It took millions of years for wind and water and subterranean upheavals to create Red Rock Canyon, a part of the southern Mojave Desert near Las Vegas. A world away from the bright lights of the city and well beyond the lush moraines of the Midwest, the desert is dry and deceiving. There is life here, all around and sometimes unseen. The desert cottontail finds vegetation in rocky canyons and mesquite thickets, but you rarely see him in the day. Bighorn sheep hug the rocky terrain and the white-tailed antelope ground squirrel spreads his body on shady desert soil seeking the cool. The creosote bush efficiently gathers up any water it can find to nourish its small yellow flowers. Native Americans used the Indian paintbrush to treat rheumatism, as a hair brightener and as a food.
Red-tailed hawks, cactus wrens and the clever greater roadrunner are among the birds who rule the air here, and the coyote, kit fox and mountain lion, snakes and chuckwallas are some of the hundreds of living things that roam the rugged terrain and make the desert washes their highways. You’ll see signs for wild horses and burros crossing the roads, and you may see a few humans on bikes, a row of water bottles buldging across their backs in the 100 degree heat.
At Red Rock, the great sandstone cliffs are made up of Aztec sandstone. A Bureau of Land Management publication says they are about 100 million years old and represent lithified sand dunes that formed in a vast desert that covered large part of the Southwest during the Jurassic age. The sand slowly changed into sandstone as subsurface water percolated throughout the sediments and deposited cements of iron oxide and calcium carbonate in the pore spaces between the grains. Over thousands of years, these rocks were slowly uplifted thousands of feet and exposed to the elements and erosion. The red color of much of the Aztec sandstone is from iron oxide that “rusted” to orange, red and brown hues. In some ares you can see the older gray Paleozoic limestone resting on top of the younger sandstone, the result of compressional forces in the crust that forced the old rock up over the younger rock and helped to preserve it.
The visitor center at Red Rock is beautifully presented, environmentally friendly and contains outstanding educational exhibits. A “sure bet” the next time you visit Las Vegas.