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Nevada

Valley of Fire - Elephant Rock

The late afternoon sun casts a strange light that mutates the Valley of Fire’s sandstone cliffs and boulders. Rocks that earlier in the day were benign oranges and browns gradually assume deeper, more dramatic shades. Angry and red.

The sun also molds the rock into new shapes. Sandstone that an hour before seemed to be nothing more than pitted rock becomes a hauntingly expressive canvas filled with long shadows, curved surfaces and hidden places.

The changes continue. A giant rock arch becomes a massive elephant. A sandstone bowl formed by rain becomes a bottomless pit and a perfect hiding place for a renegade Indian. Stone towers along the road are transformed into huge icons resembling nothing less than the colossus of Stonehenge.

At this time of day, it is easy to see why the Valley of Fire was made Nevada’s first state park more than 50 years ago. The park, about 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas via Interstate 15 and State Route 40, is truly one of the most unique of Nevada’s desert locations.

Scientists say the special sandstone qualities found in the area were formed from great shifting sand dunes found more than 150 million years ago. The region was subject to intense land movements and uplifting that helped create the present topography. Others prefer to believe that nature, acting like some celestial Rodin, used the wind and rain to carve the sandstone into a variety of shapes that, like quality art, is best viewed in the correct light and under ideal circumstances.

Man has long been fascinated by the area. Fossils and other archeological evidence indicates that many prehistoric people were attracted to the valley. The earliest inhabitants included the Basketmaker people and the Anasazi Indians, who lived in the nearby Moapa Valley from about 8,000 B.C. until about 1100 A.D., when they mysteriously disappeared.

In fact, one of the park’s best attractions is the excellent collection of petroglyphs, prehistoric Indian rock writings that can be found on the valley walls. An interpretive trail begins north of the park visitors center and leads a half-mile through the best petroglyphs in the park.

The trail ends at a place called “Mouse’s Tank,” named for a turn-of-the-century renegade Indian who used the area as a hideout and utilized the natural catch basin as one of his water supplies.

The visitors center (open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) is a good place to begin your tour. The center offers exhibits about the geology and animal life of the region, including the rare and protected desert tortoise, as well as a gift shop to stock up on postcards, books and film.

Because of its location, the Valley of Fire is one of the best places in the state to watch wildflowers bloom. In late March and early April, depending on rainfall, the park roads offer good places to spot the springtime blooms of desert marigold, indigobush and desert mallow.

There are plenty of places to explore in the park. Near the entrance from State Route 169 are the Cabins, which were native sandstone structures built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The buildings are now a picnic area.

Additionally, a popular sit is the Seven Sisters — seven huge sandstone towers that also serve as a picnic area with interpretive trails through a forest of petrified logs and stumps that date more than 200 million years in age. The park also has several interesting landmarks, including the Beehives, which were round sandstone formations that resemble their namesakes, and the White Domes.

At Rainbow Vista and Fire Canyon, both north of the visitor center via a paved road and a short hike, visitors will find two excellent sites from which to photograph the park.

RVers will find that Valley of Fire has two campgrounds (both just off the main road, west of the visitors center) with 38 campsites. The sites are equipped with shaded tables, BBQ grills, water, showers and restrooms. There is also a recreational vehicle dump station near the campgrounds.

About 15 miles north of Valley of Fire on State Route 169 is the community of Overton, home of the “Lost City Museum.” The museum, open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. year-around except major holidays (admission $3), is a storehouse of artifacts and history about the mysterious Anasazi or “Ancient Ones.” These native people developed a major civilization that stretched the length of a valley bordered by Warm Springs and the Virgin River in Southern Nevada.

History indicates that the Anasazi suddenly vanished — some speculate they were driven from the valley because of drought, famine or disease — about 800 years ago, perhaps migrating to another area.

The museum is located on one of the Anasazi village sites. On the grounds, you can find several Pueblo-type structures, made of wattle and daub (straw and clay), that have been reconstructed on the original foundations.

Inside, you’ll see hundreds of rare arrowheads, baskets, atlatl (or throwing spears), skins and pottery. Additionally, one wing of the museum includes a recreation of an ancient Pueblo Indian village site.

The Anasazi's village is also called “Pueblo Grande de Nevada,” because of its size, or “The Lost City,” because no one knows why it was abandoned. Many of the artifacts in the museum were collected during excavations of the area in the late 1930s, when Lake Mead was filling up with the waters held by Hoover Dam. Since then, additional excavations on the banks of the lake have continued to yield new information about these people.

The Lost City has provided valuable information about the Anasazi’s transition from a nomadic desert tribe, before the time of Christ, to a more sophisticated society that built permanent settlements and planted crops.

Displays in the museum illustrate the history of the Anasazi. For instance, the earliest residents, called the “Basketmakers,” generally lived in open areas or natural shelters and created fine woven baskets from the local willows and yucca plants. Their diet consisted of plants and hunted game, like deer and rabbits, which were killed using an atlatl.

Later, in a time called the Late Basketmaker period, the people adopted the ways of surrounding cultures and begin using a bow and arrow, planting crops and building pithouses in the valley.

That was followed by the Pueblo period, during which the people began living in above ground buildings with underground storage units. It was during this time, that the Indians began producing painted pottery and developed a social structure, religious practices and trade.

You can also find fine examples of petroglyphs — or Indian rock writing carved into the rocks throughout the Lost City area — that date to this period. In 1150 A.D., the Puebloans mysteriously departed and the area eventually became home for the early Paiutes, whose descendants still remain in the state.

In addition to displays about the Anasazi, the museum also contains exhibits detailing the earliest white settlers in the area, starting with the Mormon farmers who began cultivating the land there in the 1860s.

Written by Rich Moreno

Backgrounder

Climate

Winters are mild with temperatures ranging from freezing to 75 degrees (24 degrees Celsius). Daily summer highs usually exceed 100 degrees F (40 C), and may reach 120 degrees F (49 C).
Summer temperatures can vary widely from day to night.
Average annual rainfall is four inches, coming in the form of light winter showers and summer thunderstorms.
Spring and fall are the preferred seasons for visiting the Valley of Fire.
Snow rarely falls at Valley of Fire as shown in this picture.

Wearing a hat is important during summer.

Entrance Fee & Visitor Information

An entrance fee is charged to enter the park, with additional fee for camping. Current fees are posted at the park entrance - visit also the official park website, see link further below.

The visitor center provides exhibits on the geology, ecology, prehistory, and history of the park and the nearby region. It is strongly recommended that each visitor make this an early stop after entering the park. Postcards, books, and film are on sale for your convenience. Open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Nevada State Park Information

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Source: Nevada State Parks; photo: Nevada Commission on Tourism; magazineUSA.com;
Last modified: 20070904
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