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    The Valley of Fire

    The Valley of Fire is a fairly compact park located about 60 miles north-east of Las Vegas along interstate 15.   Although three Nevada state parks were officially declared open on the same date in 1935, Valley of Fire state park actually opened for visitors a few months early, making it the first state park in Nevada.

    The red rocks which give the park its name are the main attraction.   The rock, mostly sandstone, was formed when huge sand dunes compacted over time, with layers of different colors being created as sand and water mixed with different minerals was moved from different places into the same final location.   The "cross bedding" of different colored rock layers in this example below is beside the road out to Fire Canyon.   The red is caused by iron oxide, better known to many as rust!   I guess you could call this the Rust Belt of the west.

    The alternating, swirling bands of color create some wildly improbably colors and patterns in the rocks.   Like all of the photos on this page with a border, you can click it to bring up a new window with the photo in computer wallpaper format.

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    This is the only place in the world I ever remember seeing purple or mauve tinted rock like this, and the alternating bands of color make it all the more fascinating.

    Although the large formations and the sweeping vistas are what immediately attract everyone's attention, there are also lots of interesting things happening on a smaller scale.

    Along with their extraordinary colors, many of the rocks have been carved by water and wind into instantly recognizable shapes, some cute and some eerie.

    Perhaps the best known formation in the park is Elephant Rock, but there are many others, such as Duck Rock and Piano Rock - there's even a rock which isn't just dog-like, it's collie-like!

    Quite a few of the rocks are guaranteed to give you the creeps, and might make you reconsider whether it's a wise move to walk around after dark.

    It's believed that the Anasazi Indians living a short distance away alongside the Colorado River made short periodic visits to the valley to hunt and perform religious ceremonies.   Perhaps it was the weirdness of the scenery which gave the valley added significance to them.

    One of the formations which has earned the name "The Beehives", for obvious reasons.

    A closeup of the type of erosion which has shaped the rocks around the Beehives.

    Many of the formations, both large and small scale, were created by water flowing around and over the soft sandstone.   These small columns and arches are on the other side of one of the large rocks shown earlier on this page.

    Arches are everywhere in the park, though they're nowhere as large as the giant bridges found in other areas of America's south-west.   This one called Arch Rock is the most famous in the park, but I spent about an hour fruitlessly looking for it before realizing it was right by the road where I'd parked my car - I was imagining something 40 or 50 feet across, but in fact it's no more than 10 or 15 feet wide.

    Still, these arches definitely add a distinctive scenic element to the park.

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    See what I meant when I said that they're all over the place?

    Balanced rocks are almost as common as the arches - this one is right beside the visitor center.

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    Here's another large balanced rock.   The black surface is caused by "desert varnish", a very slow-building chemical layer of manganese oxide on a clay base; it's thought that bacteria might also be involved in the process.

    Atlatl Rock petroglyphs   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

    There's more to do in the park than just look at rocks.

    You can find ancient Indian petroglyphs, or rock drawings, in several places, the most accessible being Atlatl Rock.   The word "atlatl" in the Nahuatl language refers to a stick, similar to many used by primitive cultures around the world, used to propel a spear further than it can normally be thrown.   In this detail from the drawings from this site, I believe that the second petroglyph from the top is an atlatl; you can see the slot at the right-hand end where the spear is fitted before being thrown.

    Petroglyphs are often carved onto rock faces coated with desert varnish, since these surfaces provide a nice contrast between the black varnish and the underlying red rock.

    The petrified trees are another bonus attraction in the park.   This one, which is part of a group of 4 or 5, is only a short distance from Atlatl Rock, but there are others in the area as well.   This shot was taken in April, when the springtime wildflowers were adding color everywhere.

    Many of the desert's insects are only active during the brief period in spring when the flowers are out; at this time there were hundreds of interesting looking caterpillars around, as well as bee flies.

    The number of flowers varies vastly from year to year, depending entirely on how much rain has fallen.   This area, along with much of the rest of the south-western United States, has been in the grip of a serious drought for the better part of 10 years, which has lowered nearby Lake Mead to a point where almost all of the boat ramps are unuseable.   There's a lot of concern, backed up by archaeological evidence, that this represents normal conditions, and that most of the 20th century was actually unusually wet.

    The cacti are one family of plants which can reliably be counted on to blossom even if the weather has been dry.

    This is a beavertail cactus, they're the most common ones in the park, together with the cholla cactus which has green flowers.

    Spring is excellent for finding flowers and insects, but it's still too cool for many of the reptiles, though you might see at least a few chuckwallas.   I was back just six weeks later at the end of May, and found many of the Valley of Fire's lizards out and about.   As well as the chuckwallas and this fascinating horned lizard, the Valley of Fire also has a fairly good population of gila monsters, one of only two poisonous lizards in the world.   Although I searched, I didn't see any of them, nor any snakes or tortoises, but I still consider my encounters with the lizards one of the best highlights of my trip.

    desert horned lizard    (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)