southwest of the Visitor Center near the weather station and leads to the crest of the hill west of the Visitor Center. At the crest, cottontop barrel cactus and Triassic fossils can be seen. Along the way a diverse community of plants exists creosote, blackbrush, yuccas.

Calico Hills (Distance variable, easy to moderate) – From each of the first two overlooks short trails lead to the wash at the base of the Calico Hills. One can follow the wash or scramble on the sandstone hills. Seasonally, small pools can be found In the sandstone. Be especially careful when hiking on sandstone.

Calico Tanks (2.5 miles round trip, moderately strenuous. some rock scrambling) – From Sandstone Quarry follow the wash north toward Turtlehead peak for 1/4 mile, turn right (east) and continue up a side canyon to a large natural water tank (tinaja). This and other tinajas in the Calico Hills are important sources of water for the area’s wildlife.

Turtlehead Peak – (5 miles round trip, very strenuous) – From Sandstone Quarry the route follows the wash north through the Calico Hills, climbs a ravine to the left of Turtlehead and follows the ridge to the top. The spectacular views are well worth the 1,700 foot climb.

Keystone Thrust – (4 miles round trip, moderate) – From the lower White Rock Springs parking area follow the dirt road .8 mile to a closed dirt road on the right (east). Follow the trail to the fork (approximately .75 mile); follow the right fork down to the small canyon and the contact of the keystone Thrust where the limestone meets sandstone.

White Rock / LaMadre Spring Loop (6 miles round trip, moderate) – This trail can start from either White Rock or Willow Spring. From White Rock take the upper wash going west. At Willow Spring go east and north.

White Rock Spring to Willow Spring (3 miles round trip, easy) – From the lower White Rock Spring parking area follow the dirt road .8 mile to a closed dirt road on the left (west). Follow this short dirt road to the water catchments at White Rock Spring. Just before reaching the catchment the trail to Willow Spring can be located on the left, heading in a southwesterly direction. The trail follows along the base of the White Rock Hills. The trail joins the Willow Spring trail across from the Lost Creek trail parking area.

Willow Spring Loop (1.5 miles round trip, easy) – The trail follows the left (northeast) side of the canyon past Indian roasting pits to the Lost Creek parking area. From there the trail to the right crosses Red Rock and returns to Willow Spring. This trail passes through a variety of plant communities – pines, oaks, desert and riparian.

LaMadre Spring (6 miles round trip, moderate) – From the Willow Spring picnic area follow the Rocky Gap road (end of pavement). Watch for the right-hand fork in the road and follow to the dam. A foot path continues up the creek to the spring. Bighorn sheep and other wildlife rely on the water from this spring.

Top of the Escarpment (14 miles round trip, strenuous) – From the Willow Spring picnic area follow the Rocky Gap road (end of pavement). At the fork head southwest (left) – the right fork leads to LaMadre Spring. The road passes Lone Pine Spring (3 miles) and Switchback Spring at it climbs to the summit. From Red Rock summit (3 miles) follow the ridge easterly to the top of the escarpment.

Ice Box Canyon (2.5 miles round trip, moderately strenuous, some rock scrambling) – From the Ice Box Canyon Overlook follow the trail across the wash. The trail stays on the bench to the right (north) side of the canyon until the canyon narrows. The trail ends as it drops into the wash. Follow the wash by boulder hopping to a seasonal waterfall and box canyon. Ice Box Canyon derives its names from the cooler temperatures in this canyon.

Pine Creek Canyon (4 to 5 miles round trip, moderately strenuous) – From the Pine Creek Canyon overlook follow the trail downhill to the closed dirt road which leads to the old Horace Wilson homestead site; nothing remains except the foundation. The canyon divides above the homestead site; either fork can be followed, but the left is preferable. Pine Creek was named for the unusual occurrence of ponderosa pines at this elevation in the desert; the trees thrive here because of the moisture and cooler temperatures.

Oak Creek Canyon (5 to 6 miles round trip, moderately strenuous) – From the Scenic Loop exit follow State Route 139 South for I – 6 miles to the dirt road leading to Oak Creek Canyon. A very rough road can be followed on foot (or vehicle for the adventuresome) from the roadway. From the road closure at the end of the dirt road follow the trail around ‘Potato Knoll’ to the left. Oak Creek Canyon is known for the stands of live shrub oak and sandy ‘beaches’ along the wash. Seasonal waterfalls can be found in the canyon.

First Creek Canyon (5 miles round trip, moderatley strenuous) – From the Scenic Loop exit follow State Route 139 south for 2.6 miles. A large dirt parking area marks the trailhead. Follow the closed dirt road to the mouth of the canyon. A trail follows the canyon on the left side for a distance; some rock scrambling is required thereafter. Seasonal waterfalls can be found in the canyon.

Grand Circle Adventure (11 miles round trip, moderately strenuous) – The trail starts at the Visitor Center and goes north to the Calico Hills, west to White Rock, then south to the “Old Willow Road” which then heads east back to the Visitor Center.


The land surface of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area supports a wide variety of plant species. This variety is due to soil types and depth, elevation, exposure, temperature, precipitation, and existing and past use.

An area that supports vegetation and has one or more dominant or co-dominant species is identified as a vegetation type, usually named after the dominant or most abundant species. Vegetation types vary greatly in the number of species and in the percentage of each species in the total composition. The vegetation in the area can be divided into nine major vegetation types; pinyon-juniper, joshua tree, rabbitbrush, oakbrush, blackbrush, manzanita, desert shrub unique vegetation, and barren. The following discussion describes each of these major vegetation types (BLM Range Inventory, 1979).


This type lies between 5,000 and 7,000 feet and receives between 10 to 18 inches of precipitation a year. It forms a belt between the desert below and the true forest above. Precipitation is the first and soil shallowness the second limiting factor. The lower edge of the belt is occupied by juniper; but, at higher elevations pinyon pine and juniper intermix. At the upper edge of the belt, pinyon pine becomes prevalent. Curl-leaf mountain mahogany, big sagebrush and blackbrush are also found in this type in varying amounts. Three awn, Nevada bluegrass and cheatgrass make up the majority of the grass species present.

Joshua Tree

This type is found between 3,600 and 4,200 feet and receives between 8 and 10 inches of precipitation annually. Soils are moderately deep to deep. Joshua tree is the dominant species in this type and makes up 3 to 10 percent of the total species composition. Blackbrush, creosote bush, Mormon tea and burrobrush also make up portions of this type. Grasses are usually sparse and species are mostly annuals.


This type can range between 3,400 and 9,000 feet elevation, but in this area it is found between 3,400 and 4,200 feet. Annual precipitation usually is low, ranging from 6 to 8 inches. Rabbitbrush is generally found on eroded or disturbed soils along roadsides and in wash bottoms. It characterizes a soil with a relatively low alkali content.


This type generally occurs from 4,000 to 6,000 feet in RRCNCA. Soils are moderately deep to deep. Precipitation is usually between 8 and 10 inches. Sagebrush, manzanita, snowberry and rabbitbrush are some of the scrub species that also occur in this type in varying amounts. Nevada bluegrass, Indian ricegrass and big galleta, as well as several annual grasses and forbs also occur in this type. Soil difference and soil moisture, as affected by slope and aspect (eg., north slope vs. south slope), probably account for the occurrence of oakbrush .


The blackbrush type is usually found from 4,000 to 6,000 feet elevation. Topography is usually steep to rolling and soils are very shallow to shallow, or 2 to 20 inches. This type is usually found in association with creosote, hopsage, sagebrush and wolfberry. Precipitation is fairly low, 5 to 8 inches per year.


This type is found in the area surrounding the escarpment in the rocky canyons and on the walls. Vegetation is found only on areas where soil has accumulated. The most limiting factor in this area is availability of soil. Precipitation usually ranges from 8 to 10 inches annually. Manzanita is the most dominant plant. Other species in this type present in varying amounts are: turbinella oak, cliffrose, desert barberry, desert ceanothus, snowberry, apache plume, juniper and pinyon pine. Various annual grasses and forbs also occur.

Desert Shrub

The desert shrub type is found generally to the east of the sandstone escarpment. Precipitation ranges from 5 to 8 inches annually. Soils are generally shallow to very shallow. Species found in this community consist of Spanish bayonet, blackbrush, Mormon tea, cheesebush, spiny menodora, desert almond, sagebrush. bursage, cholla cactus, dalea, turpentine bush and catclaw. Grasses commonly found include needle grass, sand dropseed and big galleta grass.

In the desert shrub type, moist years produce an exceptional growth of annual plants. The wide variety of small flowering plants include buckwheats, marigolds, mallows and desert poppy. Several species of grasses also occur in moist years.


This type is found on the eastern edge of the area and is mostly bare rock. Vegetative cover is found only in areas where soils accumulate and where water periodically stands, allowing seed germination. The main species are pinyon pine, juniper, manzanita, sagebrush, snakeweed and creosote. Sparse perennial grasses occur along with some annual grasses and forbs.

Unique Vegetation

This type is limited mainly to the deep, cool, well-watered canyons of the escarpment. These canyons, especially Pine Creek, Oak Creek, and First Creek, provide a microclimate which supports small communities of ponderosa pine and several other species not commonly found at this low elevation. Some of these other species are: willow, serviceberry, snowberry, manzanita, sagebrush, black cottonwood and Gambel’s oak. Nevada bluegrass, Indian ricegrass, blue grama and big galleta make up some of the grass species found there.

The average age of ponderosa pines in these areas is 180 years (BLM Forest Inventory, 1979). Reproduction is marginal. The trees are mostly concentrated in and along the creek bottoms. They may represent a relic population that was once part of a large pine forest, with these trees surviving in small pockets long after the rest of the forest disappeared.

In the past 40 years, many unique plants in the area have been subjected to heavy collection pressure. The sword fem, probably the most collected plant, has been reduced from large beds and glades to only occasional plants by trampling and collection.

Other unique plants in the area include agave (Agave utahensis nevadensis), a conspicuous part of the cliff community in the Spring Mountains and Charleston Mountain prickly pear cactus (Opuntia charlastonensis) which occurs only in the higher elevation, wooded areas of the Spring Mountains.

Riparian vegetation is associated with springs, creeks and dry washes. Plants more typical of the riparian type include mesquite, catclaw acacia, salt cedar and desert willow. In moister areas or along stream banks, cattails, rushes, willows and other semi-aquatic plants can be found.


The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area may seem rugged and desolate at first glance, but a closer look reveals an area teeming with wildlife. The desert often brings to mind snakes and lizards, but there is more to desert wildlife than reptiles. Mammals, too, inhabit these lands. In fact, over 45 species of mammals occur in the Red Rock Canyon area. The presence of cool temperatures, perennial water and a variety of plant species in the sandstone canyons provide escape from desert heat and aridity, making the Conservation Area a suitable habitat for wildlife.

Desert mammals can be divided into four broad categories: the carnivores (meat eaters), small and large herbivores (plant eaters), and insectivores (insect eaters). All must conform to specific behavioral traits to survive in such and lands. Most desert mammals are nocturnal, which means active during the night. Temperatures are lower and humidity is higher then and the animal loses less water through perspiration and breathing. Besides being nocturnal, many adopt other water-saving habits as well. Let’s look at some of the ways that mammals have adapted to survive in this harsh desert environment.


Carnivores are predators and chiefly eat meat, although some will consume plants. They will drink water when it is available, but are not dependent on it since the moisture-rich flesh of their prey satisfies their water needs. This group includes such well known members as the coyote, kit fox, gray fox, bobcat and mountain lion.

A member of the dog family, the coyote resembles its domestic cousins except that its nose is more pointed and its tail is bushier. The coyote is a very vocal mammal, communicating through barks and howls. Its scientific name, Canis latrans, literally means “barking dog.” In addition to being a predator, the coyote is an omnivore (plant and animal eater) and a scavenger. This varied diet allows the coyote to exist under the desert’s harsh conditions and is one reason why the coyote is now the most wide-spread mammal in the United States. It can be seen occasionally from the Scenic Loop Drive.

The gray fox also has a varied diet, but not to the extent of the coyote. It hunts widely at night, subsisting on rodents, ground squirrels, birds, wild fruit, insects, amphibians and small reptiles. It is an adept climber and will often search for food or escape danger by climbing trees.

Weighing only 5 pounds, the kit fox is the smallest dog in the United States. It survives by being nocturnal and sleeping in the shade of a tree or in its den during the hot part of the day. Its large ears and sharp sense of smell help it to catch prey. Usually the kit fox seeks kangaroo rats, but lizards, insects, birds and rabbits will also be eaten. Watch for this elusive creature alongside the road as you drive through the desert at night.

The bobcat, the most abundant cat in the southwestern United States, also resides in the area. It spends most of the day under bushes, usually in rock fractures or canyons. The bobcat has little endurance and stalks prey rather than chasing it. It primarily eats rodents, but will take rabbits, ground-nesting birds, and occasionally, a young deer. Because of its nocturnal nature, it is not often seen unless disturbed from its daytime resting place.

Small Herbivores

This group includes the rodents, rabbits and hares. As herbivores, they primarily eat plants, although some will supplement their diet with insects and dead or decaying flesh. They rely on their diet to satisfy both their food and water needs. Some small herbivores found in the Conservation Area are the antelope ground squirrel, kangaroo rat, pack rat, blacktail jack rabbit and desert cottontail.

Although most mammals in this group are nocturnal, the antelope ground squirrel is undaunted by the desert sun. This rodent is often seen from the Scenic Loop Drive during the hottest parts of the day, with its white tail held close over its back as it runs about. To cool off, it may go below ground but usually flattens its body against the soil in a shaded area and loses heat through conduction. Although it can drop its body temperature by as much as seven degrees in this manner, it can lose 15 percent of its body moisture per day. To make up for this water loss, it feeds on green leaves and drinks early morning dew.

The kangaroo rat, named for its habit of hopping rather than running, does not drink, use dew or eat succulent foods. Its only source of moisture comes from metabolic water, water produced though the digestion of food. However, digestion creates very little water, so the kangaroo rat must conserve every drop. Its nasal passages are much cooler than its internal body temperature. Air which passes through these nasal passages cools and water condenses on the mucous membranes, where it is absorbed. The kidneys of the kangaroo rat are also very efficient, producing a urine four to five times as concentrated as man’s. Additionally, the kangaroo rat has adapted behavior to survive in the desert. It spends the hot days underground where the temperature is 30 degrees F cooler and the humidity is much higher. Seeds are stored in the burrow where they absorb additional moisture before being eaten.

Unlike rodents, rabbits and hares have two pair of upper incisors, one right behind the other. Thus, they are not classified as rodents, but as Lagamorpha, literally “animals of rabbit-like form.” Rabbits differ from hare in that their young are born naked and blind, while young hares are born furred and sighted. The blacktail jack rabbit, contrary to its name, is a hare. To escape the heat it sits in “forms” during the day. Forms are shallow depressions near the base of plants where soil and air temperatures are cooler. Its enormous ears also provide a surface over which heat loss can occur.

The desert cottontail, a true rabbit, prefers brushier areas than the jack rabbit, such as rocky canyons, floors of dry washes and liver beds; mesquite and catclaw thickets are preferred. Unlike jack rabbits, it retreats into burrows to escape heat and danger. Both cottontails and jack rabbits are very prolific. However, their numbers are kept low by predation and disease. Watch for these two mammals throughout the Scenic Loop Drive.

Large Herbivores

Mule deer, desert bighorn sheep and burros can also be found within the Conservation Area. Large herbivores derive some moisture from their plant food but unlike the small herbivores, also need drinking water periodically.

The mule deer prefers foothills with low scrub growth or thick growth along washes. By late evening it leaves its daytime hiding place to find water in seeps and springs.

The desert bighorn sheep prefers steep, rocky terrain which provides escape from enemies and shelter from the weather. There are more than 15,000 acres of such habitat in the Conservation Area. The bighorn survives in the desert by traveling to water. It will not live more than two miles from a permanent water source. It may expand its range after rains fill more potholes, or tinajas, but such expansions are only temporary. The horns of the bighorn are formed by a bony structure at the base of the skull and are made of material called keratin. It takes about ten years for a ram horn to reach full size and they are often worn by butting a rubbing. Presently, the bighorn population is estimated to be 160 within the Conservation Area. Watch for these magnificent mammals on rocky cliffs throughout the area.

One mammal which competes with the bighorn for valuable water is the burro. This animal, imported by the Spanish from the Old World, can survive well in the hottest deserts. It can lose 30 percent of its body moisture, then drink enough to restore it in a few minutes. One burro was found to drink five gallons in 2 2 minutes! Unfortunately, it crops shrubs and grasses to the roots and damages the underbrush. This destroys the food and habitat for numerous other animals. To help prevent destruction of the fragile desert habitat by the burro, the Bureau of Land Management keeps their population under control by capturing them and offering them for adoption. Approximately 50 burros live in the Conservation Area. Please do not feed the burros or any animals for your safety as well as theirs.


This group includes bats and shrews and primarily consumes insects. Bats are separated from all other mammals by possessing the power of true flight. To escape the heat and avoid competition with birds, they are active only at night. Seldom using their vision, they rely on echo location to find prey and avoid obstacles. To echo locate, the bat emits a series of chirps and clicks from its throat. These sounds reflect off nearby objects, informing the bat of moving insects or stationary obstacles. The odd facial structures of many species aid in the reception of the reflected sound. Although the majority of bats eat insects, a few feed on the nectar of flowers. These bats have long tongues with hair or bristles on the tip to allow them to reach in to gather nectar. Thus, bats serve not only to control disease-carrying insects, but act as pollinators as well.

Shrews are very small mammals which spend most of their lives underground. They have reduced eyes and rely on their sense of smell and touch to locate insects. A voracious eater, the shrew is also a ferocious hunter, for to be without food for more than six or seven hours means certain death. Being an underground dweller, they are rarely seen.

Many more mammals live in the Conservation Area. Each has it own interesting adaptations for desert survival. Take the time to observe and learn about the mammals and other life forms in the area. Only through close observation can the desert and its associated plant and animal life be truly appreciated.