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Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Vista Las Vegas

America's City of Lights isn't known for its nature photography, but nearby areas make it worth considering for scenics and more

The main drive into the park north of the visitor center is incredible. You almost have to go through it twice—once in awe of what you're seeing and the second time to photograph. The road goes high and low, and accesses a whole range of landscapes, from intimate canyons to expansive scenes that head off toward Arizona. You'll find various colors of rock and some sand dunes.

The area at the north end heading toward the White Domes and around the Gibraltar Rock offer spectacular late-light and sunset scenics. There's a parking area near the huge rock formation that reminded someone of the real Gibraltar Rock. From there, you can see almost 360 degrees for an amazing variety of rock landscapes. A longish lens is helpful, especially a telephoto zoom. As the sun sets, this landscape changes rapidly, making a zoom lens a real benefit to keep up with all the changing compositions.

Day fees are $6 per car. Visitor center hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There are east and west entrances on SR 169.

Lake Mead Recreation Area
If you enjoy solitude and wilderness, you'll fall in love with the lesser-known Lake Mead Recreation Area along SR 169 from Overton to North Las Vegas or Henderson. This area is open 24 hours a day, every day, so you never have a problem finding an ideal sunrise or sunset location—and all of it's easily within an hour of the Strip.

Most people who think of the Lake Mead Recreation Area (National Park Service) think about the reservoir itself—the Hoover Dam at its base is an astounding feat of engineering—but the lake and dam aren't seen on the SR 169 route. It's the extraordinary landscapes along the route that are the attraction for me. These are so little known that there are never crowds, yet you can find rock, desert and mountain landscapes as dramatic as you'll find anywhere.

The drive is eye-opening as you head east from North Las Vegas on Lake Mead Boulevard and travel through growing developments until you go through a "pass" of sorts between some rocky hills, and all houses stop. Enter the Mojave Desert and everything changes. You reach the entry gate, pay a day fee of $3 per car for five days of visits, and continue on to SR 169.

At that junction is where the drama really begins. As you drive northeast, you'll begin to see compositions unfolding constantly around you. Look to the north and west of the road and you'll see Nevada's Muddy Mountains. I always thought that was an odd name for mountains until I saw them. They look like a giant put a thick layer of mud over rocks, then over the years, the mud began to break off, revealing the rocks underneath, but still holding the "rounded mud" everywhere else. With the right light and a telephoto lens, you can show off these unique geologic structures.

You'll drive through a whole range of scenery, from desert washes to rounded black cinder hills. For me, the most spectacular section is from the Callville Bay road turnoff to the Redstone Picnic area. There are multiple overlooks all along the way, each one showing different views of the mountains with the rolling shapes and eroded forms of the badlands-like desert landscape nearby. Trails lead into some attractive photo spots, and you don't have to go far to reach them.

The Redstone Picnic area is one of those terrific places that you could spend days at photographing and not duplicate anything. The red rocks surrounding the parking lot are of the same stuff seen in Valley of Fire and Red Rock Canyon. Here, though, there are rarely crowds and you're free to move throughout the area. There are hundreds of little arches and unique rock formations, but they're easy to miss among the big rock forms that are also there.


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