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As We See It

Movie sets and ‘mystical bat woman’ sightings at Valley of Fire

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From inside a cave, I snapped my dad enjoying the scenery at Valley of Fire. The state park is incredibly beautiful and accessible. Just leash your dogs and be ready to sweat.
Photo: Erin Ryan

When your 71-year-old father doesn’t flinch at gaining 1,000 feet of elevation per mile, you know you can’t just take him to Red Rock for a stroll. We didn’t have time to tackle Mount Charleston’s 12,000-foot summit, but I wanted him to get a taste of wild Nevada. This place needed to be close enough to Vegas for us to make it back for lunch and far enough to feel like a world apart.

Valley of Fire is the place—a slice of the Mohave Desert about an hour outside Vegas. It’s the oldest state park in Nevada, boasting 35,000 acres of jaw-dropping sandstone formations created by shifting sands during the time of the dinosaurs. At least that’s what the Internet said. I’d never been to Valley of Fire, but it sounded like the perfect place to show my dad another side of my home.

The reward at the end of Fire Wave.

The reward at the end of Fire Wave.

At the park’s west gate, the attendant gave me the resident discount ($8 per car), and I asked if we were in for a good hike with Charlie’s Spring Loop. He raised one eyebrow. I wanted to say, “Don’t let the white hair fool you. My dad benches people like you.” Instead, I assured him that we were up for a challenge. He said he hoped we weren’t expecting to find water on the hike, since the “spring” part of the name isn’t so true this time of year. I lied and said I wasn’t, silently cursing the Everytrail.com contributor who said: “This is a hike to a spring that has water year round.”

Even in the unforgiving soil of the Mohave, flowers find a way.

Even in the unforgiving soil of the Mohave, flowers find a way.

We decided to stop by the visitor center. I mentioned Charlie’s Spring Loop, and the guy in the window scoffed. He came around the counter and led us to a giant map on the wall. He pointed to a spot and said the most breathtaking scenery was there. Way across the map was the loop, where the trail promised 4-6 inches of sand and no shade whatsoever. We opted for scenery (and a workout not designed for Navy SEALs), knowing we were also opting for motorcycle crews, complaining kids and day-trippers from Germany.

The very anatomically correct trail-marker man. I'm guessing he's not as ancient as the petroglyphs.

The very anatomically correct trail-marker man. I'm guessing he's not as ancient as the petroglyphs.

A quick drive north and we were at Parking Lot #3. Across the road is a new trail called Fire Wave. In and out the same way, it’s 1.5 miles and gorgeous. Against red sandstone rocks along the sandy trail, desert marigold, indigo bush and other wildflowers reminded us that life finds a way even in the hottest, driest climates. Lizards sunned themselves and scurried in front of our feet. A tiny rabbit slipped into the shadow of the cliffs. Then we saw something really exotic—a very, very anatomically correct trail marker in the shape of a man. He pointed the way across an expanse of blushing rock like the surface of Mars. The reward at the end is a view of serpentine sandstone stained various shades of pink, red and white. Fire Wave is about as short and sweet as it gets.

The slot canyon on the White Domes trail. I kept expecting to see Indiana Jones.

The slot canyon on the White Domes trail. I kept expecting to see Indiana Jones.

Next on our list was White Domes, just around the corner. It’s advertised as more than a mile, though info-booth guy assured us it’s a mile exactly. We looped down steep rock stairs into a slot canyon that felt like a breath of cool air. Everywhere we looked was a natural movie set. In fact, this trail includes the remnants of a set from a Western, and the park has played background in such blockbusters as Total Recall and Transformers (and a bad but still beloved Star Trek installment).

The loop spit us out on the road, and the short hike back to the car was next to outcroppings of rock that could be the thumbs of massive trolls trapped underground and petrified. It would have been lovely, were there not a constant stream of other tourists. There were even more on the quarter-mile walk called Mouse’s Tank. We couldn’t blame them, given the length and the attraction of ancient petroglyphs carved into the canyon walls. Animals, elemental symbols and a cartoonish figure dubbed “mystical bat woman” gave kids something fun to hunt for as they walked (and complained). One petroglyph shows two human figures holding hands with two other figures that look kinda like aliens. Some disrespectful visitor even took the liberty of drawing antennae.

Evidence of alien influence on early man? Or is that the drawn-on antennae talking ...

Evidence of alien influence on early man? Or is that the drawn-on antennae talking ...

A few hours, a few electrolyte drinks, lots of air-conditioning sessions in the car and a ton of sand in our shoes later, we left the park in search of extremely cold beer. The biggest takeaways:

Wear high-ankle boots. Not for the terrain; for the sand.

Bring more fluids than you think you need. This is true of any hike, but take a hint from the name Valley of Fire.

Go early to avoid the heat and the throng of tourists.

Spend a day doing every hike in the most scenic northern part of the park, as all five are short and yield amazing photos.

The staff at the visitor center mentioned that experienced hikers often bushwhack through the trail-less parts of the park, as landmarks make it pretty impossible to lose your bearings. Just watch out for roving aliens. And remember that tours of the petrified forest must be guided.

Dogs are welcome on leashes.

It’s okay to build a well-endowed man out of rocks, but don’t use one of those rocks to draw on ancient treasures protected by law.

You can climb, camp and get married.

I didn’t do any of those things. Yet. Valley of Fire is so worth the drive, and I definitely plan to go back and tackle Charlie’s Spring Loop. Maybe when there’s water.

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Erin Ryan

Erin got her first newspaper job in 2002 thanks to a campfire story about Bigfoot. In her award-winning work for ...

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