Trail Report: Pine Creek Canyon

Trail Details

  • Duration: Day hike
  • Time on Trail: 3.5 hrs
  • City / State: Las Vegas /
  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation: +/- 1000ft.
  • Categories:   ,

Pine Creek Canyon in the Red Rock NCA just west of Las Vegas is one of my favorite hikes.  There is usually water in the canyon if you go deep enough and even at the peak of the summer heat the canyon remains shaded and cool for the most part.  There are numerous documented climbing routes scattered about Pine Creek Canyon so it’s not unusual to see packs, gear, or ropes laying seemingly unattended along the trail.

The Red Rock NCA was the first national conversation area designated in Nevada and is nearly 200,000 acres in size.  This canyon holds a lot of history.  As you approach the canyon you pass what remains of  the original Wilson homestead.  Horace Wilson homesteaded here in the 1920s and lived at the mouth of the canyon for about 10 years before relocating to Las Vegas.  In the 1960s vandals burned what remained of the structure leaving only the cement foundation that can be seen today.  You can see more pics of the homestead here.

As you move deeper into the canyon approaching the larger conical peak known as the Mescalito the trail forks.  Although I like both, the trail to the right (north fork) is the one I enjoy more.  Try to stay high on the right side of the canyon as long as you can.  It’s much better than boulder hopping in the wash.  The trail will ultimately drop down to greet the wash anyway and pools of water become part of the experience.

Waterfall in Pine Creek Canyon

One of the many pockets created by the boulder debris

One of the unique traits of Pine Creek Canyon is that it is pretty easy to navigate.  The canyon walls are high and steep which is the draw for climbers.  Over the years, and lots of them, chunks of canyon wall have calved off and dropped to their resting place on the canyon floor.  These boulders range is size from grapefruit size to boulders that make my house look small.  Collectively these boulders create a series of chutes, tunnels, gaps, and crawl spaces.  In place, it’s easier to drop to your knees and crawl through small openings.  In other spots, the only way forward is to scramble up a crack or friction climb a steep ramp.

When people think of Las Vegas they generally don’t think of shade, or water, or trees.  But this may be exactly what drew Horace Wilson to this spot.  The underground water source that seems to flow year-round feeds the vegetation in this canyon.  Ponderosa Pines which usually grow at much higher elevations are common in Pine Creek as are the ferns that pepper the cracks on the canyon walls.  Because the canyon walls rise nearly 1000 feet up from the canyon floor shade is a welcome hiking partner as you venture deeper.

Waterfall deep in Pine Creek Canyon

Waterfall deep in Pine Creek Canyon

The final section of the hike in is a bit more challenging.  It requires some basic scrambling but nothing too difficult.  Just be sure of hand and foot placements, some of the surfaces get a little dusty and make for interesting adjustments.

The reward in this fork of the canyon is a 25 foot waterfall which was running really strong in mid April.  I looked for a way up to the next level which may have been possible but the downclimb looked a coin flip on whether or not I’d end up in the pool.  I passed and we broke for lunch.

The way out, like with most hikes, is where you need to concentrate a bit more.  Fatigue and distractions make it more likely that you’ll slip, trip or fall.  This terrain isn’t easy and getting help a few miles into the canyon would be no picnic.

Crazy rock!

Crazy rock! No problems with foot or hand holds here.

As we made our way down the canyon, Chris and I both became every intrigued by this formation.  There are several places where the rock has small patches of this evidence or erosion but this entire face covered with it.  We took advantage of the excuse to break out the cameras and took a 20 minute break here.  On day hikes, I usually carry a few beers to enjoy at the turning point.  This particular day I had forgotten about the tasty beverages in my pack until we stopped to snap pics of the rocks.  We enjoyed the carbs and luke warm temp of the beers and then pushed on.

A bit further down canyon we realized we were a bit closer to the canyon wall than we were on the way up.  We came out of the brush for long enough to spot an alternative.

Friction climbing the slab
Friction climbing the slab

The entire Red Rock canyon system is littered with these smooth slabby surfaces.  Some are revealed as large chunks of rock break away from the canyon walls and still bare the scars of the event.  Others seem as if they have always been there preserved in their original form.  This particular slab cut cut the corner on the course of the trail and was much easier to navigate than the brushy undergrowth that has taken over the upper section of the canyon.  We jumped up on the slab and made our way down canyon about 75 yards.  The final downclimb was pretty easy but requires a bit of trust as you work your way down using friction to keep a footing.

The remainder of the hike is pretty straight forward.  You will retrace your steps through the canyon as it widens and follow the water as it snakes along the right side.

Pine Creek Canyon is a straight forward hike but can be made more challenging based on the route you choose.  My next visit will be to get above the waterfall and go even further into the depths of the canyon.  Can’t be anything but adventure back there!

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I'm the founder of Vestor Logic, the digital strategy and web design firm that created Trail Sherpa, ParksFolio, and Modern Steader. I'm a day hiker, top chef in camp, doting husband, and father to two headlamp wearing boys. My work in digital media brings those experiences to life.