Every year, our National Park Service designates fee free days. These are days when you can get into the parks with just a smile and save your green for other things. A friend and I plan on going back out to Red Rock Canyon on January 19th for one of the fee free days. In the greater Las Vegas area, fee free days give you access to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and Lake Mead National Recreation Area. In order to find out when the fee free days are, visit http://www.nps.gov/findapark/feefreeparks.htm
What do nice weather, sports and red rocks all have in common? They are all a part of biking, running, hiking, and climbing just west of Las Vegas. While living here for 20 years, I have been out to Red Rock more than once. I recently got back out there and things seemed bigger this time-most likely due to the weather. I have noticed that when the sky is cloudy and therefore not as big, all of the mountains seem bigger. Red Rock National Conservation Area is named because of, well, the red rocks that loom along one side of the park. It is very common to see people riding their bikes along the loop road, or climbers climbing the walls of the red rock. The visitors center has a desert tortoise habitat, housing some of the local original inhabitants. There is even a contest for the local school kids for guessing when Mojave Max, the tortoise will emerge from the den after the winter. Winning guess gets a visit from the park rangers.
Red Rock Canyon
On my last visit that direction, I visited Calico Basin, a portion of the park I have never been to before. Calico Basin is on the back side from the visitor’s center and shares the red rocks. It seems to be popular with day hikers, but is also partially committed to private properties. All of this is 10 to 20 minutes from the hotels of Las Vegas, depending on where you stay. So which of you as a kid, loved to see if you could get an awesome echo? While my friend Vicky and I were hiking at Calico Basin, we experienced an echo that we chuckled about and couldn’t stop talking about. First we heard a dog baying, and we really couldn’t tell where it was coming from. All we knew was that despite all the noise in town a few minutes away, Calico Basin is simply devine because of its quiet serenity. Then a motorcycle came into the basin. As it accelerated after each corner on its way out, we heard the ultimate echo bouncing back and forth around the basin walls. It didn’t make the kind of echoing sound you would expect, and the echo just kept bouncing many more times than I would have expected. If like me, you haven’t been out to Calico Basin ever or haven’t been out to Red Rock Canyon in a while, then take advantage of the nice weather and get out there. I was really struck at the line of cars waiting to get into Red Rock and how many visitors there were to Calico Basin as well. But we can probably chalk that up to temperatures in the low 70’s in the early January.
Hoover Dam, once known as Boulder Dam, is definitely a tourist sight that has evolved over the years. It is located in the Black Canyon on the border of Nevada and Arizona. It is about 45 minutes from the Strip in Las Vegas. I still remember my first visit to the Dam back in about 1982. It was really cool to stand in the middle of the dam on the states border and see the time clocks for the two different time zones (only during daylight savings). The original visitors’ center had a presentation by the Bureau of Land Management showing a video of the Colorado River system, the various dams along the way and what the water is used for-as well as a scaled model of the whole system. You could also get tickets and wait in line to take the elevator down through the dam to the Dam Tour below. During 1983, the water levels at Lake Mead were so high, that they opened up the spillways. I got to see that. It feels like that may never happen again, with our current drought and plummeting water levels. Looking at a historic graph of lake levels, there is still hope.
Hoover Dam/ Low Lake Levels
In its current condition, the other thing to see is the 100-150 foot bathtub ring around Lake Mead because of the low lake levels. Things have so changed in so many ways since 1983. There is a wonderful new visitors’ center with access to the Dam Tours below and a very well done History of the Hoover Dam Museum. A parking ramp built into the side of the canyon makes parking a lot easier. There still are manned security stops on either side of the Dam to guard against terrorist threats. The newest addition includes the 95 Hoover Dam Bypass featuring the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. It has its own staging area where you can park and walk out onto the bridge and see the overview of Hoover Dam, Lake Mead and the surrounding views. The first time I went out there after the bridge was completed and I was taking visitors to see the dam and walk out onto the bridge, I actually drove over the bridge without even knowing it. You see, they have higher side walls on the bridge-so no gawking. They also had made a separate exit to get to the Dam and the parking area for the bridge. Walking out onto the bridge is not for those who are height challenged, although they can cling to the back wall of the bridge walkway. Now that I have been there, I no longer make that mistake.
Hoover Dam Bypass/The Cousins
I also have taken the Black Canyon Raft Tour which starts right at the base of Hoover Dam and then floats on down the River to the Willow Beach Marina. I have only seen Bighorn Sheep while crossing the Dam two times. But we saw numerous Bighorn Sheep while on the raft tour. If you want to see an overview of the building of the bridge, then go to the following site: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuO0sK1VSWw This is not the shortest video, but it is by far the most beautiful.
Las Vegas and the surrounding municipalities sit in a bowl, surrounded by mountains in just about every direction. Mount Charleston is to our west and is about a 30 minute jaunt for many of us. Up on the mountain, we have The Resort on Mount Charleston, Mount Charleston Lodge, the Foxtail Girl Scout Camp, the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort, and seasonal campgrounds as part of the Spring Mountain National Recreation Area. I have visited all of them. Beyond that, it is a quick get-away for those of us that want a change of scenery for the day or just want to get away from the hustle and bustle that is Las Vegas. We take our dogs up there , go up to play in the snow, or go just to find someplace that is a few degrees cooler. People do live up there year-round as well. In the weird weather category, there was one winter quite a few years ago when Mount Charleston had so much snowfall, that the Ski and Snowboard Resort had an avalanche that resulted in a fatality. Who would have thought?
Yes Virginia, it really does snow in Las Vegas. Not like most places that get snow. Usually at least once a year, it snows somewhere in the Las Vegas metro area. This means that the flakes come out of the sky and when we are really lucky, there is some snow on the ground in the morning. It usually melts in pretty short order. A few years ago though, it snowed enough that there were a few inches sitting on the ground in a large part of town that had accumulated during the late afternoon and evening. Since we don’t have plows or sanding trucks, there was a problem. We had school the next day. Now we have buses that are out at 4:30 in the morning picking up kids at 5. Since safety was an issue and the roads might be icy, a snow day was called. That created another problem. We don’t have snow days established, so at the end of the year-we all had to make up that one snow day. It is the only time I have seen a snow day called in my 21 years with the school district.
Mount Charleston Near Las Vegas
A couple of days ago, we made national news because of predicted snowfall for New Year’s Eve during our huge celebration that fills the Strip. The predictions missed by 24 hours. We did get some snowfall on the south end of town, but it didn’t stick. New Year’s Eve went off without a hitch. Of course this is a new pattern as the waves of We had a high of 75 not a week ago, and then didn’t even make it up to freezing on New Year’s Eve day. Winter temperatures didn’t even hit us until 2 days before the New Year. We do have snow in close proximity up on Mount Charleston every year though, and even has the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort up there-a short 30 minute drive. Mount Charleston, has had snow three times this fall with the earliest one back in early September.