Little Zion | Rainbow Mountain Wilderness, Nevada
Overview | Little Zion | Rainbow Mountain Wilderness, Nevada
Little Zion on the Southern portion of The Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline of Nevada, has the look and feel of Zion National Park, Utah!
If you’ve been on the Jurassic Era sandstone hills and ledges in places like The Rainbow Mountains, Calico Hills and Kraft Mountain, you’ve likely come to expect beautiful, colorful sandstone with a few scattered small bonsai-like pinyon pines, junipers, cacti and other drought-resistant plants. But descend the sandstone ledges at the base of Hidden Peak and you’ll wander into an entirely different world. Suddenly you find yourself strolling through a grassy meadow under a grove of towering Ponderosa Pines. There’s nothing else like this in the Rainbow Mountains, Red Rock Canyon or anywhere in this desert region! Little Zion is a hidden oasis in the desert, unlike any other.
Add to this the spectacular view of The Las Vegas Valley, beautifully framed by the colorful Jurassic sandstone cliffs on either side. Welcome to Little Zion!
5 Ways to Get to Little Zion:
There are at least 5 or 6 ways to get to The Little Zion hidden desert oasis. Take your pick, we’ll go from easiest to most difficult, though every approach requires some healthy distance (8-10 miles or more round trip), endurance and uphill ascent of a couple thousand feet. And there are no trail signs along the way. You won’t see any sign anywhere that says “Little Zion” unless someone posts a sign after seeing this article:
- Easy walk. From the Mountain Springs Trailhead on Highway 160: Ascend to The Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline, take the Ridgeline’s very good, easy to follow trail heading North to just beyond Hidden Peak, then descend into Little Zion on a good spin-off trail.
- *Easy walk, but a bit more complicated. From The Lovell Canyon Campground: ***This is the route I took, mapped on this page, and will describe below.*** Head up Rainbow Spring Road to where it ends at The Little Zion Trailhead. Then navigate washes and ridges to The Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline. Top the Ridgeline, follow the Ridgeline trail for a bit, then descend into Little Zion from the Ridgeline Trail on the same good spin-off trail as above. There are no trail markings, so you’re winging it.
- Difficult wilderness traverse, but nothing beyond class 2. From the Upper Crest Ridgeline to the North: Take the Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline Trail South, then descend just before Hidden Peak by that same good spin-off trail. All The Upper Crest Ridgeline approach routes North of Hidden Peak are complicated, involving wilderness navigation skills and long wilderness traverses. But, nothing beyond class 3 rock scrambling in just a few places. View The Upper Crest Ridgeline trail system and approaches here.
- Some moderate rock climbing with exposure. Descent from Hidden Peak Summit into Little Zion.
- Extreme Class 4-5 rock climbing (scaling cliffs): Ascend to Little Zion from Red Rock Canyon below to the East. Be sure to have advanced rock climbing experience, skills, gear and companions at a similar skill level.
Best Time of Year to Visit Little Zion
Spring and Fall are best in order to avoid potential icy conditions in the Winter and extreme Summer heat that could exceed 110 degrees. And, avoid visiting Little Zion within 24 hours of the last rain. The sandstone, when wet, has the traction of an ice skating rink, only with some huge steep drop-offs! But, be assured that when the sandstone is dry, the traction is very good and it’s easy to stay away from the drop-offs.
Trailhead Directions | Little Zion | Rainbow Mountain Wilderness, Nevada
Take Hwy 160 from Las Vegas toward Pahrump. The highway ascends over a “hump” (the Potosi Mountain area). There’s a saying around here, “Over the hump to Pahrump”. Well, you’ve just traveled over that hump. Around 4-5 miles from the point where the highway begins to descend toward Pahrump take a right at the well-marked sign on the right for Lovell Canyon Road. In about a half mile take another right onto the unpaved Rainbow Spring Road (537F). The Little Zion Trailhead is about 2 miles up Rainbow Spring Road.
Route Observations | Little Zion | Rainbow Mountain Wilderness, Nevada
As mentioned above, the Little Zion approach route described in detail here begins at The Lovell Canyon Campground at the intersection of Lovell Canyon and Rainbow Spring roads. See the map on this page for additional route detail.
Unique Approach and Return Routes
I take a creative, more direct but somewhat difficult ridge approach route on the way, then descend by the more traditional route on the return trip, so you’ll see both routes described here. In addition, I do a little exploring on The Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline North of Hidden Peak, taking a look at the condition of the Ridgeline route and closing one of two remaining gaps in that route I had not yet traversed.
Condition of Rainbow Spring Road
So, let’s assume you’ve traveled up the 2-mile Rainbow Spring Road to it’s upper end. It’s actually, today, a great road and good for 2WD vehicles. No guarantees how future weather conditions or floods might change that.
Camping on Rainbow Spring Road
There is camping all the way up Rainbow Spring Road, beautiful spacious pull-outs that can accommodate some moderate sized trailers and RVs. I don’t think you need a reservation. It’s first come first served, and a 14-day limit. There are no amenities other than the campsite pull-out. aThe area is patrolled by park officials. You might want to check on details with The Bureau of Land Management that administers the area. The technical name for this kind of camping is Dispersed Camping. Here’s an article on dispersed camping in the Spring Mountains.
Little Zion Trailhead
Little Zion Trailhead at the upper end of Rainbow Spring Road is marked by a barrier to prevent vehicular traffic beyond that point. There is no sign that says, “Little Zion Trailhead”, though that location is marked on Google Maps.
Beyond the motorized vehicle barrier, welcome to a network of unmarked trails spinning off in multiple directions! For the best help, view the map on this page. On the Terrain Map setting you will see where the route leads among the ridges and up to The Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline. The video will also be helpful, giving an on-the-ground perspective.
Approach Route to The Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline
On the approach trip I took a free-style ridge route. I call this “The Wolverine Route” referring to the reality or legend that Wolverines, when they travel through the wilderness do so is a fairly straight line. If there’s a mountain in the way, they go right over the mountain vs. finding a route around the mountain. This wilderness strategy aims to stick to high ridgelines. In some ways it’s easier than winding through lower canyon washes and the barriers in those washes (dry waterfalls, ledges, bees, deep gravel…etc.). You can see the big picture of where you are vs. being in a lower wash, and the views are spectacular.
Wolverine Ridge and Arrival on The Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline
There is one distinctive ridge to be crossed between the Little Zion Trailhead and The Upper Crest Ridgeline. I don’t know the name of this ridge, if it has a name, but in the video I refer to it as “Wolverine Ridge.” Once you’ve topped Wolverine Ridge, you can see The Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline immediately to the East, only about 100 yards away! You’ll need to descend and re-ascend a small saddle to get there, but soon you’ll be standing on The Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline where you can look back to the West all the way to your start/end point on Lovell Canyon Road; ahead to the East down into Red Rock Canyon and The Las Vegas Valley beyond; and to the North and South along the spine of The Rainbow Mountains. Indecision Peak, Mt. Wilson and even views all the way to Bridge Mountain are visible to the North. It’s breathtaking, spectacular…and a lot of other huge descriptive words!
A Little Upper Crest Ridgeline Exploration
I’d taken a stretch of The Upper Crest Ridgeline South from Mt. Wilson to a little beyond Indecision Peak the week before, so I headed North on the Ridgeline for a bit in order to close the remaining gap toward Indecision Peak. In the process, I found the Ridgeline Trail to be fairly well-defined and easy to traverse. You can take this trail all the way from near Willow Spring in Red Rock Canyon at the North end of The Rainbow Mountains to Highway 160 at the South end of The Rainbow Mountains. But that’s another story. Back to Little Zion!
Upper Crest Ridgeline to the Little Zion Spin-off Trail
After crossing the saddle between Wolverine Ridge and The Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline, turn South (right) on the Ridgeline Trail. You’ll continue on that trail for about a quarter to a half mile before taking the first left (East) down the unmarked Little Zion spin-off trail. This is the first thing that looks like an actual trail. To turn left before this point, you’ve turned too soon and are obviously going down the side of a steep slope or cliff. Look for the first real trail to your left.
Staying on The Little Zion Trail
Now that you’ve turned left onto the unmarked “Little Zion” approach trail, keep to your left. There are spin-off trails to your right that will take you to Hidden Peak. Not a big problem…it’s beautiful there too, but you won’t end up at Little Zion!
Final Descent to Little Zion
Back on The Little Zion Trail: As you descend and look ahead down into the canyon, you’ll soon see a beautiful grove of Ponderosa Pines ahead. That’s Little Zion! The trail heads for that grove, but it’s good to actually be able to see your destination from a distance before you arrive. The Little Zion Trail will wind downward and eventually empty onto the huge sandstone ledge upon which Little Zion rests. There may be directional cairns guiding you along the sandstone. Don’t count on it. Just head for the Ponderosa Pine grove you can see ahead. The easiest way to get there is to take a wide berth to your left. That will take you right down to Little Zion without having to descend a short but easy 6-foot ledge into The Little Zion meadow.
Exploring Little Zion
You’ll notice a trail through the grassy meadow under the Ponderosa Pines. Wander around. Enjoy this amazing place! The borders are pretty well-defined. Towering cliff of Hidden Peak and Monument Peak to your right (South); cliffs to your left (North); a huge drop-off at the West (lower end) of Little Zion. But even with these borders, this unique oasis is pretty large.
Don’t miss the spectacular arch (see the video and slide show on this page). The arch is on the North side of Little Zion, near the upper end of the meadow. There’s also a Southeastern branch at the lower end of Little Zion. I missed this, only to see it later in one of my photos taken from the Indecision Peak area to the north 🙁 It looks as if there might be another arch there!
Return Trip to The Little Zion Trailhead
Here’s where I discovered the main canyon wash route to Little Zion. You can take this route to and from Little Zion if you prefer it to the Wolverine Ridge Route (above).
Locating the Descent Wash and Trail
After retracing your way up The Little Zion Trail and back to The Rainbow Mountains Upper Crest Ridgeline, turn right (North) on the Ridgeline. You’ll continue on the Ridgeline trail for around a quarter mile, maybe less. Spot Wolverine Ridge to the West. You want to head downward before reaching the South side of Wolverine Ridge (the edge of the ridge closest to you). There is no trail, no markings, but soon you will find yourself descending a gully wash along a route that looks more and more like a trail as you go. Cairns will eventually appear, but hey, you’re in a wash. Just stay in the wash and continue downward. Between the cairns and the wash it’s hard to go off-course.
Turning Onto the Wide Connector Trail Toward The Little Zion Trailhead
Eventually, the wash will descend below Wolverine Ridge. Continue down the wash for another mile or so. You’ll notice a lower line of foothills at the base of The Rainbow Mountains running parallel to The Ridgeline above. The line of lower foothills appears just before the canyon wash empties into Lovell Canyon. Take a right (North) just before reaching those lower foothills. You’ll soon discover a wide (but unmarked) trail that skirts the East base of those foothills (Lovell Canyon being on the opposite – West – side of the hills). Continue along this fine, wide trail. Notice Wolverine Ridge above and to your right (West). After passing the North side of Wolverine Ridge, take a left (West) at the base of a very large brown foothill (toward Lovell Canyon). This will take you back to the Little Zion Trailhead and Rainbow Spring Road.
The Main Route to Little Zion
If you want to take the main route from the Little Zion Trailhead to Little Zion, just reverse my return route. See the map on this page. The blue line is the more well-traveled route to Little Zion.
One Turn Too Soon, But It Worked!
I actually turned a bit before that large foothill and headed down a very shallow wash that emptied into Bootleg Spring (notice it on the map, and in the video). You probably don’t want to turn down that wash. Bootleg Spring is a field of tall deep grass (think “Rattlesnake”!!!) I had to ascend a ridge to bypass the rattlesnake grass. But below Bootleg Spring you’ll soon reconnect with Rainbow Spring Road and then reach your start/end point on Lovell Canyon Road. Of course, if you parked at The Little Zion Trailhead your journey is complete when you reach Rainbow Spring Road.
Important Note on Wilderness Navigation
Notice how I navigate by landmarks. If you’re used to navigating along trails, you will have a linear experience. This works if you are on well marked, well defined trails. However, in the wilderness and on scattered, faint trails with many unmarked branches, you are more likely to lose the trail and get lost in the wilderness. If you keep your sites on large landmarks (surrounding hills, ridges…etc.), you are less likely to get lost, and you’ll experience a new sense of freedom in the wilderness. Watch the video and see how I navigated by landmarks. I point out the major landmarks along the way.