I have always considered myself an avid outdoors woman. My childhood best friend and I would hike the Columbia River Gorge, camp on Mt. Hood in the midst of a continuous mist, canoe the mirrored surfaces of Lost Lake, and spelunk through the ancient lava tunnels of Mt. St. Helens. But I have never explored a landscape such as the Nevada desert before.
The textbook image of a desert does not apply here. As children, we learn about the desert as a vast, lifeless sandy expanse, full of sandstorms and camels (when we learn about Egypt) or cactus, ghost towns, and white-hat cowboys shooting at hostile Indians (when we watch the old westerns). Neither of these stories is exactly accurate. Without addressing the problems that lay within how our culture has historically depicted the West, especially as regards native peoples, let me paint for you the story of the desert I encountered in the Lake Mead Recreation Area and the Valley of Fire State Park.
We started our day of exploration in the Lake Mead Recreation Area, guided by none other than an actual park ranger, a friend from my college days. Our first glimpse of the landscape was of Lake Mead itself from the hills of Boulder City. An intense blue lake, seemingly dropped out of nowhere into the mountain basin of the rocky desert. Lake Mead is entirely artificial, a reservoir on the Colorado River created by the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1935. It is beautiful, despite its man-made origins. The lake is nestled into mountains so devoid of plant life, you can read their turbulent geological story in the clearly striped layers of rock, bent and buckled upon each other in various shades of white, red, gray, and brown.
Around the rim of the mountain basin, like soap scum in a bathtub, is a dazzling white layer, several feet above the water line. This is a striking visual of just how much water Lake Mead has lost in the last few years. The lake’s water level has dropped at least 15 feet in just the last five months and the reservoir is currently at only 40% of its capacity, the lowest it has been since 1937. It’s a reminder of how seriously parched the West has become. Lake Mead serves as the source of drinking water for Las Vegas, yet the water levels are so chronically low and falling, that one of the intake water pipes carrying water to Las Vegas may need to be moved within the next couple years, as it will become high and dry.
As we continued to drive along Northshore Road through the desert, we came across unexpected discoveries. Completely dry river canyons, shaped by the abrupt flash floods that mold the desert during intense thunderstorms. Sheer ridges of mountains, rising out of the flat expanse, evidence of shifting plates crashing into each other with violent force. A shocking panorama of red, like flames licking at the desert sky, in the isolated piles of red sandstone or the Bowl of Fire, fenced in by a line of mud brown mountains. Our friend Megan showed us the amazing signs of life within the desert landscape, including “living soil”, which holds down the soil of the desert. This living soil is made up of thousands of microscopic living organisms, including cyanobacteria (popularly known as blue-green algae), lichens, moss, bacteria, and fungi, which are critical to the ecosystem of the desert, preventing erosion and retaining precious water. Combined with the specialized spindly shrubs and nocturnal mammals of the desert, this soil is proof of the diverse life that rules what we often see as an inhospitable terrain. A single footprint can damage this living crust, so tread carefully. While the same hue as the desert floor, living soil will look more textured and bumpy, often clustered amidst the crooks and crannies of rocks and plant roots.
Another surprise lay in the hot springs that pour out in the middle of the desert, creating an oasis of greenery and life. We watched, almost hypnotized by the sheer impossibility of it, the clear shallow water spilling from its pool down a broad staircase of stone to the desert floor below, nurturing a vast array of greenery along its path.
The highlight of the desert came when we entered the Valley of Fire State Park. Only 55 miles from Las Vegas, and conveniently located on the road from Lake Mead to the city, this is a park no one with a love for the outdoors should miss. We were greeted to the Valley of Fire by a blazing array of red sandstone rock formations. The name of the park is a perfect fit. I could almost image a vast fire, leaping across the desert, licking at everything in its path.
The red sandstone formations are spectacular. No amount of words I write will ever fully capture their spirit and ingenuity. Some crash into each other, locked in an eternal struggle of wills. Others nestle and cuddle, softened by the forces of time and wisdom. A few even seem youthful, with their jubilant and inventive formations, as if possessed of a story that must be told. We ate lunch at the Seven Sisters, a rock formation named after a Native American legend of how the seven stars of the Big Dipper were formed. In the shade of this monumental family, we munched on our sandwiches and laughed at the frenzied ground squirrels that darted among our feet, intent on errands known only to them. The rocks begged to be climbed, so we scrambled up to perfectly sculpted perches to take in the expanse of desert laid out before us. The winds whispered, ageless and wise, the stories of peoples and events long past.
We culminated our exploration of the Valley of Fire with a short hike to Mouse’s Tank, named after a fugitive who hid out here in the 1890s. This is a dramatic hike through a sandy valley, which looks like it might be a conduit of rushing waters in periods of heavy rain. Our feet slipping into the soft red sand and stepping over smoothly sculpted stones, we softly tread an ancient path beneath towering walls of red sandstone. On the patches of black veneer on the walls, called desert varnish, we read the remnants of long-ago people – petroglyphs carved into the rock. Figures of people, animals, stars, geometric figures, and a sun, thousands of years old and written by a people with a name that has been lost to us. I stood beneath their stories, forced myself to be still, and listened across the years to their wisdom. So much has been lost, but what still remains demands telling, it you only allow yourself to listen.
A note of caution: When exploring the desert, be sure to have a full tank of gas, a map, and a full water bottle with you at all times, as well as more bottled water in your vehicle. This is the desert, so wandering of roads or marked trails without a vast amount of experience is a bad idea. Also be aware of seasonal differences. In the summer, temperatures at mid-day can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so hike in the cool of morning. The most comfortable times to hike the Nevada desert are spring and fall. In October, we encountered temperatures in the 80s. Be sure to bring sunglasses and tons of sunscreen.