Icebox Canyon Trail: Chillin’ Near Las Vegas

by Tom Garrison

Mouth of Ice Box Canyon Trail, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area – September 2017. Photo by Tom Garrison

Nevada beckons. My wife Deb and I decided to explore Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (RRCNCA) near Las Vegas. Our specific destination is Icebox Canyon Trail—a popular hike in one of our favorite environments, a deep narrow canyon. It has the added benefit of being 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the surrounding area due to the microclimate created by lack of full sunshine in the steep ravine—chillin’.

The 197,349 acre RRCNCA, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, was created in 1990. It is located 16 miles west of the Las Vegas strip and visited by more than two million visitors per year. The area features large red sandstone formations formed along a fault zone, the Keystone Thrust. The highest peak, La Madre Mountain is more than 8,000 feet. Heavily eroded cliffs and ravines of grey, white, and red sandstone abound. Wild burros are a familiar sight, along with rabbits and squirrels in this part of the Mojave Desert. At higher elevations, bighorn sheep are occasionally seen. While we did not see any wild burros or bighorn sheep, we did come upon lizards, squirrels, several colorful butterflies, and some tiny frogs near or in pools of water.

We began this venture in mid-September by heading south on Interstate 15. It is approximately a two hour drive from our home in St. George to Las Vegas. In Vegas, we took exit 41 onto Charleston Boulevard heading west. After 12 miles, Charleston Boulevard becomes Highway 159/Blue Diamond Road and climbs into the foothills. Four more miles got us to the RRCNCA entrance station and the nearby visitor center.

The standard fee per vehicle is $7. We have an American the Beautiful Senior Pass, pay $10 once (it is now a one-time $80 fee) and you can enter any national park and many BLM managed areas forever for no additional fee. For all the outdoor-loving younger folks reading this, reaching 62 does have benefits.

Scenic Drive is a paved 13 mile one-way road winding through the entire RRCNCA leading to most of the trailheads. Enjoy this road, particularly the first three miles past the red Calico Hills, since you must take it to the trailhead. After traveling 7.6 miles on Scenic Drive from the entrance station we reached the clearly signed Icebox Canyon trailhead. There is plenty of parking on both sides of the road.

The series of falls at the end of Ice Box Canyon Trail, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area – September 2017 Photo by Tom Garrison

At 8:30 am under clear blue sky our adventure began. The trailhead elevation is 4,215 feet and the temperature was about 80 degrees. Icebox Canyon lived up to its name, the temperature in the canyon was in the low 70s. Icebox Canyon, along with a few other canyons, cuts into the east face of the Spring Mountains. There are some up and down sections along the trail, but overall it is a steady elevation gain, approximately 530 feet, from the trailhead to the last waterfall.

The hike is officially listed (according to the trailhead sign) at five miles round trip, my Backtracker gadget indicated Deb and I trekked about 4.5 miles including trips up both side canyons—close enough.

The first .7 mile of the hike on the well-defined trail crosses the wide Red Rock Wash and then open flats. After the wash, the trail slowly gains elevation across the rocky slopes leading to the canyon mouth. Prior to the canyon mouth, the trail is littered with softball to watermelon sized rocks, in the canyon the obstacles were monster boulders.

The path then drops into Icebox Canyon Wash and follows the boulder filled streambed. Soon the white, brown, and black canyon walls rose abruptly while we scrambled over and around huge boulders and small dry falls, nothing too difficult, but there were many. Seasonal streams forming transient waterfalls leave pools which help sustain a variety of trees and bushes in the canyon along with a population of tiny frogs.

At approximately two miles in we came to a junction. We first explored the south fork via a water-polished slick rock slope that ended below a 150 feet high series of waterfalls. The gray lower rock face is topped by a brilliant yellow-gold alcove. The falls are often dry, but due to recent precipitation, a small stream of water tumbled down to a large bottom pool—very photogenic.

The north fork slopes up to the base of a smaller but still unclimbable waterfall. Returning down the canyon to the trailhead offered expansive views to the east of multihued Red Rock Canyon.

On most of our hikes it is rare to meet, at most, a small number of other explorers—we are often on trails for a few hours encountering no one. This adventure was one of the exceptions. We were two among six hikers on the way in, on the return to the trailhead we passed at least 20 people starting late and hiking in.

Icebox Canyon is a delight—not too long, and moderately strenuous due to the rocky trail, a lot of boulder scrambling, and the 530 feet elevation gain. We spent a little more than 2 ½ hours on the hike.

For those tired of losing money or wishing to celebrate winning in the nearby Vegas casinos, the RRCNCA, and especially Icebox Canyon Trail, is a welcome break. Nothing quite invigorates as a nature hike—the world is out there, check it out.

An avid hiker for more than 25 years, Tom’s latest book, Hiking Southwest Utah and Adjacent Areas, Volume Two was (September 2016) awarded 2nd place in the non-fiction category of the League of Utah Writers published book contest. It is available at Amazon.com and the Desert Rat outdoor store in St. George. He can be reached at: tomgarrison98@yahoo.com

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