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ADV NewsA Ride Through Nevada’s Vast Red Rock Landscapes

A Ride Through Nevada’s Vast Red Rock Landscapes

A geologic theme park of red rock formations just waiting to be discovered.

Published on 02.03.2021

Planning an adventure ride and executing one are often two very different things. Poring over maps in the controlled environment of one’s home leads to possibilities that may or may not line up with reality once you step out your door. Real-world, plan-altering, variables can arise involving new discoveries, road conditions, weather, area closures, mechanical issues, or having the campsite beer fall off one of the bikes causing a 40-minute delay while someone has to backtrack, at night, to go look for it in the desert (purely a hypothetical example). If there is a secret to working out ideal adventure travel plans, it’s many times perhaps as simple as being open to whatever comes, as being exactly the thing you’re supposed to be doing.

As the lights of Primm, Nevada started to shine through the growing darkness from over 10 miles away in the distance, our intended campsite for the evening was still well over 50 miles away. Between us and it, was some of  the most technical riding this entire route would see. Our adventure began. Fortunately, our adventure ended less than seven miles later when common sense took over and we decided to stop and camp.

We were camping directly along the LA-Barstow to Vegas route, and the Dual Sport Ride/race would begin its second day in nearby Barstow the following morning, so common sense is perhaps relative. As long as we got an early start, we figured we would be ahead of the race. Some plans work, some mostly work. This was the latter.

Given we’d pitched camp that first night, at night, we really didn’t have a precise read on the surrounding environment. It was sandy for sure, which made perfect sense as the next nearest anything was called “Sandy Valley.” As is almost always the case anywhere in the desert, we woke to a stunning sunrise turning the surrounding mountains into a wildfire of colors. Some low sand dunes nearby were also revealed by the morning light. A happy accident, some trails and paths through these dunes proved to be both scenic and fun to ride. 

Helinox Swivel camping chair


While 410cc’s of under-stressed motor pumping out 24 horsepower doesn’t sound like the kind of machine one would want to rally in the dunes, the Himalayan does surprisingly well. Regardless of weather, terrain, short days, or marathon runs in the saddle, the Royal Enfield sort of pitter-patters to life when you thumb the starter instead of roaring. It always gets you to the destination, just doesn’t race you there. This morning’s traipse over these low dunes was a very welcome warm-up ride, as the cold morning was underscored by any hydration packs which were left outside the tents being frozen solid.

LAB2V’s Hard Route on Loaded ADV Bikes

The LA-Barstow to Vegas route is quite diverse. Sections around Sandy Valley, are of course, sandy. A well-graded wide dirt road escorts riders a few miles out of the community, where the route makes a sharp right turn off the road, and on to a more narrow two-track. This two-track never quite erodes into proper single track, however it does become extremely rugged. Deep sandy sections eventually start adding large rocks into the mix, sometimes on steep climbs and descents. In spite of technical riding conditions keeping you on your toes, the scenery begs to be noticed. Like a geological theme park, shapes and colors envelop anyone traveling through this region, and increase in frequency and intensity the closer one gets to the Red Rock Canyon area.

Eventually we reached the area originally intended to be our campsite for the first night. Little pullouts off of a paved road running along the top of a high mesa made for good spots to pitch a tent, but we pretty much scored by camping where we had the previous night. Unintentional changes in plan can often work out for the better when one goes with the flow. The flow, however, became extremely rough, shortly past these skipped camping options. 

Less than five miles before reaching the main area of Red Rock Canyon, the roughest section of the LA-Barstow to Vegas course looms in the form of what looks more like a boulder field than passable route. Known as the ‘Rock Garden,’ this short stretch of metal munching boulders on Rocky Gap (a.k.a. Potato Ridge) Road is the final gauntlet that must be passed before reaching Vegas, and has defeated the hopes of many riders on lightweight dual sport machines.

This was where the leading riders of the LAB2V started catching us, as we leapt and bashed our fully-loaded bikes through this section. While I was busy turning the Himalayan’s skidplate into an art piece, a SXS was stuck, and blocking another rider’s path behind me. A fortunate race traffic snarl which offered just enough pause to get the Royal Enfield undone from the rocks and out of the way. 

After clearing this section, the fact it was navigated on a fully-packed, arguably under-powered bike which costs less than five grand sank in. Aside from the thin bashplate intertwining itself with the boulders, the Himalayan likes to hide its capabilities most of the time, yet seems to behave equally well whether puttering along a paved route, or bouncing through the most belligerent section of the LAB2V course.

Struggling through the brief technical section of the course is immediately rewarded by a smooth dirt road, descending towards Red Rock, with deep vistas along the entire length. Reaching asphalt at the Red Rock Canyon Scenic Loop is a marker for LAB2V riders that they’ve made it through the grueling two-day journey and just need to complete the last few miles to the finish line on the Vegas strip. Tourist traffic through here is heavy, and with good reason. Cars, cyclists, hikers, and climbers are drawn to the area’s unique and dramatic geology. The 13-mile paved drive through the conservation area is slow-going, as seemingly endless photo ops are scattered throughout.

Riding in the Footsteps of the Pioneers

A short transition on the highway around busy Las Vegas and we were back on dirt again, just as dusk began to fall. Mormon Well road holds what is perhaps one of the biggest, and most interesting contrasts in this part of the desert. After pitching camp under a staggeringly full moon, a massive wash could be seen in the gray light. Following the path of that wash and looking to where it points in the distance, reveals the lights of Las Vegas, almost appearing to illuminate the nearly 10,000-foot peaks to our north. Aside from the graded road itself, and a couple marker poles here and there, no evidence of anything other than natural environmental changes could be seen where we were. In the distance, arguably one of the most bizarre places on earth spends the entire night announcing its presence to this corner of the world.

Different portions of the desert have their own personalities. One could assign character traits in some cases. Sections of the LA-Barstow to Vegas course sure seem angry at something. In the case of the area spanning Mormon Well all the way to Moapa Valley, the diverse landscapes provide a measured consideration of how uniquely tranquil the environment is. Like listening to the stories of a weathered old traveler. Temperatures drop significantly as pine trees increase in frequency, and just as quickly, things warm up as a mountain road straightens to reveal unobstructed views of yet another massive valley.

Warm Spring Oasis

Literally an oasis in the desert, the Warm Springs Natural Area in Moapa Valley stands in stark contrast to the surrounding environment. Its name stems from the 90-degree spring water that flows through the area. Small creeks, fast-flowing rivers, and various pools can be found both in the Natural Area and nearby RV campground. These warm waters are home to no less than eight species of fish which occur nowhere else on earth, the most prominent being the Moapa Dace. Populations of the Dace were waning, and dropped to a peak low of 459 in 2008. Conservation efforts have since increased this population over fourfold, with a goal of reaching 6,000 adult fish.

The idea of camping at a “recreation area,” can bring up thoughts of crowds, docks, supply shops, and just general infrastructure. Just 24 miles from the fray of Las Vegas, Lake Mead has all these things, yet is so massive, empty landscapes and solitude are easily found. Formed by the Hoover Dam in 1935, Lake Mead holds more water than any other reservoir in the United States, and it’s 112 miles long. If you want to find a remote spot to camp, just keep riding until you do. A still-full moon illuminated the bluff where we were pitching camp overlooking the water. Thickening darkness revealed a glowing silver ring outlining the shoreline below our campsite, and highlighted the value of this place. Clearly more than just a body of water, this lake is directly connected to the livelihoods of roughly 20 million people in both the United States and Mexico.

Exploring The Valley of Fire

Our loop offers the impression it saved the best for last. Between our campsite at Lake Mead, and Las Vegas, lies Valley of Fire State Park. 40,000 acres of brilliant sandstone formations curve and jut out of the earth in all directions as one rolls through the park. The variety of smooth, jagged, jumbled, and structured features can be taken in from both paved routes and numerous hiking trails. Prehistoric petroglyphs can be found in plain sight in certain areas of the park, including Atlatl Rock, which depicts use of a notched stick (atlatl) to throw spears – a technique which predates the bow and arrow. 225-million-year-old petrified logs can be found at either end of the park. Relatively modern events have given rise to naming some features as well. “Mouse’s Tank” is a natural rainwater basin which was used as a hideout by an outlaw in the 1890s. The short hike through the canyon to visit this feature takes one past more of the park’s prehistoric petroglyphs. 

Our ride out of the Valley of Fire eventually meets up with Old Spanish Trail, shortly before the 15 freeway. At this spot, the two routes parallel each other for a short distance. The contrast of a multi-lane superhighway less than five miles from a still-unpaved path used by the original explorers of this area underscores the rich history of the desert. 

After emerging from the thick and undisturbed collection of natural wonders in Valley of Fire State Park, in less than 30 miles we would be passing through a thick representation of the modern world, Las Vegas. Recent monuments in the form of high-rise casinos littering a buzzing city can overshadow the prehistory which surrounds the place, yet that history still stands, and has for millennia. Scope doesn’t portent permanence. If the sun is still flickering several millennia from now, what it will light up in this desert may look very different in some cases. In others, travelers though here will still likely pitch their tents in empty valleys, to views of light from a city they can’t feel or hear.

Photos by Stephen Gregory and Rob Dabney

Author: Jon Beck

Jon Beck is fulfilling a dream of never figuring out what to be when he grows up. Racing mountain bikes, competitive surfing, and touring as a musician are somehow part of what led Jon to travel through over 40 countries so far as an adventure motorcycle photographer, journalist, and guide. From precision riding for cameras in Hollywood, to refilling a fountain pen for travel stories, Jon brings a rare blend of experience to the table. While he seems happiest when lost in a desert someplace, deadlines are met most of the time.

Author: Jon Beck

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