Nevada wears its geological history on its proverbial sleeve. Our iconic basin and range landscape was formed over millions of years as the Earth’s crust slowly moved, leaving wide swaths of the underlying rock exposed for all to plainly see.
Though anyone who’s flown over or driven across Northern Nevada knows there’s no escaping the mountains, tourists and sightseers often overlook the area in favor of more classically striking formations. Places like the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park and Moab, and Red Rocks Canyon outside Las Vegas capture far more attention. Many native Renoites aren’t even aware there are places within a 20-minute drive of the Biggest Little City with equally spectacular colors and stunning striations that tell a rich history of Nevada’s ancient volcanoes—and make for a great photo op.
Incandescent Rocks Scenic Area is located on federally owned land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and is classified as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. This designation helps preserve the colorful geological history exposed at this site. It’s an area that’s open, exposed and easy to navigate—though its lack of trails can make the going a bit slow.
To get to Incandescent Rocks, head north out of Reno on Pyramid Highway. A little more than 20 miles from the intersection with North McCarran Boulevard, turn left onto Grass Valley Road. You’ll follow this bending gravel road for a little more than 2.5 miles (Atlas Obscura has an excellent description of how to get to Incandescent Canyon) before turning on a primitive road with a cattle gate and a sign indicating you’re entering BLM land and Incandescent Rocks. Remember to leave the cattle gate as you found it (which is typically closed), to avoid letting cows meander where they shouldn’t.
You’ll need a 4-wheel-drive vehicle with decent clearance to drive much further. Several small pullouts allow you to leave your car and continue on foot, rather than chance driving through one of many washes that can easily trap your car in their steep, narrow depths. Be sure not to drive or park anywhere that isn’t part of the rudimentary road, as per the regulations for this Area of Critical Environmental Concern. If it has rained, snowed or had snowmelt in the past few days, it’s best to avoid driving here at all.
Wherever you ultimately park your car, simply continue walking up the road until you can clearly see the stripes of bold colors along the ridgeline of rocks to your north. There are no official foot trails through this area, so choose your path over the loose rocky ground and through the shrubby vegetation with care. There’s no wrong way to explore this colorful area, but we like to head straight toward the center of the canyon to get amazing views of Nevada’s volcanic history before cutting to the east, and scrambling up the side of this rocky ridge.
Even before you climb, it’s impossible not to notice layers and layers of red, yellow and whitish rocks, remnants of repeated and dramatic volcanic explosions and flows between 20 and 30 million years ago. The whole area is a very in-your-face way to see exactly how much Nevada has changed in, geologically speaking, the relatively recent past. Much like spreading layers of peanut butter and jelly across a slice of bread and then breaking it apart to lay on separate sides of a plate, the fractured lines of rust-colored rocks are a testament to the movement and breakage of Nevada’s tectonic plates in the past 25 million or so years since these rocks flowed from nearby volcanoes.
If you make it to the top of the southeast side of the ridge, you’ll be rewarded with commanding views of the north valleys, the Sierra Nevada and a nearby airstrip. You can also clearly see how the rock layers in Incandescent Canyon have been exposed, broken and shifted from their original locations. The continuation of these volcanic rock flows can’t actually be seen east or west of Incandescent Canyon. In fact, the local fault lines have allowed so much slippage in the millions of years since these rocks were laid down that, to find where these ancient flows continue to the west, you’d have to get into your car and drive another 10 or so miles farther north to pick up their trail again.
From the vantage point at the top of the eastern side of the ridge, you can continue your journey upward, adding another mile or so to your nearly 2-mile journey already, by turning north and west to follow the ridgeline. If you don’t want to simply turn around and retrace your steps, you can start making your way down the back side of the formation toward a dry streambed at the bottom that will eventually take you back to your car. Either way, more picturesque landscapes and additional arresting views await you.
As you approach the bottom of the backside drainage, you’ll see the dry wash (though it’s not dry during rain or snowmelt season!). Don’t walk in the dry creek bed too soon, though, or you’ll find yourself stuck at the top of a 30-foot dry waterfall—and will you need to do a little backtracking to find a safe passage to the bottom. After the waterfall cliff, the dry wash is walkable and has sections reminiscent of the slot canyons of the Southwest, cut in miniature through a magenta-colored layer of rock. Following this water path will lead you back to the road, forming a circular route through and around Incandescent Canyon, ending back at your car.
Though there’s no coverage from the elements along this hike (so take plenty of water, and be prepared), the views you get every step of the way make it a great place to explore in colder months. Just remember to take only photos and leave only footprints as you stare in awe at the awesome power of Nevada’s ancient volcanoes.