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Hiking in Las Vegas: Calico Springs at Red Rock Canyon Park

The trail to Calico Spring
The trail to Calico Spring
Deb Stanley

If you look west from Las Vegas, you might spot some very red, rock formations in the foothills. Some of those rocks have been protected in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Calico Springs
Deb Stanley

The easiest way to see Red Rock Canyon NCA is the 13-mile scenic loop. It’s a loop that passes more than a dozen trailheads and several canyons. So how do you pick a hike? I decided to ask at the Visitor’s Center. The volunteer said his favorite hike was Keystone Thrust because of the geologic significance of the thrust and the far-reaching views. He said his wife’s favorite hike was Calico Springs because of the scenic canyon you hike through. I went with “scenic canyon” for my first hike.

The hike to Calico Springs (also known as Calico Tanks) starts at the Sandstone Quarry trailhead on the park map (directions below). Find a parking space and head to the north end of the parking lot, by the bathrooms. Notice a sign here calls the Calico Tanks Trail “moderate.” The park's brochure says the moderate is for people who regularly hike. That means if you don’t hike very often, this trail may seem strenuous.

Walk down the path a short distance to an open area with some large rocks – this is the old Sandstone Quarry. In 1905, the Excelsior Stone Quarry “mined,” or cut, giant blocks of sandstone here. The sandstone was shipped to Los Angeles and San Francisco for use as decorative building facades, according to a sign here. However, transporting the stone was too costly and the quarry went out of business. Other operators tried to make a go of the quarry and ran into the same problem. Stone cutting ended here in 1912.

After reading the historic sign, it’s time to pick a trail. You may notice most people turning right at the clearing – that’s because most people just climb the rocks here and leave. However, if you want to hike to the Calico Springs, you’ll need to backtrack slightly and turn left in the middle of the clearing for the Calico Tanks Trail.

Cross the wash and follow the trail signs.

About a quarter mile from the trailhead, a sign tells visitors that a circular area nearby was an Agave Roast – a place where Native Americans would cook agave. While you are welcome to take a few steps over to the pit site and see it up close, visitors are asked not to walk on the site because it is sacred to modern day Native Americans.

After this short detour, it’s back to the main trail. Eatch carefully for the next two trail signs to make sure you stay on the right trail. You’ll soon find yourself going around the backside of the Calico Rock formation and into a canyon-like area. I loved this spot back here. You’re walking in the trees, so there’s some shade. And soon you’ll find yourself doing a little a rock scrambling.

Don’t forget to look up as you hike here. You’ll have good views of Turtlehead Peak and the surrounding rock formations.

Now the hike is about to get harder. Instead of your typical hike through the sandy wash in the desert, here you’re going to be using your hands, and maybe even an occasional knee, to do some rock scrambling. If you get to a spot where you feel stuck, look for foot prints in whatever sand is available and look for rock steps cut into the rocks or created by trail workers. The rock steps will lead you in the right direction. If you get really stuck and don’t know what way to go, wait. It’s likely, if the trail is busiest enough, that someone will soon be going up or down, and have some advice for you. Even on a Tuesday afternoon in March, the trail was very busy.

As you hike up the canyon, you may start to spot water-catch areas -- low spots in the rocks/wash where water collects. While this may look like a natural water tank, you’re not there yet. You’ll need to hike the full 1.25 miles with 750 feet of elevation gain to get to what I called the “big pool.” This spot looks more like a water hole or pool than just a depression that catches water. You’ll want to climb down to the shoreline and climb up high to see the area from above. This is a neat place.

But you’re not done yet. Work your way along the shore to the right, or above it, to the rocks on the other side. The view up here is definitely worth your time! If you look closely, you’ll notice you’ve actually circled the Calico Rocks and can now see the parking lot at Calico 1 – pretty cool.

This is a great spot for lunch with a view.

When you’ve explored the area, return the way you came and enjoy the canyon from the other direction. When you get to some of the full rock scrambling areas, maybe try going a different way than you went on the way up!

Details: The hike to the big Calico Tank, the viewpoint and back is about 2.65 miles with 900 feet of elevation gain with all the ups and downs.

Get directions, current park admission prices and more information on the park's website:

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