America's City of Lights isn't known for its nature photography, but nearby areas make it worth considering for scenics and more
By Rob Sheppard
Located off of SR 159, the Scenic Drive is a 13-mile, one-way road that has a 1,000-foot elevation change. Popular areas such as the Calico Hills (or La Madre Mountains) and the Sandstone Quarry area provide special photo spots, but can become crowded. Red Rock Canyon has enough variety and trails that you can find solitude even on the free-pass days when the place is mobbed. You'll find fewer visitors when the park first opens in the morning and late in the day.
The east side of the drive, Calico Hills through the Sandstone Quarry, is mostly an afternoon and evening location, as the light doesn't hit the rocks in the early morning. Because of the convoluted nature of the rock formations in this area, there's good photography through most of the afternoon, since you can always find rock faces with strong sidelight to bring out the texture. Bring a polarizer to intensify the rock and sky color.
The west side of the drive, from the High Point Overlook to Oak Creek Canyon, offers some very rocky mountain scenes to photograph. An excellent early-morning location, you'll find streams up in the canyons with small waterfalls. The rocks are dramatic here, and again, a polarizer helps. There can be some fall color with aspens, plus there are cholla and other cactus that look dramatic with backlight. You might even spot the wild burros that roam this part of the canyon (don't feed them, though, and watch out for them on the highways).
The visitor center is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, and is the place to get the latest information on wildflowers, waterfall conditions, snow and wildlife. Traveling the Scenic Drive requires an entry fee of $5 per car (if you bike or hike, there's no charge), and the national Golden Eagle Pass is recognized.
Valley Of Fire State Park About 50 miles north of Las Vegas off of I-95 (exit 75; take SR 169 at Crystal), Valley of Fire State Park includes some of the red rock seen in Red Rock Canyon, but here the rock is twisted, eroded and altered in so many different forms that you'd swear you've entered a book by Dr. Seuss.
It's easy to become entranced by the the arches and textured faces of the rock formations seen when you first enter the area, such as those in the Atlatl Campground area or the Beehives. Don't forget your polarizer and a good pair of hiking shoes. Some of the arches are quite small, so bring a wide-angle lens and get in close (you may have to do a little scrambling over the rocks).
The Beehives are aptly named and offer some spectacular rock shapes. A popular area, photography can be difficult, particularly right by the parking area, but usually you can walk a short distance and find people-less compositions. However, it can be a real kick to see folks in a hurry jump out of their cars, stand in front of a rock formation for the requisite photo, then jump back in the car to hurtle back to the gaming tables in Las Vegas. What an odd way to appreciate our world!