The following review is based on the tour from Friday, April 27th. Please note that every tour (including those going to the same destination) is its own unique experience and can vary slightly.
If you have ever wondered about the possibility of visiting “Mars” from the 1990 film, “Total Recall,” the answer is yes, you can. The naturally made, topographical museum that is the Valley of Fire State Park spanning 35,000 acres, and is about 58 miles out from the Las Vegas strip (adjoining Overton, NV), not only doubled as the Red Planet in the Schwarzenegger classic, but has hosted scenes from “Star Trek Generations,” “Transformers,” the 1980’s TV series “Airwolf,” Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas,” and much more.
The park’s name is quite fitting because it accurately describes the glowingly reddish sandstone configurations. Over a period of 150 million years, sand dunes coated by iron (the mineral that is mainly responsible for the land’s red color) became cemented into sandstones that, through endless erosion, shifted and formed into many artistic shapes, some of which are renowned in the park for having a curiously zoomorphic quality about them. Since 1935 when it became officially recognized by Nevada, locals and tourists have enjoyed the state’s oldest park, which is also inhabited by wild horses, lizards, chipmunks, and notably majestic desert big horn sheep, which are often spotted along trails.
Offered by the reputable and 60-years-in-business Pink Jeep Tours, Valley of Fire is roughly one of five tours that leave from Las Vegas (the others are Death Valley, Hoover Dam, the West/South Rim of the Grand Canyon and Red Rock Canyon). Pink Jeep Tours uses actual pink Jeeps, which is a fun and whimsical touch, retrofitted with Lear Jet seats for the comfortability of the passengers. All riders are made to feel like VIPs, who, because of their smaller group size, connect with each other and the personable adventure guide assigned to their tour.
One of these guides is the charismatic and energetic Dennis Morrison, who has had ample experience leading groups to the 6-hour Valley of Fire Tour, which, for lunch, also includes a delectable sandwich roll (e.g., veggie, turkey, ham, Italian) and potato chips. Originally from Louisiana, but a resident of Vegas for the past thirty years, the wayfaring and enterprising Morrison was predominantly a photographer by trade before finding his calling with Pink Jeep Tours in the last three years.
Morrison enjoys keeping his audience engaged with interesting anecdotes and pieces of fascinating background information. On the way to the Valley of Fire, he might be inclined to share stories about how Las Vegas came to be as a result of the all-important discovery of water (underground aquifers) in 1829, before becoming a railroad town that eventually legalized gambling in 1931, which subsequently attracted movie stars and moguls, such as Howard Hughes, as well as the influential mob, all of whom played pivotal roles in the creation of Sin City.
Upon arrival to the Valley of Fire, which begins with a brief stop at the Visitor’s Center, is when the joyous adventure really takes off. Morrison, like many of Pink Jeep Tours’ guides, is not only highly informed, but clearly and succinctly explains the context of what is being looked at, which doubtlessly adds a greater meaning to the experience that individuals would not necessarily glean on their own. For instance, one may not give the surrounding foliage a second thought, but Morrison sets the narrative by getting his audience to appreciate a creosote bush that releases a pleasing smell when lightly blown on because it prompts its moisture-absorbent leaves to open.
The amiable Morrison puts his passengers at ease when he leads them along interspersed hikes, all the while graciously offering to take photos at different junctions for those who want to remember and cherish their trip. One recurring highlight is seeing the various instances of ancient rock petroglyphs by the Native American tribe, the Anasazi, who mysteriously vanished and left no trace beyond their drawings of animals and such, which are difficult to acutely decipher. Interestingly, the Anasazi knew to etch their symbols in the black desert varnish of the sandstones (caused by water drainage and prolonged sun exposure), which aesthetically also contrasts appealingly with the red rocks. The apotheosis of the Anasazi’s work is “Newspaper Rock” – a large boulder that remains largely preserved and intact with its thousands-year-old sketches.
Other memorable sights include the sandstone cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps for travelers; Mouse Tank, a hidden water basin named after a rogue Indian on the run from murder and is especially accessed by the nimble desert big horns; and Rainbow Vista, which boasts a multicolored horizon of the sandstone rocks, and has regularly been used as master shots in car commercials. The motley colors, as Morrison insightfully suggests, are likely the systematic outcome of minerals (and the rate at which they drain into the rocks as in the case with rain) interacting with other naturally-occurring factors. These facts supplement the enjoyment of Rainbow Vista, which already offers a remarkable vantage point so beautifully expansive that no photograph does it justice.
While everyone’s perception is different, the culmination of the Valley of Fire adventure might just be the sandstone sculptures carved and chiseled from the hand of wind harnessed by the passage of time. Though light, shadows, and angles play a significant part in what we witness, many of these shapes uncannily resemble animals and objects. One of these is a screaming gorilla, another is a poodle whose countenance suggests that it’s protectively looking over the park, and then there is “Liberace’s Piano,” which is seemingly waiting to have its keys played again. And then there is the deservingly famous “Elephant Rock, “which is breathtakingly accurate in its depiction of the tusked mammal, as well as “Balancing Rock,” which, as Morrison astutely points out, resembles Rosie the Robot from “The Jetsons.” What makes the latter even more mesmerizing is the sheer physics of it; there is mostly space between the rock-figurine’s “head” and “body,” which are barely affixed to one another.
Indisputably, the Valley of Fire’s trademark works of art – which would not be out of place as celebrated exhibits in any gallery – are the grand culmination of the big-picture vicissitudes within nature. The sandstones, in all their glorious and mystical beauty, are the past’s gift to the present, through an hourglass so magnificent yet one still and forever sifting grains of sand. The sand installations of tomorrow may differ from today’s, but won’t be any less enchanting in the eye of the beholder. Pink Jeep Tours, and its team of tour guides, including Morrison, underscore these views and observations by framing them with the richness of an intriguing history.
For more information about Pink Jeep Tours’ Valley of Fire adventure, please visit pinkadventuretours.com/las-vegas-tours/valley-of-fire