Protecting more than 200,000 acres of canyons, mountains, and unique desert wildlife, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is one of Nevada’s most spectacular outdoor playgrounds, attracting rock climbers and hikers from around the country to its vibrant Aztec sandstone cliffs and world-class crags. Even before tourism was its main draw, Red Rocks played host to countless critters and tribes of native people, its natural tanks and basins offering a rare source of water in the arid Mojave Desert.
There’s no doubt that Red Rocks is a geologically, ecologically, and historically significant spot, but what really makes it so special is its shocking proximity to Las Vegas— less than 30min from America’s casino capital is a spectacle of red rock and convoluted canyons, every bit as accessible as it is rugged.
This 1-day itinerary for Red Rock Canyon showcases several of the region’s best day hikes, both on the characteristic red sandstone and under ancient limestone cliffs, as well as significant viewpoints where the diversity of cacti and desert wildlife can truly be appreciated. Read on to discover absolutely everything you need to know for the ultimate day at Red Rocks, including when to visit, how to get there, where to stay nearby, essential packing list, and a super detailed 1-day itinerary.
Check out other posts in my 1-day National Park & Public Land series:
Located in the southern Nevada desert, Red Rocks is a year-round destination offering spectacular scenery and unique experiences 12 months of the year:
Summer (June to September) is definitely a hot time to visit the park, with temperatures from 30-35C / 85-95F and little shade on any of the trails or climbing routes. Still, Red Rocks is almost always cooler than Vegas, and therefore summer brings lots of locals looking to get outside and escape the heat.
Autumn (September to November) & Spring (March to May) each boast comfortable daytime temperatures from 15-25C / 60-75F, although early mornings and nights will be a bit chillier. Thanks to the more manageable hiking temperatures, these months are the best time to visit Red Rocks, just note that timed entry is in place October to May and therefore your trip might necessitate some advanced planning (see more under Entrance Fees below).
Winter (December to February) can be a good time to visit Red Rocks, with far cooler days (7C/45F), but expect camping to be extremely cold (below freezing) and for short daylight hours to somewhat limit your itinerary.
Entrance fees for Red Rock Canyon
Although Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is BLM land (which typically translates to free access), there is a $15 entrance fee, as well as a newly implemented $2 timed entry reservation fee. Reservations (and the accompanying $2 fee) are only required October to May, 8am-5pm if entering via the scenic drive (which is how you’ll access every stop on this itinerary); outside these months and hours, you can still access the scenic drive without the additional $2 fee.
Basically, these timed entry slots help ensure that the one-way scenic drive doesn’t get too congested and that there’s ample parking to accommodate everyone. During busy times (like weekends and holidays), it’s recommended to reserve your time slot online at Recreation.gov in advance, but mid-week you’re unlikely to have issues just rocking up to the entrance and paying the $2 fee as you drive through (which is what I did both times I visited Red Rocks).
Good news for frequent travellers: the entrance fee to Red Rocks is covered by an annual parks pass, which you can purchase onsite, at Recreation.gov, or even in-store or online from outdoor retailers likeREI for $80— an America the Beautiful annual parks pass gets you into all 63 national parks and thousands of other national monuments and forests around the country, so it’s a real bargain if you plan on exploring more public land in the US!
Note, however, that an annual pass does NOT cover the $2 reservation fee, which you’ll have to pay either online in advance or as you arrive at Red Rocks.
Other important things to know about Red Rock Canyon
RECEPTION: Owing to its proximity to Las Vegas, there is decent mobile reception throughout much of Red Rocks, but it’s still a good idea to download offline maps and do all your research prior to entering the park. I’d also recommend bringing a PLB on your hiking and climbing adventures in case of emergency; I personally use a Garmin In-Reach Mini.
WATER: Other than the Visitor Centre, there’s no water access within Red Rocks, so be sure to come prepared with full water bottles!
LEAVE NO TRACE: As with every outdoor adventure, and particularly those within protected natural areas, it is critical that you take steps to reduce human impact on the environment. This includes packing out all of your rubbish or disposing of it in the bins provided at most every trailhead, campsite, and viewpoint. I’d also encourage you to be mindful of where you go off-trail within the park— it’s absolutely part of the adventure, but not at the expense of delicate plantlife, so be sure to get your off-route kicks on the rocks or other durable surfaces.
Getting to Red Rock Canyon
Although a world away from the lights and debauchery of the The Strip, Red Rocks is an easy 25min (16mi) west of Las Vegas, right near the town of Blue Diamond. Access couldn’t be easier along the 159!
Getting around Red Rock Canyon
There are heaps of tours operating between Vegas and Red Rocks, but the best way to explore is definitely in your own car. The park is surprisingly vast, with dozens of awesome hikes and thousands of climbing routes, so take your time exploring!
This itinerary focuses exclusively on trails and viewpoints accessible along the Scenic Drive, a one-way 13mi horseshoe road off Highway 159— there are absolutely hikes and climbs beyond this loop, but it’s the densest concentration of noteworthy sights and therefore an excellent place to spend a full day in Red Rock Canyon.
Make sure to pick up a free map when you come through the entrance! Most viewpoints and hikes are extremely well signed, but it helps to have a paper map to plan your visit. If you miss grabbing a map (outside of staffed hours; typically 8am-5pm) or prefer to use your phone, there’s a downloadable version of the Scenic Loop map available here and I’ve also marked all my recommended stops on a handy Google Map (which you can save to your phone) in the itinerary section below.
Where to stay near Red Rock Canyon
Less than 30min from Las Vegas, there are heaps of hotel options within close reach of Red Rocks. Here are a couple I can personally recommend from various times I’ve passed through Vegas:
Tropicana | This classic casino/hotel along the Strip provides comfortable accommodation at a surprisingly good price; double rooms from $50/night.
MGM Grand | Those looking for a typical Las Vegas experience will also be impressed by rooms at the MGM Grand, starting at $49/night. Usually the best deals are available last-minute!
If you’re equipped for an outdoor adventure, there’s also some really fantastic free camping within spitting distance of Red Rock Canyon:
Our favourite boondocking spot was along the Joshua Tree-covered Lovell Canyon Road (also marked on the map below), but check out camping apps like iOverlander for additional free and paid options in the area.
Just outside the park, there’s also the developed Red Rock Canyon Campground charging $20/night; although I didn’t stay here myself, there were enough negative reviews to put me off (mostly in relation to being farther away and less convenient than expected).
Packing list for Red Rock Canyon
Although this is not intended to be a fully comprehensive packing list, here are some absolute essentials to pack for your day exploring Red Rocks:
Water bottle | Plan to carry a couple of litres in the car and on longer hikes, as there is no water available past the visitor centre and it can get HOT; this is an awesome bottle with a built-in filter
Snacks | To maximise time exploring, you need to pack food for snacks and lunch, as there is nothing available inside the park; if you plan to picnic, it can also be great to bring compact camping chairs like these awesome REI Flexlite Camp Chairs and a small table
Camera (+ tripod if you’re trying to capture sunrise and sunset shots)
Emergency communication | As there is limited reception in Red Rocks, it’s always a good idea to carry a PLB or other emergency beacon/sat phone for off-trail adventures; I love my Garmin In-Reach Mini
Hat | I wore my Akubra Traveller through Red Rocks and loved the sun coverage (not to mention all the compliments!); this is an Australian-made hat, but you can find it online at select retailers in the US and it is SO worth the money
Boots or sturdy walking shoes | You can explore most of Red Rocks in sturdy walking or hiking shoes, but I personally prefer boots when scrambling and did most of the activities on this itinerary (except actual climbing) in my square-toe 1306 Blundstones (also from Australia, but available in limited styles online in the US)
Layers! | In autumn, spring, or winter, it is absolutely essential to have lots of layers, as temperatures can vary widely from early morning to mid afternoon; I always pack a down jacket, mountain jacket, fleece jumper just to be safe!
*1-day Red Rock Canyon itinerary
The following Red Rocks itinerary leads you around the Scenic Drive, a 13mi loop branching off the 159 that hosts a majority of the park’s most popular trails, viewpoints, and climbing crags— and since this road is one-way, there’s no option to backtrack without driving the loop a second time, so it really pays to be organised on your visit!
Travelling from Las Vegas, you’ll take a left onto this horseshoe road at the entrance/visitor centre and, after paying your fee, slowly make your way around, stopping to hike and scramble at a variety of spectacular spots. Whether you complete all of these hikes in a single day or spread them out over a longer visit, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with Red Rocks!
As you make your way along the Scenic Drive from the fee station, you’ll be greeted almost immediately on your right by towering walls of red rocks— the namesake, and arguably the most remarkable scenery, of the entire conservation area. Calico Hills stretches for a couple miles, with several large parking lots providing access to hiking trails and a staggering concentration of climbing routes.
Parking at Calico 1, you have the option to hike to Calico II (2mi / 3.2km) or even continue all the way to Sandstone Quarry (6mi / 9.6km) before turning around and retracing your steps along the rock. Don’t be surprised if it’s incredibly slow-going on this walk, though— the scrambling and off-trail options are truly endless, and the temptation to climb on the vibrant red sandstone is sometimes overpowering!
Those with climbing gear will also find Calico Hills to be an incredible outdoor playground, with everything from beginner top-roping accessible via Class 3/4 scrambling to slabby sport climbing to multi-pitch trad routes that occupy the better part of a day.
Mountain Project provides an awesome, if somewhat overwhelming, review of the park’s crags, so I’d definitely recommend taking a look at what’s on offer and coming prepared (we sorely regretted not bringing quick draws).
Although a truly awesome introduction to Red Rocks, the risk of beginning at Calico Hills is that you’ll spend the entire day here— if you truly only have a single day to experience the area, don’t let yourself get SO distracted by the incredible scenery at Calico Hills that you miss out on all the other amazing areas in the park, many of which showcase a completely different landscape!
A short distance beyond Calico Hills, pull into the trailhead at Sandstone Quarry and begin another of the park’s most popular hikes out to Calico Tank, a natural water reservoir in the desert.
At just 2.5mi (4km), this isn’t a demanding hike, but expect the rocky terrain and frequent scrambling opportunities to waylay you significantly on your ascent to the tank. Once you do finally make it to the top, you’ll see the entire Las Vegas Valley stretched out beneath you, including the abrupt rise of casinos and hotels in the distance.
It’s truly wild to be this close to The Strip and yet a world away amongst red rocks— a rare find in a state whose notoriety is derived almost entirely from gambling and poor decisions.
Once returned to the car from Calico Tanks, don’t go far— the trailhead to Turtlehead Peak is accessible from the same Sandstone Quarry carpark.
As one of the more challenging hikes along the Scenic Drive, Turtlehead Peak gains 2000ft (600m) in less than 2.5mi (4km), representing a sizeable climb with great reward. From the summit, you can see the entirety of Red Rocks stretched out beneath you, a rare opportunity to appreciate the spread and diversity of the landscape within the national conservation area.
You’ll need at least 3hrs to summit Turtlehead Peak, so it’s possible that those starting late in the day or with limited daylight hours (during winter months) simply won’t have enough time— all the more reason to come back or spread this itinerary across 2 more leisurely days!
4 | High Point Overlook
Continuing a short distance along the Scenic Drive, you’ll come next to a viewpoint offering excellent views of the surrounding mountains, and particularly Turtlehead Peak.
There’s not much to do here other than take a photo and enjoy the scenery, but it’s a good opportunity to look out on the changing landscape ahead of you, which is distinctly less red and increasingly more canyon-like.
Only a minute farther along the road, pull into the White Rock parking area and follow a dirt road (still accessible to 2WD) a short distance to reach the Keystone Thrust trailhead.
This easy 3.5km / 2.2mi trail showcases one of the park’s most notable geological features, the Keystone Thrust, which represents the dramatic meeting point between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates. The fault here is estimated to have formed some 65 million years ago, around the same time as the last dinosaurs went extinct, and is responsible for the wild mix of limestone and sandstone visible within Red Rocks.
For much of the walk, you’ll enjoy excellent mountain scenery and varied plantlife, finally culminating with a view of the fault near La Madre Mountain— although the trail itself might not be as spectacular as others on this list, the final vantage point surely is!
6 | Petroglyph Wall
Back on the Scenic Drive, take a right off the loop towards Willow Springs Picnic Area and hop out for a quick walk to some ancient petroglyphs etched into the side of the canyon wall.
Experts have attributed these carvings to the Southern Paiutes, who inhabited the area around Red Rocks approximately 800 years ago. Although the exact meaning of the art has been lost to time, it’s still remarkable to imagine the lives of those who called this area home in the previous century.
The final hike of the day, and one of my favourites, is Ice Box Canyon, located just a short distance beyond Willow Springs. True to its name, the canyon presents a noticeable drop in temperature, the trail blasted by frequent gusts of cool wind and shaded by towering white sandstone walls, as well as some excellent scrambling and rock-hopping.
The geology of this area is markedly different to where you began the day at Calico Hills. If you look back towards the canyon entrance, you’ll even see the bright red and orange of Calico Hills in the distance, which couldn’t be more contrasted against the cool white and black of Ice Box.
Clambering over rocks as you make your way towards the heart of the canyon, you’re likely to encounter some serious climbers— this area is highly regarded for its challenging multi-pitch trad routes, only accessible to those with a lot of experience, a lot of gear, and a lot of time. It’s always entertaining to hang out and watch for a while, and I constantly find myself awed by climbers who seem to fly up walls well beyond my reach.
8 | Red Rocks Wash Overlook
Before you leave the Scenic Drive, stop off at another lookout, this one offering views of the surrounding mountains and a variety of desert cactus.
9 | Red Rock Canyon Overlook
To conclude a seriously fantastic day exploring Red Rocks, drive just 1min up the 159 towards Vegas (now officially off the Scenic Drive) to pull in at a final lookout.
With the vibrant pop of Calico Hills in the foreground and a rocky range of mountains looming just behind, this is a perfect place to appreciate the diversity of Red Rocks and reflect on the varied scenery you’ve experienced in just a small sliver of the conservation area— this is just the beginning!