Calico Tanks Trail is one of the most popular hikes in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, and for good reason. The trail ventures up a canyon colored in both yellow and red sandstone. Add the gray-blue mountains to the northwest and you get some seriously vibrant views. The trail ends with two rewards, a hopefully-not-dry pond and an overlook of Las Vegas. This scenic hike is 2.5 miles round trip with 420 feet of elevation change. Most of the trail is easy, but it does have several moderate scrambles up sandstone slopes. Even if the sandstone-cradled tank at the end of the trail is dry, you should find great Las Vegas views year round.
Calico Tanks Trail starts from Sandstone Quarry Trailhead, located 2.5 miles from the start of the Scenic Drive in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Begin hiking north along the side of a gravel wash on a wide easy trail. After a tenth of a mile, come to an opening in the trail at the former site of the Excelsior Stone Quarry. The trail curves to the left and crosses the wash. To the right, you’ll find large blocks of sandstone cut into cubes and an information panel describing the quarry operations. A quarry began here in 1905 and was one of the first industries in the Las Vegas area, as the panel explains:
The giant blocks, some weighing as much as 10 tons, were quarried with channeling traction equipment. These massive blocks were loaded onto wagons and pulled with a 17-ton steam-traction engine known as the “Big Devil.” The sandstone was then shipped by rail to markets in San Francisco and Los Angeles for use as decorative building facades. The sandstone was of high quality, but production was expensive and unprofitable. With the discovery of similar sandstone deposits closer to the railway, the Excelsior Stone Quarry shut down in 1906. Later that same year, other operators reopened the quarry, but even with better equipment, the operation still proved to be uneconomical. In 1912, cutting at the quarry stopped forever.
Continue across the wash. On the other side, the trail curves to the right and proceeds north to a junction, 0.2 miles from the start. Bear right to stay on Calico Tanks Trail. Turtlehead Peak Trail goes to the left, approaching a steep ascent to a pointed summit. Looking at the color of Turtlehead Peak compared to the sandstone closer to the trail offers a glimpse of the area’s unique geology, as a panel explains:
In Red Rock Canyon, the ancient gray rock of La Madre Mountain and Turtlehead Peak rise high above the younger stone of the colorful Calico Hills. Younger rock layers are usually found above older ones, but in Red Rock Canyon the order is reversed by faulting. Approximately 65 million years ago, a vast series of thrust faults developed that built mountains throughout western North America. Here in Red Rock Canyon, the older gray limestone and dolostone rocks were dramatically thrust over the younger tan and red sandstone. This process formed one of the most spectacularly and easily identifiable thrust faults in the world: The Keystone Thrust.
Pass a sign on the left for an agave roasting pit, located just above the trail, where Native Americans baked foods. Keep hiking and a trail sign will direct you to the right toward a gap between formations of yellow sandstone. Drop into the gravel wash and walk up between the sandstone creations. Admire the interesting pockets and lines in the rocks that border this narrow wash.
As the terrain widens again, at the far side of the gap, follow a trail sign to turn right. Leave the gravel wash, 0.4 miles from the start of the hike, pass through canyon live oaks, and head southeast up the sandy bottom of a canyon. Pass a cairn village where rock piles are stacked on a ridge of sandstone along the left side of the trail.
Are your eyes playing tricks on you or did the sandstone suddenly transition from tan to red? The left side of the canyon becomes a rich red-orange red while the right side remains tan. As you continue up the trail, the color of the terrain goes back and forth between the two shades of sandstone. The result is a vibrant and varied landscape that’s a scenic alley for hikers. Iron oxide in the Aztec sandstone accounts for the rusty red color.
Proceed up the bottom of the canyon on a trail that splits at times, leaving you to pick between parallel routes. Follow helpful markers and hike up the canyon to a point where boulders have fallen over the bottom of the canyon. To get around this obstacle, it is easiest to go up the slope to the left to resume hiking up the canyon. Look up the steep ridge to your left to see a large rock with a shape like a fish. If you scan the sandstone surrounding the trail with an active imagination, you’ll spot plenty of interesting forms.
Push forward up the trail, which becomes more rugged. You may pass a couple small pools of water along the trail. If these tanks (tinajas), hold water than the big water catchment basin at the end of the trail should be nice and full.
After 3/4 of a mile, your progress up the bottom of the canyon will be halted by larger boulders and drops in the canyon floor. To assist with this obstacle, take a stone staircase on the left that has been built into a grove in the rocks. Go up these steps and turn right along a landing of red sandstone slickrock. This is an excellent spot to pause and look down the canyon toward the mountains beyond. The ground around you is red-orange. Farther down, the sandstone is tan, and beyond that, the mountains are slate gray. Add some green trees and brush and you have one colorful landscape!
Avoid the narrow canyon bottom for the next stretch of the hike. Follow the trail up a slope on the right. Steps have been built on this part of the trail too, which may be the most tiresome section of the hike.
Get higher up this canyon in the Calico Hills and the trail becomes clearer to follow. Admire the two-tone sandstone bordering the trail and don’t forget to look back down the canyon for awesome views. The trail finally comes over a rise and you will see the pond ahead of you at the end of the trail. It looks out of place, but this is no mirage – a wide shallow pool in a basin cradled by the sandstone formations. The tinaja is bigger than you would expect given the scarcity of water in the desert, but it can run dry in summer and fall. Water levels are seasonal and vary based on rain and snow fall.
The trail basically ends here, about 1.2 miles from the start, but you have a couple options to continue. Walk down to the water’s edge or head to the right along a rock slope above the pond to a ledge on the far side. Make you way out to this area and you will discover that the terrain drops away to the southeast, giving way to panoramic views east toward Las Vegas. The city can be seen clearly enough to identify the Stratosphere and casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. This view is a great bonus for those who don’t turn around too soon.
The big tinaja at the end of Calico Tanks Trail really stands out. This water must be a vital resource for local wildlife. Other tanks are hidden in the rocks that frame the canyon. In the summer (when temperatures are inhospitable for hiking) and the fall, the tinajas may be dry, but hopefully you will discover plenty of water.
Have a seat by the water’s edge or on a rock ledge overlooking Las Vegas. The double destination on Calico Tanks Trail is a two-pronged thrill. When you are ready to go, venture back the way you came. The hike down is full of picturesque views over a canyon of contrasting colors.
Dogs are welcome on leashes on all trails in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, but Calico Tanks Trail is not suitable for all dogs. No permit is required to hike Calico Tanks Trail. An entrance fee is charged at the beginning of the Scenic Drive used to access the trailhead. Toilets area located at Sandstone Quarry Trailhead and at various points along Scenic Drive.
To get to the trailhead: From Las Vegas, take Interstate 15 to exit 42 and follow Route 95 west for 5 miles (heading toward Reno). Take exit 81A for Summerlin Parkway and drive 6.5 miles, using a ramp on the right to get on Clack County Route 215 South. Drive 2.2 miles, taking exit 26 to reach an intersection with Route 159 (Charleston Boulevard). Turn right and drive 5.2 miles to the start of Scenic Drive in Red Rock Canyon. Turn right, pay the entrance fee, and drive 2.5 miles up the road (passing the visitor center and Calico Hills Overlook 1 and 2) to a turnoff on the right for Sandstone Quarry Trailhead. The hike begins from the far end of the lot.
Trailhead address: Scenic Drive, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Las Vegas, NV 89161
Trailhead coordinates: 36.1624, -115.45035 (36° 09′ 44.63″N 115° 27′ 01.26″W)
|Calico I and Calico II|
This hike of 0.8 to 2.75 miles or more explores dramatically shaped and colored sandstone formations in the Calico Hills near the start of Scenic Drive.
|Lost Creek Canyon|
This short hike visits Lost Creek Waterfall, a seasonal waterfall in a steep canyon above Red Rock Wash.
|Willow Springs Loop|
This 1 to 1 1/3-mile circuit travels along Red Rock Wash, exploring desert landscapes, Native American rock art, and potentially a seasonal waterfall.
|Red Spring Boardwalk|
This easy 0.55-mile nature trail circles a meadow at the base of the Calico Hills and visits a small but relied upon spring.
|Hikes in Nevada|
Explore more trails in Nevada and the picturesque parks around Las Vegas.
|Red Rock Canyon Campground|
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area has one developed campground with 72 sites that have shade ramadas, picnic tables, fire rings, barbecue grills, drinking water spigots, and vault toilets.
|Atlatl Rock Campground and Arch Rock Campground|
Valley of Fire State Park has great places to camp surrounded by formations of red sandstone.