My day in stunning Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas during Super Bowl LVIII

Valley of Fire State Park

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, taken by the author on Sunday, February 11

While the eyes of the U.S. were obsessively focused on Sunday upon a certain football game (and pop singer) in Las Vegas, I chose a different course. The dog and I drove 50 miles north to Valley of Fire State Park. The 70-square-mile preserve sports breathtaking scenery and, just as significantly thanks to surrounding mountains, no cell phone service and an eerie quiet broken only by wind gusts and the occasional call of a bird.

Blessed by a sunny day with temperatures in the mid-50s, we wandered around dramatically bright red Aztec sandstone, sand dunes, limestone formations and other outcroppings in a variety of shapes and sizes, all crammed into a space just 10 miles across. Some features are as much as 150 million years old, formed by the upheavals of Mother Earth, the inundation and receding of flood waters and the weathering of time. There were enough arches and fallen arches to interest any podiatrist. Valley of Fire provides much food for thought about where this planet is headed.

The park also provided a refuge of sorts. My personal reasons for completely avoiding Super Bowl LVIII were philosophical. It was my continuing (and admittedly inconsequential) protest of the terrible record of the National Football League in protecting the long-term health of the players who have helped make all but two of the NFL’s 32 principal owners billionaires. Coupled with Nevada’s own lousy record in health care and the proximity of the game just seven miles from the New To Las Vegas world headquarters, it was imperative I get out of town for the day. (Read my fuller objections by clicking here.)

The contrast between the naturalness of Valley of Fire and the artificial glitz of Las Vegas, with a pyramid-shaped hotel and cheesy scaled-down replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, is startling. Valley of Fire is the real deal.

Park employees told me that attendance on Super Bowl Sunday, maybe 500 cars at $10 a pop ($15 for those with out-of-state tags), was about 50% below that of a normal Sunday. But I was pleasantly surprised to encounter folks who also felt there were better things to do than watch organized mayhem likely to inflict some lasting damage. The visitors included users of the park’s 72 camp sites, which by sunset had all been taken.

Perhaps half the visitors I saw or spoke with were from other countries, mainly from Europe and and the Pacific Rim. For them, American tackle football is a bastardization of the world’s most popular sport–what we call soccer–largely substituting the use of hands for the use of feet, and thus not worthy of attention. I refereed youth soccer for 20 years in four states, including Nevada, and a decade ago published a book, OFFSIDE: A Mystery, still in print, about the murder of  a soccer referee (fortunately, a non-autobiographical novel).

But I also ran into several family units from the Las Vegas area who told me they just wanted to get away from the hubbub of Sin City on Super Bowl Day. I was happy to use their cells to take their pictures so they would have mementos.

One of the park’s great appeals is that a number of the more striking geological formations, like Elephant Rock and Balancing Rock, are on trails less than several hundreds yards off the park’s two main roads and thus easy to reach and photograph (though climbing is prohibited). Another site, Seven Sisters, a row of sandstone monoliths, sits directly on a highway and is a popular backdrop for wedding photos. Indeed, as I passed by on Sunday afternoon, a stretch limo from Las Vegas was parked while a bride, groom and photographer set up their shots.

It is thought that the area around what would become Valley of Fire, part of the Colorado River Basis, was first populated as far back as 11,000 years. The recorded history goes back 2,500 years thanks to petroglyphs carved into the rocks by the Basketmakers that still exist and are a tourist draw.

After an Early Pueblo era, Native Americans from the Paiute tribe eventually inhabited the area. They were there in 1865 when members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints–the Mormons–brought west by Brigham Young came down from Salt Lake City, Utah, and became the first gringos to settle nearby on the Muddy River, a tributary of the Colorado. (The Mormons were also the first whites in what would become Las Vegas). They scratched out a living with farming, ranching and some mining, but soon retreated to the north. Of course, the Paiutes eventually were driven out of much of their ancestral lands

Still, the area became something of a beaten path. In 1912 the Arrowhead Highway, an early all-weather highway, was built through the region to connect Los Angeles and Salt Lake City via the small but growing outpost known as Las Vegas. A nine-foot-high park monument topped with a cross honors John J. Clark, a 71-year-old Civil War veteran who with his horse died of thirst in June 1915 as they traveled the Arrowhead with a buckboard. Later supplanted by Interstate 15 to the west, the Arrowhead exists in the park today only as a hiking trail.

The region supposedly got its name in the 1920s when an American Automobile Association official said the area, mainly federal land, looked at sunset like it was on fire. It became Nevada’s first state park in 1934 and is considered the crown jewel of the state park system.

The park’s eastern edge sits six miles west of Lake Mead, the giant reservoir created by construction of the Hoover Dam opened in 1936 that allowed the economic growth of Las Vegas (and Super Bowl LVIII). Valley of Fire sits in the Mojave Desert, and searing summer heats force the closure of numerous hiking trails. Except for overnight campers, Valley of Fire is open from 9 a.m. until sunset. There is a small visitors center with exhibits and a gift shop.

With such other-worldly vistas, it’s not surprising that Valley of Fire has served as a backdrop over the decades for entertainment productions. In “Total Recall,” the 1990 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Valley of Fire stood for the surface of Mars. In the 1994 movie, “Star Trek Generations,” (the seventh in the Star Trek film series), Captain James Kirk (still played by William Shatner) died fighting evil Sorean on another planet, Veridian III, and was buried in a scene shot at the multi-colored Silica Dome, a giant sandstone formation (which is legal to climb).

More temporally, the final racing scene of “Viva Las Vegas,” the 1963 movie starring Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret, was staged in the park. Three years later, part of “The Professionals,” a shoot-’em-up Western set during the Mexican Revolution starting Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin, was shot there. Remnants of movie sets still exist and can be visited.

With all this stuff to behold, the dog and I didn’t get back to Las Vegas until well after dark. It was hours before we learned the Super Bowl winner. The dog didn’t care, and neither did I. We had a obsessively stimulating day.

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My day in stunning Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas during Super Bowl LVIII — 2 Comments

  1. Glad you had a fascinating day exploring an area not too far from home with a lot of history. I am happy to read and learn from your experiences. Zozo was lucky she could sleep all the way home. I enjoy your essay. Thanks for sharing.

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