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 from Las Vegas 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.
The Red Rock Canyon day trip was one of my coolest outdoors experiences ever!
Interested in making a visit to Red Rock Canyon? Let’s go over the best places to visit in the park, and logistics like cost, reservations, and the best hikes to try for a one-day itinerary.
Visiting: Red Rock Canyon Map, Hours, Park Logistics
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is less than 20 miles from Las Vegas, so it’s the perfect day trip from the city after you’ve had your fill of playing the slot machines.
The main point of interest is Scenic Drive, a winding, 13-mile loop road through the heart of the park. You can find numerous attractions, hiking trails, and overlooks on this road.
Red Rock Canyon charges an entrance fee, which is $20 per vehicle as of 2023. The fee gives you all-day access to Scenic Drive.
I actually lucked out by visiting during a non-fee day in January. The park has a handful of free days every year: Martin Luther King. Jr Day, Presidents Day, Juneteenth, Great American Outdoors Day, National Public Lands Day, and Veterans Day.
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.
Scenic Drive Reservations
The park has gotten more crowded in recent years, so they’ve instituted a timed entry system for Scenic Drive.
Reservations are required between October 1 and May 31, which is peak visitation season. Reservations are not needed during the hot summer months, when fewer people visit.
Book your reservations in advance. Each reservation is a one-hour time slot, so you can arrive any time during that hour.
Obviously, the earlier time slots are preferable, so that you have longer to explore the park before it closes.
What should you do if you can’t get an early reservation for Scenic Drive?
Let’s imagine your Scenic Drive reservation is for noon or later in the afternoon. What should you do with the extra hours in the morning before you’re allowed access to the road?
There are a couple areas of the park you can explore outside of Scenic Drive. The best option is the hike to Kraft Boulders, which features some rock scrambling.
Middle Oak Creek Trail is another good hiking and walking trail that can be reached from outside the main road. There’s a parking area and a 3-mile round-trip hike through the desert.
The conservation area also has some roadside pullouts with gorgeous scenery. Joshua trees are everywhere as you enter the park.
Red Rock Canyon Day Trip Itinerary
Putting together an itinerary for a Red Rock Canyon day trip isn’t too difficult, because you simply have to follow Scenic Drive and pull over at the points of interest along the way.
Your schedule will also be determined by whether you can score the coveted 8 am reservation, or whether you get stuck arriving later in the day.
Either way, let’s go over the highlights of the park that any visitor should try to see at Red Rock Canyon.
The Visitor Center
The Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center is open from 8 am to 4:30 pm daily. The center has exhibits about the plants and animals of the area, and a gift shop.
Guests have the option of walking the 2-mile Moenkopi Loop, which starts behind the visitor center. I’d recommend skipping this in favor of other activities.
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 Scenic Drive.
The climbing here is fairly easy, depending how far into the rocks you want to go. I found myself going higher and higher and I found new paths to get above the boulders.
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 bring climbing gear to scale the walls. It’s fun watching them traverse the flat rock walls.
But most visitors are just tourists and families having fun on the rocks. This is a good place to sit and eat lunch.
Sandstone Quarry / Turtlehead Peak
Sandstone Quarry was used from 1905 to 1912 by companies that extracted large pieces of stone to be transported for buildings in California. You can still see some of the cut rocks here.
Avid hikers who have the time should consider the trek to Turtlehead Peak, which begins at Sandstone Quarry. It’s 4.6 miles round-trip and gains about 2000 feet of elevation, reaching Turtlehead Peak at 6017 feet high.
The hike takes 3-4 hours. It’s perhaps the best hike in the park for experienced hikers who prefer long treks.
High Point Overlook
Here’s a quick pullout with a view from above at 4771 feet. This is the highest point you can drive to in the park. You can see all the way back to the visitor center area.
White Rock / Willow Spring
These stops are good for taking a quick break or grabbing a snack. Willow Spring Picnic Area has a bathroom and picnic tables. The Willow Spring Loop is a 1-mile walking trail.
Petroglyph Wall Trail
The Petroglyph Wall Trail is a must-visit to see the 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. These petroglyphs have been well-preserved.
This is one of the coolest sections of the park, so save plenty of time to explore it!
The Lost Creek Trail and the Lost Creek Children’s Discovery Trail are not necessarily a must-visit section of the park. But it’s a good place to stop on the western side of Red Rock Canyon if you have extra time remaining in your day.
The children’s trail is a half-mile walk with information boards and displays especially targeted for kids.
Pine Creek Canyon
Pine Creek Canyon is not an especially noteworthy trail, but the 2-mile trail does lead to a ponderosa pine forest at the mouth of the canyon. You may see water flowing through the canyon.
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.
This one is obvious. Red Rock Canyon is a desert environment. It gets very hot at times. Bring a lot more water than you think you’ll need.
Watch your step.
Again, it’s mostly common sense. But if you’re going to be climbing, jumping, and walking on rocks, place your feet carefully. Rolling an ankle would not be fun.
Bring sunscreen and a wind jacket.
If you plan to hike (especially Turtlehead Peak), bring along a windbreaker or light jacket, because it can quite quite windy up there at times. And sunscreen is always a must.
When exploring the rocks, make sure you’ll have a path to get back.
Exploring the canyons and crevices in the rocks is fun, but 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 out of the canyon they were exploring, because they forgot the way back. Yikes!
I also saw several people way up on top of the mountain who looked like they might be stuck. Be careful!
Can You Take Uber to Red Rock Canyon?
Yes, it is possible to take Uber or Lyft from the Vegas strip all the way to Red Rock Canyon.
However, your driver will most likely drop you off at the visitor center, so you won’t have the freedom to drive around and explore the park. You’ll be limited to that immediate area.
On top of that, you have to figure out a way to get back to the city, which means you’ll have to call another Uber.
Cell service is spotty in Red Rock Canyon, which means you could find yourself stranded and unable to hail a ride back.
I had a friend who visited Red Rock Canyon via Uber, and he did have service to get a ride back to Vegas. But it’s risky, because you may not have service.
As for cost, he paid about $35-40 each way, which is quite expensive. For most people, it would be cheaper to just rent a car for one day and drive out there. So I wouldn’t recommend taking rideshare to the canyon unless you have a backup plan.
Red Rock Canyon Day Trip Guided Tours
Don’t want to plan your own road trip to Red Rock Canyon? Here’s a quick mention of some guided tours, if you prefer to let someone else do the driving.
All of these tours begin in Las Vegas, and transportation is provided to the canyon.
Red Rock Canyon Scooter Tour: Never ridden a motorized scooter before? Here’s your chance! You’ll be shuttled to the park from Las Vegas, and then have a chance to ride a scooter on Scenic Drive to see all of the park’s highlights. Check pricing and availability.
Red Rock Sunset Horseback Ride & BBQ: Take in the beautiful Red Rock Canyon sunset on a horseback ride, then enjoy a campfire barbecue. Free transportation is provided from many Las Vegas hotels. Check pricing and availability.
Red Rock and Spring Mountain Ranch State Park Tour: This Red Rock Canyon day trip makes a couple stops at Red Rock before moving on to Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, a historic area which has become a working cattle ranch. Check pricing and availability.
Other Las Vegas-Area Activities and Recommendations
Red Rock Canyon is one of the top activities away from the Vegas strip. If you’re into the outdoors, you should definitely stop by!
And if you’re seeking a longer adventure than just a day trip, check out this Southwest road trip itinerary that goes from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon and over to the Utah national parks!
I also have a Los Angeles to Austin driving guide that passes through Vegas.
Do you have any other suggestions to add to a Red Rock Canyon day trip itinerary?