The Brownstone Trail adventure spans Nevada’s Calico Basin, Brownstone Basin and La Madre Mountains Wilderness. Along the way, there are spectacular views of the La Madre Mountains Ridgeline, Damsel Peak, the Las Vegas Valley and Strip, Gray Cap Peak and Ridgeline, Jurassic Era calico sandstone, incredible petroglyphs and ephemeral pools!
The adventure route begins at Gene’s Trailhead in the Calico Basin and takes the Half Wilson Trail to Brownstone Road in the Brownstone Basin. Ascending Brownstone Basin along the base of Gray Cap Ridgeline toward the La Madre Mountains Ridgeline, Brownstone Road soon becomes Brownstone Trail. Both the road and trail are a relatively straight shot to the base of the La Madre Mountains Ridgeline at El Padre Mountain. Brownstone Trail summits a good way up the base of the La Madre Mountains Ridgeline. The entire route is on excellent hiking trails until you reach the Brownstone Trail summit and continue further upward toward the La Madre Mountains cliffs. This February the upper trail and above were covered with snow.
From Gene’s Trailhead to the summit of the Brownstone Trail, prepare for 13-14 miles each way depending how close you want to get to the La Madre Mountains Cliffs. That’s over a marathon round trip, not to mention over 3,000ft elevation gain! A shorter adventure would be to drive up the unpaved Brownstone Road (4WD vehicle strongly recommended) to the place the road ends and the trail begins (see the video). This would cut the overall distance by over 50%.
I added a short detour loop to the summit of Calico Basin’s Peak 3844 at the end of the adventure as part of documenting the Calico Basin trail network.
The Brownstone Trail, spanning the entire length of the Brownstone Basin is actually a great introduction to the Basin. Along the way I point out the following eleven additional adventure routes branching off from the main trail:
One of the main features on this trail is the collection of some of the most artistic petroglyphs I have seen anywhere. This huge collection of petroglyphs can be seen on the sandstone cliffs immediately above the Brownstone Trail. Imagine how many more petroglyphs you’d discover while wandering around in those sandstone hills and cliffs!
I know of no more complete study of Petroglyphs in Southern Nevada than the 74-page Master of Arts Degree in Archaeology thesis “Valley of Fire Petroglyphs: A New Perspective On An Old Idea” by Eric Pacl. Eric brings to the discussion both a big picture view and a very detailed analysis of the origin and meaning of the petroglyphs found in Southern Nevada. Download the entire thesis here.
This February, following weeks of heavy rain, water was cascading down the sandstone hills and the many ephemeral pools (tinaja) were filled. Take a moment to view Tim Graham’s “Ephemeral Pools of Moab” video on this page for a scientific study of the fascinating life to be found in pools like the ones along the Brownstone Trail. Some of the life forms date back hundreds of millions of years. Their eggs lie dormant when the pools are dry during the hot Summer months, then spring to life with the next rains. These eggs are so hardy that they have been taken into space, exposed to zero gravity, zero oxygen and the sun’s solar radiation…yet they again spring to life when water is added!
Fall or Spring are recommended. If you’re ascending he Brownstone Trail all the way to the La Madre Mountains cliff line, you’ll likely find the upper regions covered with snow in the Winter. In the Summer the lower regions can see temperatures in the upper 90’s and above.
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.
The most streamlined route from Gene’s Trailhead in the Calico Basin to the Brownstone Trail is the unmarked Half Wilson Trail. It’s the trail furthest to the right as you’re standing at Gene’s Trailhead facing East. The Half Wilson Trail circles around the South side of the Peak 3844 ridgeline and over to the edge of the Brownstone Basin. As you ascend the basin, begin to angle to the center of the main wash where you will find the unpaved Brownstone Road. Notice a small unpaved road branching off to the East on the opposite side of Brownstone Basin. This road would take you to Little Red Rock and Summerlin Ridge…future adventures!
As you ascend the Brownstone Basin, your main guide is the basin’s bordering hills and ridgeline immediately to your left. You may lose the trail in places as you’re entering the lower basin, but let the long ridgeline be your guide. That ridgeline runs along the entire left (West) side of the basin. The lower part of the ridgeline, up to the Brownstone Basin’s Calico Hills is Gray Cap Ridgeline which ascends in altitude to Gray Cap Peak at the upper end of that ridgeline. Beyond Gray Cap Peak, the bordering ridgeline continues with Turtlehead Peak and its ridgeline, extending all the way to the La Madre Mountains cliffs at the summit of the Brownstone Basin. So, there’s always a ridgeline to your left. Hug that ridgeline all the way up the Brownstone Basin and you’ll stay on track.
The opposite side of the Brownstone Basin (to your right) is the huge Damsel Peak. As you’re ascending the Brownstone Basin the Gray Cap Ridgeline is to your left (West), Damsel Peak’s ridgeline is to your right (East) and the La Madre Mountains cliffs are straight ahead in the distance. Route finding is no challenge. Your main challenge is distance and altitude gain. But the views along the way make this entire incredible adventure a life memory!
There is a beautiful grouping of Calico Hills in the center of the Brownstone Basin. Seven things happen as you near those calico hills:
Not far beyond the Brownstone Calico Hills, watch for a wide trail with a brownstone rock surface continuing upward toward the La Madre Mountains Cliffs. That trail is actually an old road, no longer in use. Leave the wash and ascend the road/trail. Now your angle of ascent increases sharply, and continues to increase as you approach the La Madre Mountains Cliffs. Here are 6 things to notice along this stretch:
The return trip descent from the La Madre Mountains cliffs went very fast…about 1/3rd the time of the ascent. It was literally “downhill all the way”! Near the end of the return trip to Gene’s Trailhead in the Calico Basin I documented a few of the interior Calico Basin Trails to add to the original outer circuit of Calico Basin Trails.
Instead of returning on the Half Wilson Trail, where that trail began, I turned right onto the Powerline Maintenance Road/Trail that skirts the North side of Peak 3844 Ridge. Soon thereafter I took a left to ascend Peak 3844 Ridge on the Peak 3844 Loop Trail. You’ll pass through an amazing barrel cactus garden on the way up the Peak 3844 Ridge. In addition, expansive views open of the Las Vegas Valley and Strip to the East (in the afternoon). However, you’re heading straight into the sun so have sunglasses. Views to the West are dimmed by the bright sun.
Peak 3844 Loop soon leads to a brief switchback section to the summit of Peak 3844. What an incredible 360-degree view on the peak! I believe the view would be even better during sunrise and early morning hours.
From Peak 3844’s summit descend the summit approach switchbacks and, at the base of those switchbacks take a hard left to continue on the loop to Gene’s Trail below. Note that most of these trail connections in the Calico Basin are unmarked. You just need to know what they are and where they lead.
Take a left onto Gene’s Trail, the first trail connection (also unmarked) you will reach as you’re descending the Peak 3844 Loop from its summit. Had you taken a right at this intersection you’d be heading toward Kraft Mountain. The left turn onto Gene’s Trail will lead you over the final low ridge and down to Gene’s Trailhead.
The Brownstone Trail, though a marathon experience, is truly unforgettable! Today you’ve seen ephemeral pools, ancient petroglyphs, the base of the La Madre Mountain Cliffs and many branching routes to additional future adventures to multiple ridgelines and summits. In the process, you’ve received significant introduction to the amazing Brownstone Basin!
Note that you can always shorten this adventure by driving to the Brownstone Trailhead and starting there. And you can turn around at any time to retrace your way back down the Brownstone Trail. A good early turn-around point is at the petroglyphs and the Brownstone Calico Hills reservoir. That would cut the distance and effort by 50%.
Whatever your experience on the Brownstone Trail, it will be a life memory!