About 15 miles west of Las Vegas, a striking belt of steep red hills stands in between the open scrub plains and the higher mountains in the distance. This landmark, easily visible from the Vegas Strip, is the Red Rock Canyon. Today it’s protected by a National Conservation Area, making it an enduring piece of the natural world that’s easy for Las Vegas residents and visitors to enjoy.
The oldest rocks which make up Red Rock Canyon are vast stretches of sedimentary stone laid down in the Paleozoic era roughly 600 million years ago. As the land emerged from an ancient ocean, trace minerals and salts started oxidizing, giving the rocks their distinctive color.
Long-term climate change made the region a desert about 180 million years ago. Some of the vast sand dunes that covered the area became compressed into stone, becoming the Aztec Sandstone which is the Conservation Area’s key geological feature.
The final act of the geological play in Red Rock Canyon was a major upthrust along the Keystone fault which occurred 60 million years ago. This intermingled the many types of stone present in the region and brought them to the surface. Thanks to this period of mountain building, the older sedimentary rock of the canyon is often found at higher elevations than the younger sandstone.
While there was no permanent settlement in the Red Rock area prior to the 20th century, the region was known for millennia to many different native tribes. Thanks to the mountains to the west and the reliable presence of fresh water, the Canyon was a fertile area for hunting and gathering.
Archeological evidence of a variety of prehistoric visitors can be found throughout the canyon. The earliest identifiable artifacts and petroglyphs point to the Tule Springs people, who visited Red Rock more than 10,000 years ago. Other archaic civilizations that knew the Canyon well included the Patayan and the Anasazi.
By the time Red Rock Canyon was first reached by European explorers, it was considered to be the territory of the Paiute. Many different Paiute tribes visited the Canyon for hunting, supply gathering, and relief from seasonal droughts in the surrounding arid territories. The sparse remnants of the Paiute presence in Red Rock Canyon suggest that although it was considered useful territory, it was never used intensively for any kind of long-term occupation.
As Europeans became more interested in traveling across and settling in the American Southwest, Red Rock Canyon played a small but significant role in a number of historical stories. The Canyon was considered a reliable water source along one of the many routes that made up the Old Spanish Trail. This series of arduous east-west trade routes linked Santa Fe with the early Spanish outposts in California. Red Rock Canyon was a welcome relief to westward travelers who were soon going to face the rigors of Death Valley.
The first sign of European inhabitation sprang up at the southern end of the valley in the early 19th century. A persistent campground was established at what is today the site of the Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. This became a well-known layover for experienced western travelers including Mountain Men, bandits, and outlaws. Because famed Mountain Man Bill Williams passed through Red Rock many times, the site was known as Bill Williams’ Ranch for many years.
The ranch was established more formally in 1876 when a pair of settlers named James Wilson and George Anderson purchased the land and named it the Sandstone Ranch. This remains the only permanent settlement in the Canyon, with the other later developments described below being strictly industrial or recreational.
With the coming of the railroad in 1905, Red Rock Canyon and Sandstone Ranch lost their importance as trail stops for mule trains and other animal-based trading expeditions. There was an abortive attempt to quarry sandstone in the north end of the Canyon around this time, but the area’s extreme isolation made it unprofitable.
Today the only signs of the quarry – which was operated by a company called Excelsior – are a few large sandstone blocks which were cut and then abandoned when operations shut down.
Red Rock Canyon would remain virtually unknown and uninhabited for decades. This helped the region weather the settlement of the west without disturbing any of the Canyon’s natural ecosystems or archeological attractions.
When modern Las Vegas started to grow, its hunger for more land fortunately did not turn west. Red Rock Canyon was set aside as a recreational area in 1967, curtailing the possibility of development or urbanization. The formal establishment by the Bureau of Land Management established an impressively large protected zone totaling 10,000 acres. Even today, the Conservation Area stretches out past the boundaries of Las Vegas to both the north and the south.
During the 70s and 80s, Red Rock Canyon was mainly appreciated as a hiking and camping destination. The 13-mile scenic loop road which remains the only significant paved surface in the Canyon was laid out at this time.
The last major change to the area’s status came in 1990 when it was converted into a Conservation Area. Further funding was allocated and restrictions were put in place to ensure that human development would not threaten the Canyon’s geological and biological diversity. The developers of Summerlin, the affluent Las Vegas suburb immediately east of the Canyon, also donated a wide belt of land to the Conservation Area to serve as a permanent buffer zone discouraging any westward development.
Although great care has been taken to preserve the natural beauty of Red Rock Canyon, it is still a popular recreational destination offering a variety of outdoor activities. The Canyon is a popular destination for rock climbers, offering a wide range of cliffs and rock formations that range from easy to extremely challenging. Hiking and camping are also popular, although overnight stays are only allowed in certain areas. The same holds true for horseback riding; four-wheeled ATVs are not allowed in the Conservation Area.
The untouched beauty of Red Rock Canyon may not have the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas’s casinos, but it is an attraction in its own right. Each year roughly two million people make the drive out into the foothills to visit the Canyon. Thanks to wise conservation efforts, they’re able to enjoy the same natural environment that has been greeting visitors since prehistoric times.