Overview | Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails | Red Rock, Calico & Brownstone Basins, Nevada

Move over Red Rock Canyon Scenic Loop Drive and Grand Circle Loop Trail. There’s a new loop in town! It’s the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails.

What’s So Astonishingly Special About the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails?

As you traverse the 22-mile Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trail, you’ll experience 3 incredible Southern Nevada wilderness areas in one great adventure. This circuit begins in the Calico Basin, rounds the South side of the Calico Hills, heads North to upper Red Rock Canyon, circles over to the Brownstone Basin then finally descends to the starting point in the Calico Basin. By the way, the highest elevation you will reach today will be about 3,000ft above the elevation at your starting point in the Calico Basin.

What is the Route of the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails?

The Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails adventure links 7 trails together to form the circuit:

  1. Donkey Way Trail – Starting at Gene’s Trailhead in the Calico Basin, the Donkey Way Trail rounds the South side of the Lower Calico Hills where it connects with the Lower Calico Basin Trail.
  2. Lower Calico Basin Trail – Connects with the Grand Circle Loop Trail just below Calico Hills 1 Viewpoint on the Red Rock Canyon Scenic Loop Drive.
  3. Grand Circle Loop Trail – Takes you along the West side of the Calico Hills to the Sandstone Quarry Trailhead area on the Red Rock Canyon Scenic Loop Drive (Turtlehead Peak Trailhead and Calico Tanks Trailhead).
  4. Turtlehead Peak Trail – Takes you to the Limestone Trail.
  5. Limestone Trail – Takes you to the base of the La Madre Ridgeline at the upper end of Red Rock Canyon, then circles East along the base of the La Madre Ridgeline into the upper Brownstone Basin.
  6. Brownstone Trail – Takes you down the entire length of the Brownstone Basin to the Half-Wilson Trail.
  7. Half-Wilson Trail – Circles East from the lower Brownstone Basin back to your starting point at Gene’s Trailhead in the Calico Basin.

What Spectacular Views Will You See Along the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails?

Here is a short list of landmark views you will see along the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails:

In short, you’ll see a good portion of the spectacular Southern Nevada wilderness as you traverse the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails!

What Scenic Waypoints Will You Visit Along the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails?

Again, here is a short list of the scenic waypoints you will visit:

  • Little-known South side of the Calico Hills
  • Two amazing petroglyph rocks.
  • Amazing sandstone sculptures: There are too many to name, but two sand out. I call them Mushroom Rock and Tree Trunk Pinnacle
  • Surprisingly, during my visit, Red Rock Canyon was totally empty of human traffic! It was closed during the morning hours due to snow during the previous night. As a result, when I passed through areas normally mobbed by tourists such as Calico Hills 1 viewpoint and Sandstone Quarry trailhead on the Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive, these areas were totally empty. Red Rock Canyon was as close to its pre-human look and feel as you will experience at this time in history or into the future.
  • Historic Sandstone Quarry
  • Little-known pass between Red Rock and Brownstone Basins
  • Two potential climbing routes to reach the summit of the La Madre Ridgeline from Red Rock Canyon
  • The summit of the Brownstone Trail, a good way up the base of the La Madre Ridgeline
  • A beautiful reservoir nestled in the Brown Basin’s upper Calico Hills

What is the Best Time of Year to Take the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails?

You’ll want a day with a good amount of daylight, but not mid-Summer when temperatures can reach and possibly exceed the upper 90’s. I was able to traverse this loop at a walk in about 8 hours. However, I did do some running down the length of the Brownstone Basin on the Brownstone Trail and Half-Wilson Trails. This time does not include stops for video and photo documentation and resting. This made it possible to do the loop on the 2nd week of January (not a very long day?). There was some snow in the upper areas, which you will see in the Video and Slide Guides on this page. All that aside, I suggest Spring or Fall for the best time of year to traverse the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trail.

One word of caution: When the sandstone surface is wet or covered with snow, it becomes like a skating rink with huge drop-offs in many places. So, it’s best to avoid the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit within 24 hours of the most recent rain or when it’s covered with snow or ice. You’ll see in the video how I lucked out in that the snow was a light enough dusting on the sandstone that there was always an area upon which to find footing free of snow. But remember, Red Rock Canyon’s scenic area was closed down this morning in order to prevent tourists from wandering onto dangerous snow-covered sandstone slabs.

How Do You Ensure the Best Lighting Along the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails?

Since this is a circuit adventure you can take it either in a clockwise or in a counterclockwise direction. I recommend a clockwise direction. Why? The sun will be behind you for just about the entire circuit beautifully lighting up the scenes ahead!

Trailhead Directions| Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails | Red Rock, Calico & Brownstone Basins, Nevada

From Hwy 215 in the Summerlin area, take the Charleston Blvd exit, turn upward (West) on Charleston Blvd toward the mountains. Charleston Blvd becomes Blue Diamond Rd. (159) as you leave the city. Take the Calico Basin exit off 159 (right turn) onto Calico Basin Road. Park at Gene’s Trailhead near the beginning of Calico Basin Road. This is the best trailhead for this adventure because unlike the other major access points along the Red Rock  Canyon 3 Basin Circuit, this trailhead does not close in the evening. Since the circuit is around 20 miles in length, you’ll want to know that your vehicle will not be locked behind a gate after sundown!

Adventure Description | Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails | Red Rock, Calico & Brownstone Basins, Nevada

South End of the Lower Calico Hills via Gene’s Trailhead & Donkey Way Trail 

Beginning at Gene’s Trailhead in the Calico Basin, cross Calico Basin Road to find the Donkey Way Trail toward Red Rock Canyon’s BLM scenic area. I call this Red Rock Basin to distinguish it from Calico Basin and Brownstone Basin. All three basins are a part of the larger Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

The Donkey Way Trail is a wide trail, very nice, part of the lower Calico Basin trail network which is used by hikers, runners and mountain bikers in their daily workouts. It’s a great trail network. And, the Donkey Way Trail is well-named as there were many donkey droppings along the way! This trail takes you right along the little-known Southern base of the lower Calico Hills. The sandstone sculptures here are incredible, just a couple named above (Mushroom Rock, Tree-Trunk Pinnacle). Watch for a large boulder and ledge forming the Southwest edge of the lower Calico Hills, impossibly held in its place! The many huge boulders along the base of the Calico Hills seem to be evidence of a great seismic event at some point in history rather than occasional dislodging from above over time. In this area you’ll also see a huge petroglyph boulder which I documented earlier while on the Lower Calico Hills Loop

Connecting with the Grand Circle Loop Trail

At the Southwest edge of the lower Calico Hills, you’ll see a trail clearly visible across the wash. That trail is the Lower Calico Hills Trail. Cross the wash and ascend its opposite ridge on that trail. As you ascend the ridge, expansive views will open of the West side of the Calico Hills and the wash below. At the summit of the ridge you’ll see your first trail sign of the day: The Grand Circle Loop Trail. This will be your only marked trail throughout the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails. It will take you up to Calico Hills 1 scenic viewpoint and the Sandstone Quarry trailhead area (1st and 3rd scenic viewpoints along the Red Rock Canyon Scenic Loop Drive).

Photo Opportunity from the High Sandstone Slab Across Calico Hills 1 Viewpoint

At the Calico Hills 1 Scenic Viewpoint, the Grand Circle Loop Trail descends into the lower wash at the Western base of the Calico Hills, then quickly ascends up into the Calico Hills across the wash. You’ll be walking along an elevated sandstone ledge at this point with a spectacular view of the Red Rock Basin and Rainbow Mountains to the West, the Wilson Ridgeline to the Northwest and the La Madre Mountains Ridgeline to the North. This is a great photo opportunity. And, it’s fun too walk on the sandstone, encountering it close and personally!

From the Sandstone Slab to the Lower/Upper Calico Hills Division 

In about 1000ft the Grand Circle Loop Trail will again descend into the lower wash and cross to ascend the ridge on the other side. The trail winds about through the lower Calico Hills with spectacular 360-degree views of these Jurassic Era frozen sand dunes. The countless sculptured shapes are overwhelming to the sight! Along this stretch notice that the coloring of the hills changes from the lower calico coloring (reds, browns, off-white) to deep Aztec red sandstone. Just beyond that color division you’ll see a passageway through the Calico Hills from the Red Rock Basin to the Calico Basin. You won’t take this passage today, but know that it’s part of the Lower and Upper Calico Hills Loops. As a note, the lower Calico Hills are visited more by tourists and hikers who stop at the Calico Hills 1 viewpoint. The upper Calico Hills are visited more by advanced rock climbers who use the Calico Hills 2 viewpoint as their base of operations.

The Great Petroglyph Boulder on the Grand Circle Loop

Just beyond the passageway between the lower and upper Calico Hills, notice a huge boulder with flat, black surfaces. You’ll want to stop and take a close look at the flat surfaces on this boulder. They’re covered with ancient petroglyphs. The Southern Paiutes loved to create their enigmatic signs and symbols on these dark surfaces because the dark coloring was a thin coat of iron oxide which could easily be etched away to expose the lighter colored surface below, thus enabling creation of designs. If you’re interested in exploring the origin and meaning of the petroglyphs, view this 74-page Master of Arts Degree in Archaeology thesisValley of Fire Petroglyphs: A New Perspective On An Old Ideaby Eric Pacl.

As you look up into the Calico Hills above this petroglyph rock, you can see many boulders with flat dark surfaces. Perhaps there are many additional ancient petroglyphs in this area, some of them potentially undiscovered! Look, but please respect history by leaving them as you found them!

From the Petroglyph Boulder to the Sandstone Quarry Trailhead Area

Beyond the petroglyph boulder the Grand Circle Loop Trail again ascends, now along a brilliant Aztec red sandstone surface populated with a few artistic bonsai-like pines and yucca plants. Be sure to turn around often for spectacular 360-degree views of the sandstone hills and sculpted rock formations.

As you progress further, the sandstone transforms into a lighter, off-white color. Now you’re approaching the Sandstone Quarry trailhead area. Continue and enter the Turtlehead Peak and Calico Tank trailheads at the upper end of the parking area. Soon the Grand Circle Loop trail will split off to the left. This is where you’ll find the Sandstone Quarry. It’s obvious. There are huge 10-ton sandstone blocks that were quarried for building material near the beginning of the 20th century. As you explore, you’ll not only see the sandstone blocks, but the side of the sandstone hill from which they were quarried. The operation continued for about 10 years until it was no longer cost-effective to quarry and transport the huge sandstone blocks.

From the Sandstone Quarry to the Limestone Trail

This is where you’ll continue for a short stretch, following the Turtlehead Peak and Calico Tanks trail markers. The Calico Tanks trailhead will split to the right. Continue along the Turtlehead Peak trail for about a quarter-mile over a small ridge and into a wash. After that quarter-mile stretch the Turtlehead Peak Trail will ascend out of the wash and up another small ridge to the right. This is where the unmarked Limestone Trail begins. Actually, the Limestone Trail is a faint, sometimes invisible pathway that continues up the main wash toward the La Madre Ridgeline. You’ve got to go by direction and surrounding landmarks rather than by walking along a trail because the Limestone Trail will appear and disappear often. Just stay in the wash, but stick to the left (West) side of the wash. Aim for the La Madre Ridgeline ahead. Avoid heading up the Turtlehead Peak ridgeline to your right (East). If you ascend out of the wash, you’ve made a wrong turn and will end up on steep loose rock slopes that will eat up a lot of time and likely end your circuit adventure early. Stay in the wash, on the left (West) side all the way to the base of the La Madre Mountains ridgeline ahead.

Little-Known Passage Between Upper Red Rock Basin and Upper Brownstone Basin 

At the base of the La Madre Mountains ridgeline, you’ll turn right onto an adjoining wash that heads East along the La Madre Mountains ridgeline. So far, you’ve been in a wash the entire way from above the Sandstone Quarry to the La Madre Mountains ridgeline. Stay in the right-splitting wash as is narrows and skirts the Southern base of the La Madre Mountains ridgeline. In this narrower wash the surrounding terrain will begin to transform into a beautiful pine forest! There are a few barriers in the wash, but if you stick to the left option whenever you have two or more choices, you’ll be able to continue up the wash at a walk without any rock climbing.

Notice an El Padre Mountain Climber’s Approach

There is a point mid-way where you will see a very narrow wash splitting off to the left and what looks like a trail, just beyond, leading up the La Madre Ridgeline. This, I believe, is a climber’s route up the West (left) side of El Padre Mountain above on the La Madre Ridgeline. Note this, if you’re interested, but stay in the wash today to continue along the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit.

Entering the Upper Brownstone Basin

About a quarter-mile further up you can look to your right and see that you’re approaching the summit of the Turtlehead Peak long ridgeline that was to your right extending North of Turtlehead Peak as you were ascending the lower Limestone Trail. Look carefully here to see a faint trail to your right leading up out of the wash. This is where you leave the wash for the first time since you first entered it below at the Sandstone Quarry. The faint trail will take you up the ridge and to a point where you’ll get your first look at Damsel Peak at the East side of the Brownstone Basin

There’s a shallow saddle ahead and a bit to the right. Aim for that saddle. Note that the video guide and slide guide on this page documents all these twists and turns throughout the Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit. Cross the saddle, and now you’re looking straight down and across the length of the Brownstone Basin! Now you see the majestic Damsel Peak in all its glory.

Connecting with the Brownstone Trail

Continue downward, beyond the saddle along a very narrow gully wash descending into the Brownstone Basin. In about a quarter-mile the gully will plunge over the side of a huge vertical dry fall. At this point, ascend the short ridge to your right. At the summit of that ridge you’ll arrive at the Brownstone Trail! There is no sign indicating the Brownstone Trail. The only indication is that it’s a narrow, rocky road heading up (left) toward the La Madre Ridgeline or down (right) into the Brownstone Basin.

Optional Detour Up the Base of the La Madre Ridgeline

You’ve traveled about 10 miles on foot by this point and are not feeling like taking a detour steeply upward to your left. But if you do have the energy and will, that steep half-mile detour will take you a good way up the base of the La Madre Ridgeline to spectacular expansive views of all three basins you’ve been traversing on this circuit and the distant wilderness beyond. The video guide and slide guide takes this detour up the Brownstone Trail to its summit and about 1000ft beyond to a high point about 3,000ft above today’s original starting point in the lower Calico Basin. This is a great place to rest and enjoy the view. Along the way I point out a passageway up the La Madre Ridgeline between El Padre Mountain and La Madre Mountain. So, today you’ve seen passageways to the summit of the La Madre Mountains ridgeline on both the East and the West side of El Padre Mountain.

Spectacular Views from the Brownstone Trail

From this high point above the summit of the Brownstone Trail, it’s now “downhill all the way” back to your starting point at Gene’s Trailhead!! Along the way there are a few things to note:

  • Damsel Peak is to your left commanding the West side of the Brownstone Basin.
  • Above Damsel Peak, just North of that peak is the smaller Gateway Peak.
  • You can now see La Madre Mountain to the right (East) of El Padre Mountain on the La Madre Mountains Ridgeline
  • Just to the right (East) of La Madre Mountain is another high point called “Little La Madre Mountain

Mid Brownstone Basin Scenic Waypoints

  • About half-way down the Brownstone Trail there are the upper Brownstone Calico Hills, smaller than the Calico Hills you circled earlier between Red Rock and Brownstone Basins. However, these sandstone hills have their own unique beauty.
  • Nestled in a cove in the upper Aztec red section of the Brownstone Calico Hills there is a beautiful reservoir, part natural, part engineered. In the video and slide guides on this page I take a very short, 50-yard detour to explore this reservoir.
  • The larger Calico Hills to your right (West) along the mid-to-lower Brownstone Basin form a huge ridge between the Brownstone Basin and Gateway Canyon to the West. This stretch of Calico Hills is actually larger than Kraft Mountain and potentially larger and higher than the Red Rock/Calico Basin Calico Hills where you began. I call this the Brownstone Ridge. It’s little-known and seldom visited, but a huge area for future exploration! One access point would be from the Kraft Mountain area via the Upper Gateway Canyon Trail.

Views While Descending the Brownstone Trail

Finally, you can’t help but notice brilliantly afternoon-lighted views of the following:

From Lower Brownstone Basin to Lower Calico Basin

Back to that ridge to your right (West) of the Brownstone Basin. That ridge becomes lower and lower, eventually tapering off to ground level. At this point circle the South (lower) end of the ridge to find the Half-Wilson Trail. This trail will take you back in about a mile to your starting point at Gene’s Trailhead! It’s a good trail, well-defined, but unsurprisingly unmarked. The trail is frequently used by mountain bikers and so is an easy walk (or run). In fact, from the summit of the Brownstone Trail all the way back to Gene’s Trailhead, the surface conditions enable you to take it at a run if you want, or if you need to make up time before dark.

Red Rock Canyon 3 Basin Circuit Trails Summary

As you return to Gene’s Trailhead in the lower Calico Basin, congratulate yourself. This has been an adventure exceeding marathon proportions. You’ve covered around 20 miles and ascended 3,000 feet. In the process, you’ve experienced Red Rock Canyon in a deep, personal way, along with a huge slice of the vast Southern Nevada Wilderness. The experience, feelings, images and impressions will endure for a lifetime!

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3 Basin Circuit | Red Rock Canyon, Nevada
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3 Basin Circuit | Red Rock Canyon, Nevada
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Experience 3 incredible Southern Nevada wilderness areas in one great adventure. This circuit begins in the Calico Basin, rounds the South side of the Calico Hills, heads North to upper Red Rock Canyon, circles over to Brownstone Basin then finally descends to the starting point in Calico Basin.
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LasVegasAreaTrails.com
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