It’s no secret that the Reno-Tahoe area has a lot of opportunities for outdoor recreation—particularly hiking. Only Alaska beats Nevada when it comes to having the most publicly owned land. More than 80% of Nevada is controlled by various federal agencies, with untold numbers of trails—both maintained and unmaintained—crisscrossing mountains, valleys, forests and deserts.
Many trails around Reno are deservedly popular (Galena Creek, the Tahoe Rim Trail, Hunters Creek, Hidden Valley, and more), and it can feel challenging to find an accessible weekend hiking spot that isn’t already full of people. Fortunately, these days, we have the internet—and crowd-sourcing apps like AllTrails, Hiking Project and even Google Maps can help you discover new trails that you never knew were there.
For many, Griffith Canyon could be one of those places.
If you live in Reno and haven’t heard of Griffith Canyon yet, you should know: It’s a real gem. This small canyon has all the elements of a fantastic family outing or a quick solitary excursion. It’s filled with a ton of really cool and unique features, is easy to get to—and is often devoid of other humans.
Located just north of town, in Spanish Springs, the unmarked trailhead of Griffith Canyon is just a 12-minute drive from Pyramid Highway. Winding through spacious, ranch-like neighborhoods, the approach turns to gravel about a mile out. An obvious pull-off area, on a bend on Pyrenees Drive, marks the entrance to this seemingly nondescript canyon.
Despite this underwhelming arrival, Griffith Canyon soon proves its worth. Dropping down to the canyon floor, you’ll start to feel like you’re walking into a different ecosystem—and you are! In the spring and early summer, the sides of the canyon are covered with flowers unseen in the surrounding desert, like Indian paintbrush, arrowleaf balsamroot, mariposa, penstemon, fiddleneck and popcorn flower. Rabbitbrush, bitterbrush and sage are interspersed with glimpses of vibrant red rocks and fluorescent lichens crawling up boulders. Griffith Canyon is one of just a few places around Reno with wild, native cacti flourishing within its boundaries.
As you hike along—following the myriad unmaintained game trails meandering back and forth along the wash—you’ll likely encounter many different animals. Numerous species of lizards live in Griffith Canyon, including fence lizards, collared lizards, side-blotched lizards and whiptails. Ravens often soar above, using the air currents pushed up the canyon walls to keep them aloft. Bees fly industriously from flower to flower, and crickets sing next to the trail.
Traces of other animals aren’t hard to spot. Coyote scat is a common sight, and the trails themselves are partially created and maintained by local wildlife such as mule deer, wild horses and even cattle. However, traces of humans are blissfully few and far between. While hiking this area on a recent holiday weekend in pleasant weather, I ran into just two other groups of people out and about.
Griffith Canyon has some other unique features that make it one of my favorite short hikes around Reno. Not far into the journey up this canyon is an enormous sprawling juniper tree. The path cuts right underneath this ancient behemoth, and its expansive branches droop languidly in all directions, practically inviting you to take a seat and enjoy its shade. It’s hard not to be in awe of such a picturesque and perfectly placed Nevada native.
Continuing up the canyon, keep your eyes peeled for more than just wildlife. For thousands of years, people who have lived in the Truckee River basin have enjoyed Griffith Canyon. Less than a mile up the canyon, you’ll start to see small carvings and etchings in the rocks. At one mile, a series of large red rock faces are covered in these petroglyphs left behind by past Indigenous residents and visitors.
Considering just how cool these petroglyphs are, you might expect them to be protected or at least have a sign reminding visitors not to touch them—but there is no such protection or sign. So when you decide to go visit, remember to do the right thing, and appreciate them with your eyes, not your hands.
The trail continues along the canyon for a while, growing more faint and less trafficked the farther you get from the petroglyph wall. At some point, you’ll need to turn around to return to your parked car.
It’s just less than two miles to walk to the petroglyph wall and back, making Griffith Canyon a short, leisurely hike. The canyon is constantly changed by flowing water when it rains, so the consistency and stability of the trails are a bit less predictable. Though I would rate this hike solidly in the “easy” column, it also requires sureness of foot, as you’ll be walking over many expanses of wobbly, awkwardly sized rocks. I would also avoid heading here too soon after a recent rainstorm, as both the canyon and the dirt road leading to it can become muddy and treacherous.
There’s much to love about exploring Griffith Canyon. Its petroglyphs, microecosystem, ease of access and solitude from the masses never fail to disappoint. It’s a great example of the magnificent hidden gems around Reno—and a reminder to leave every place you visit better than you found it.