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All that glitters in southern Nevada isn't neon; exploring the hinterlands northeast of Las Vegas ... dramatic rocks, trout lakes, forests.

All that glitters in southern Nevada isn't neon Las Vegas quickly surrenders to the desert as you drive northeast out of town. The clamor and glamour of The Strip fade with each mile, and Nevada's classic basin-and-range country spreads out, vast and desolate.

Many motorists set their cars on cruise control and hardly give this hinterland a second look. But a trip into the Great Basin and Mojave deserts can be one of Nevada's best bets, offering beautifully remote hiking, camping, and fishing opportunities on day-trips from Vegas or on stopovers along the way to the national parks of southern Utah.

As the sun bathes Catheral Gorge's golden turrets, or torches Valley of Fire's red sandstone, you'll soon realize that Las Vegas isn't the only place in southern Nevada that glows. We suggest detours to trout-filled lakes, dramatic rock formations, and pinon and juniper forests. All are accessible by standard car on paved or dirt roads.

A desert shaped by water

The Pacific storms that dump rain and snow on the western Sierra Nevada leave only small amounts east of the range. Yet water still defines Nevada's terrain.

Geographers describe the Great Basin by the nature of its drainage: its rivers flow into inland sinks instead of reaching the sea. Most of the land off U.S. 93 sits in the Great Basin, though many of our suggested destinations actually drain into the Meadow Valley Wash and, ultimately, the Colorado River.

Walls of blazing fire: near I-15

Valley of Fire State Park. You probably won't see much water in Nevada's oldest state park, but its effects are everywhire. Come early or in late afternoon, and the red pinnacles and arches, carved by wind and water, positively blaze against the clear desert sky. Some 140 million years ago, dunes covered this land> water seeping through the sand helped bind the grains together. Oxidized iron gives the sandstone its red-orange cast--reminiscent of Utah's Zion National Park.

Best time to visit the 39,000-acre park, which ranges in elevation from 1,540 to 3,677 feet, is October to May> Easter week tends to be busy. Stop at the visitor center (open 8:30 to 4:30) or call (702) 397-2088 for maps and information about hikes and petroglyphs (a short interpretive trail leads through several areas with petroglyphs).

The park has 51 campsites ($4). Take I-15 about 35 miles northeast of Las Vegas, then go east 18 miles on State Highway 169 to the park. For a different return, take State 169 east to North Shore Road and go south.

Wild birds, wild canyons: near U.S. 93

To reach U.S. 93, take I-15 about 20 miles north of Las Vegas, following signs for Great Basin Highway. Parks farthest from the city are 175 miles away.

Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. After 80 miles of desert, Pahranagat's lakes seem a mirage> the name itself is a Paiute word for cplace of many waters." Here, a system of dikes has created four lakes that attract birds using the Pacific Flyway. Spring and fall are the best times to see them, and North Marsh and Upper Lake offer the greatest variety, especially for waterfowl> look for the Upper Lake access signs.

For camping, fishing, and hunting information, call 725-3417, or write Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex, 1500 N. Decatur Blvd., Las Vegas 89108.

North of Pahranagat, U.S. 93 runs through Alamo and Ash Springs, then turns sharply east toward Caliente, with probably the drive's most beautiful scenery: colorful cliffs and forest.

Rainbow Canyon. If you return to Las Vegas from Caliente, try State Highway 317 down Rainbow Canyon. At the BLM's Caliente office (open weekdays) on U.S. 93, pick up an interpretive guide to caves, petroglyphs, and historic sites. The road becomes graded gravel after 20 miles, then continues 35 miles to U.S. 93.

Cathedral Gorge State Park. Continuing north, drive 15 miles past Caliente to this park, near the tiny farming town of Panaca. The gorge's golden spires, sculpted by wind and water from a prehistoric lake's deep clay and mud deposits, recall the towers and carvings of Canterbury Cathedral. The park has many narrow, cloister-like canyons, and developed trails. Hike a 1-mile path to Miller Point overlook, or drive to it (take the second park exit from U.S. 93). The park has 22 campsites> for details, call 728-4467.

Meadow Valley Wash: off State 322

Echo Canyon State Recreation Area. East of the once rough-and-tumble town of Pioche near State Highway 322, Echo Canyon has a 65-acre reservoir for fishing and boating (it was low last year).

The road into the park passes the lake and leads into some beautiful canyon country. To explore the rock formations of Ash Canyon, take a 3-mile (round-trip) interpretive walk that starts near the trail kiosk in the back of the campground. High points on the route offer good views of Meadow Valley Wash.

From Pioche, take State 322 4 miles to State 86 and continue 8 miles to the park, which has 34 campsites. For information, call 962-5103.

Spring Valley State Park. Take State 322 northeast 18 miles from Pioche through a beautiful canyon to this 5,800-foot park. There's a reservoir with launch, as well as good fishing for trout and striped bass.

The park has no formal trails, but a mile past the lake overlook you can scramble up dramatic light-colored cliffs for excellent views of the valley's lush green meadows (precipitation at Spring Valley is about 50 percent greater than at Echo Canyon, just 10 miles away). The park has 37 campsites> call 962-5102.
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Date:Mar 1, 1991
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