The valley where time has stood still

By Chris McBeath

If the palatial neon canyons of Las Vegas leave you thirsting for the real thing, you can’t get more authentic than the Valley of Fire in the heart of the Mojave Desert. Within an hour’s drive Las Vegas, it’s as if you’ve arrived on another planet, or at least the remnants of one that existed 600 million years ago. And all of it easy to explore whether on foot, or by car.

Where ‘the strip’ bombards your senses, this awe-inspiring park invites you to engage them – to seek out the sounds of songbirds beyond the wind-brushed silence, and to feel the history of millennia beyond its stark beauty.

Beyond Extraordinary

The canyons of the Valley of Fire are made up of richly hued ribbons of limestone and sandstone, moulded by nature into multi-angled, monolithic sculptures that are as elegant as they are bizarre. Many have earned names such as Seven Sisters, The Duck, Poodle Rock, White Domes and Elephant Rock. The shifting sand dunes – now fossilized and almost a half-mile thick, comprise beautifully shaped, swirled layers of wind-blown sand, and are called Beehives, and if this really were another planet, perhaps giant bees would be their inhabitants.

Landscape of History

Once a part of a vast ocean teeming with life both in its waters and on its forested beaches, the current landscape started to shape itself when the sea retreated, exposing water-saturated, ripple-marked mud to dry and crack under the sun. Add to this, the sluggish streams that crossed the terrain, and rains that dimpled the mud surface, and you see rather a surreal visual history of their bulleted impressions and tidal paths as part of the rocks’ façades. And when occasional downpours washed coarser gravel down from the distant highlands, the floodwaters often carried twigs, branches and logs of trees. Those logs that were buried by mud, slowly transformed with quartz and other minerals to become the petrified logs you also see today.

With its exposure to air, the mud slowly oxidized many of the iron compounds, creating the extraordinary range of colours throughout the Valley of Fire. Hues range from deep red and rich gold, (thus giving the valley its name), to purple and lavender, sage green, tan and white.

Explore Rock Rendering Stories

If the shapes and colours of these rocks tell of one history, the numerous Indian petroglyphs and pictographs tell of another, dating back some 3,000 years.

Take the two-kilometre White Domes Trail and you’ll see ancient drawings of animals, people and directional symbols scratched into the black patina covering some of the red rock. At Atatl Rock, climb to the top of a sturdy staircase built for visitors, and you’ll see drawings of animals, and people engaged in various activities including using their atlatls, (an atlatl was a notched stick used as a thrown spear).

The easy, quarter-mile hike along The Mouse Tank Trail will lead you to still more. Continue on for another quarter mile to reach the tank itself, a natural basin in the rock where water collects after rainfalls and remains sometimes for months on end. The tank was named for a Paiute Indian whom legend has branded an outlaw for killing several white settlers in the late 1800s. He hid from his pursuers in the narrow canyons of the park and the tank, well hidden within the labyrinth of rock formations on the floor of Petroglyph Canyon, was his water supply. In 1897 Tank was shot and killed by a posse.

Sights Along the Way

Other sights include the cabins (also a picnic area), three historic stone shelters built with native sandstone by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s as a shelter for passing travelers; Elephant Rock, accessible via a short trail; Arch Rock and Piano Rock, seen in an easy two mile scenic loop; Rainbow Vista, a favourite photo spot overlooking a panorama of multicoloured sandstone; and Fire Canyon, another terrific vantage point to see the fire-red sandstone of the canyon and the unique geological features of Silica Dome. White Domes is the farthest sight, and lies in the heart of the park as an eleven-mile (17.7 km) round trip from the Visitor Centre.

Many of the park’s sights can be taken in during a day trip but with so much to see, you may prefer to camp out for a few days; there are 51 sites on a first come, first served basis. If a day is all you can spare, be sure to be there as the sun goes down. Watching the strands of gold pierce the valleys, and turning the rock into a soft coppery fire, is what the Valley of Fire is all about. It is its piece de resistance.


The Valley of Fire State Park, the state’s oldest park, is located approximately 50 miles north east of Las Vegas near the village of Overton. The Lost City Museum of Archaeology is here, and gives you a glimpse into the world of the region’s ancient Pueblo civilizations. Trails are easy to reach, and range from extreme to novice and kid friendly; some have picnic facilities hidden among the recesses of sandstone outcrops, and a few are wheelchair accessible.
what the Valley of Fire is all about. It is its piece de resistance.