Hoover Dam or Red Rock Canyon? That was the choice I had to make with my one free day in Vegas. I had rented a car and wanted to take a day trip to get out of the city, and these were my top options.
While I’m sure the Hoover Dam is cool, and I hope to see it one day, I’m so happy that Red Rock Canyon won out. Because my experience there climbing around on giant rocks and winding through canyons was hard to beat. One of my coolest outdoors experiences ever.
What to See at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
The entrance to Red Rock Canyon is not even a 30 minute drive from the heart of Vegas, so it’s an ideal day trip away from the gambling madness of the Strip. The conservation area offers gorgeous scenery. Joshua trees are everywhere as you enter the park.
The best place for beginners to play on the rocks is in the Calico Hills section of the park, which can be reached at the first parking lot pullout past the visitor center on the 13-mile Scenic Drive.
The climbing here is fairly easy, depending how far into the rocks you want to go. It’s cool that you get to see lots of deeper shades of red in the rocks, evidence of the sand dune fields that once dominated the area.
Some people do bring climbing gear to scale the walls, but most visitors are tourists and families just having fun on the rocks.
Tips for visiting Red Rock Canyon in Nevada
While climbing up a pile of rocks can be a ton of fun, take the proper precautions. Bring plenty of water, watch your step, and make sure you’ll have a path to get back. You don’t want to trap yourself in some awkward spot.
I encountered one group of people that had just spent an hour trying to find a way up out of the canyon they were exploring. I also saw several people way up on top of the mountain who looked like they might be stuck.
After Calico Hills, there are some other parts of Scenic Drive worth exploring. I would recommend the Petroglyph Wall Trail, where you can see petroglyphs. The wall art here is not ancient – one estimate says it’s approximately 800 years old – but it’s still cool to see drawings from a time before westerners explored the region.
Normally Red Rock Canyon charges an entrance fee ($15 per vehicle as of 2018), although I lucked out by visiting during a non-fee day in January. The fee gives you all-day access to Scenic Drive.
Be advised that the Scenic Drive road is not open 24 hours a day. In fact, in winter, it closes at 5 pm. Check the park’s website for information on the Scenic Drive hours for the dates of your visit.