Valley of Fire spectacular side trip from Vegas

OVERTON, Nevada (AP) March 2010

You have done your time in Las Vegas. You have given generously to the casinos, gorged on their food and overdosed on their glitz.

You need an escape from the Vegas Strip. The Grand Canyon is too far. The Hoover Dam is too crowded. You crave space and air that is not tainted by cigarette smoke. And you can use a reminder that nature is even stranger and more spectacular than a Cirque du Soleil show.

You will find it about an hour away at the Valley of Fire, a brilliant red sandstone landscape where millions of years of erosion have whittled rugged rocks and ancient dunes into shapes that trick your eye and bend your mind.

Over there is an elephant. And here is a giant beehive. Keep staring at that one rock, and faces begin to appear – the sandstone’s grooves and ripples looking like wrinkles in old, ruddy skin.

And you have not even left your car yet.

If you do, you are free to wander through the 42,000 acres that make up Nevada’s oldest state park.

About a dozen signed trailheads will lead you on hikes varying from less than a mile to more than 10. But the formations in the distance mark the places you will really want to go, begging you to make your own way in this Dr. Seuss-like place.

Fix your eye on one landmark. When you reach it – having climbed over sloping rocks, along a canyon ledge and past clusters of swollen barrel cactus – you’re bound to go to another. The payoff will be different every time: a natural arch. A balancing rock. A slab of stone decorated with American Indian carvings. All you really need is enough water to avoid dehydration, a desire to keep walking and confidence that you will find your way back to the road.

“I tell people coming through here for the first time to just let your imagination run wild,” said Dennis Williams of St. George, Utah, who makes the Valley of Fire a first stop on the Exploritas tours (formerly known as Elderhostel) that he and his wife lead from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon and other national parks in the Southwest. “And every time I’m here, I see something new.”

While its proximity to Vegas and scenic drive-through make the Valley of Fire an easy day trip for families, tour groups and even the hung-over, plenty of visitors stay longer. The two campgrounds are often packed during the spring and fall, but less crowded during the scorching summer months and chilly winter season.

And whether you are there for a few hours or a few days, you are guaranteed to marvel at the red rocks and wonder how they came to be.

It seems like a counterintuitive fact, but this dry desert that now averages 4 inches of rain each year started as an ocean. The water receded, leaving sand dunes that were buried about 150 million years ago by soil sediments. Earthquakes later brought the dunes back to the surface, but they had baked into hard sandstone formations. The iron in the silica rusted, leaving the giant mounds with their red tint.

Wind did the rest. Millions of years of high-speed gusts whipped through the valley, carving the sandstone into shapes that are so unearthly the park served as a perfect setting for scenes in “Star Trek: Generations.”

“You look at these shapes and are amazed at how they happened,” said Barry Bonifas, a 67-year-old from Salt Lake City who counts the Valley of Fire as one of his favorite camping spots in the Southwest. “It’s just another piece of evidence showing how complicated our universe is and how we are just insignificant little creatures.”

Insignificant or not, humans have been wandering through this area for about 4,000 years, starting with nomads who hunted for big horn sheep and smaller game. That culture gave way to the ancient Indian culture of Basketmakers, then the Anasazi-Pueblo and the Southern Paiutes.

Evidence of early Indian activity is easily seen in the petroglyphs at Atlatl Rock, which showcases carvings of directional signals, spiritual figures and hunting tools that were etched into the stone by the Anasazis before 1150.

Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s and American, Canadian and Mexican trappers and traders followed about 300 years later in the aftermath of gold seekers, miners and Mormon settlers.

A few hiking trails trace some of the human history. A short walk from the Visitor Center to Mouse’s Tank leads to the hiding place of a Paiute who hid in the area during the 1890s and used the area’s natural catch basin as a freshwater source.

And the Old Arrowhead Trail is what is left of a 90-year-old road that connected California, Nevada and Utah. Sandstone cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps for travelers of the Depression era still stand.

The state began buying up old mining claims to the area, and the valley was established as a state park in 1935. It is now one of the busiest Nevada parks, drawing about 500,000 visitors a year.

But it is hard to feel crowded here. If you do, just pull your car to the side of the road, wander into the strange red distance and let the landscape overwhelm you. Were it not for the occasional airplane flying overhead and whatever pang of guilt or gain you might feel from the night before, you would forget that Las Vegas was less than 60 miles away.

If You Go...

VALLEY OF FIRE : Overton, Nev.
or 702-397-2088.
Located 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas via Interstate 15, exit 75.

The park is open year-round. Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit. The park Web site says winter temperatures range from freezing to 75, while summer temperatures usually exceed 100.