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A Link To The Past: Valley Of Fire [Nevada]

Valley Of Fire Is Nevada's Oldest State Park And Is Home To Many Unique Rock Structures

A Goat Climbs The Red Rock Formations In Valley Of Fire [Courtesy/Travel Nevada]

A seemingly endless blue sky is interrupted by the jagged peaks of rusty red rocks of the Valley Of Fire, Nevada's oldest state park. The outcrops of red cover a pretty large expanse of the valley, which is home to many unique rock structures, some covered in rock art from well over 700 years ago. The Valley Of Fire is not only a link to the past, but a place to marvel at the present.

Sixty miles east of Las Vegas, the Valley Of Fire is a far cry from the hustle and bustle, the bright lights and loud music of the big city. But the red rocks are full of thousands of voices of a different sort: Petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings ranging from 700 to 2,500 years ago.

Valley Of Fire's Mouse Tank hiking trail is home to countless examples of rock art from the Anasazi people, the ancestors of the Hopi Native Americans in Arizona. The Moapa Valley was settled by the Anasazi people around 350 BC. By 600 AD the Anasazi, now known as the Puebloans, began building dwellings above ground using adobe and practicing farming. It was around this time that farming was introduced to the area.

Atlatl Rock is home to some rock art created by the Puebloans of that time in history, around 3,000 years ago. The petroglyphys in Atlatl Rock depict humans using an atlatl, a device used for launching a spear (a short cord would be wound around the spear so that the thrown weapon would rotate). The ancient Native Americans used the atlatl as hunting weapons, which is what the rock art demonstrates.

By around 1,000 AD Southern Paiutes moved into the Moapa Valley area. This was a group of hunter-gatherers who lived in temporary bush dwellings. It was around 1,150 AD that the Anasazi left Moapa Valley. It's believed it was possibly due to a drought. The rock carvings are believed to span over that entire period of time, although the carvings cannot be properly dated or interpreted, according to Park Ranger of 30 years Jim Hammond.

Petroglyphs On The Red Rock Formations At Valley Of Fire State Park [Courtesy/Travel Nevada]
Guide Through The Valley Of Fire In Nevada [Courtesy/Travel Nevada]
Petroglyphs On The Red Rock Formations At Valley Of Fire State Park [Courtesy/Travel Nevada]

Historians, archeologists and visitors can only guess what the carvings are depicting. Most are believed to be pictures of people hunting or partaking in religious rituals. Some are thought to be maps, historical records, directions to water and even personal marks. Still, some others believe the carvings could have no meaning, just artwork created by a bored hunter, as explained by Lost City Museum's Director Jerrie Clarke.

“In spite of the controversy and mystery surrounding the origins and true meanings,” Clarke recited, “there can be no doubt that the petroglyphs are an important link to past cultures. Through their presence, modern man has been given the gift of insight into the sensitivity and art of a truly remarkable people – people highly skilled in their understanding and adaption to a seemingly hostile and uninhabitable environment.”

While there are many examples of rock art and carvings throughout Nevada and the surrounding area, Hammond said that the Valley Of Fire is unique because of its easy accessibility, “an attractive aspect.” Trails wind through the boulders, in between the hills, letting visitors follow marked paths to the captivating, historic carvings. There are even large panels of artwork in the park's picnic area.

“One of the best panels,” noted Hammond, “is just 150 yards down the Mouse Tank trail. The rock is so black that the carvings really stand out. It's very distinct, very high contrast.”

The rock formations that make up the Valley Of Fire also set the park apart. There's Arch Rock, which was formed over many millennia by strong winds and rain slowly washing away the materials that held its sand grains together. Eventually the rock's arch will grow too large for its support and will collapse.

Beehives are a sandstone formation that “demonstrates the unique design that can be created by nature.” The grooved lines going in all different directions were formed when layers or beds of silt were deposited at different times. The beds indicate the angle of the wind or water that was moving at the time that the minerals were deposited.

Red Rock Formations At Valley Of Fire State Park In Nevada [Courtesy/Travel Nevada]

All of the unique structures have trails looping around them, offering visitors easy access to all of the breathtaking formations, another piece of the country's past. But if anyone thought that the 3,000 year old rock carvings were impressive, they'll be flabbergasted to know that the rocks themselves are over 400 million years in the making – just another way that the Valley Of Fire depicts changes and patterns throughout the area.

Because most of Nevada was covered by inland sea at the time, as the Rocky Mountains rose up, water drained away. The water receded, leaving behind the sands that became the sand dunes that formed at the park later on. The park's grey sand is limestone from the sea bottom. The red rocks formed 300 million years ago, when sands that were left behind got buried by gravel and other materials and were eventually compressed into sandstone. The red color is from rust – the conditions were “just right,” said Hammond, “for the soil to oxidize.”

It is through this extended hundreds of millions of years process that Fire Canyon was created, and it is Hammond's favorite spot in the park. In this region, forces within the earth were powerful enough to cause thousands of feet of surface rock to fold, break and even be pushed several miles from their original location, explains Hammond. Erosion wore away the top of one great fold, exposing the sharp angled layers of rock and, by extension, created numerous canyons.

“It's an outlook,” explained Hammond. “It's an overlook. You look down on top of the rock. You can see the topography from a different perspective. You also see very distinct separation from reds and the whites [because] it’s all in stripes. It jumps out. I like the stark contrasting colors.”

Over 400 million years of nature shaped and colored the Valley Of Fire, providing it with unique structures. The park inspires visitors to imagine what life was like in the harsh deserts and to touch the exact spot a hunter may have touched thousands of years ago.


Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, dedicated in 1935.

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