By MARGO BARTLETT PESEK
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
A centerpiece of new development and reconstruction of facilities in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, the Visitor Gateway provides an introduction to this unique forest island west of Las Vegas.
The handsome visitor center, which opened last spring, features large windows framing striking mountain views, an information desk, a nicely stocked book and souvenir store and interactive exhibits on the area’s history, geology, wildlife and unique plant and insect species. Information provided helps visitors plan their excursion to this part of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
The visitor center reflects thoughtful planning. The use of natural materials helps it blend with its surroundings. Decorative elements using native stone are evident, especially in the rock walls and an attractive walkway design in the major approach to the entrance. Green technology including solar is employed. The placement of the building and its windows takes advantage of natural light. Hidden pipes in the floor carry cold or hot water as needed to keep the building’s temperature comfortable. Beautiful wood repurposed as wall designs was salvaged from dismantled picnic tables built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
The visitor center lies along Kyle Canyon Road, state Route 157, the first of three mountain highways forming the Mount Charleston Scenic Byway, a popular loop route. There is no fuel for vehicles available in the mountains, so start out with a full tank, water and a good spare tire.
Drive north on U.S. Highway 95 to reach the Kyle Canyon Turnoff. The visitor center is about 16 miles from U.S. 95, a drive of less than 45 minutes from downtown Las Vegas. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The information desk and gift store are manned by forest service personnel and knowledgeable volunteers, often residents of the Mount Charleston community.
The mountain highways never fail to provide beautiful scenery in every season. Spring wildflowers are beginning to appear as you turn off U.S. 95. Look for orange mallow, white pincushion and lavender Mojave aster among the yucca in bloom along the first few miles. Higher up, the many-branched Joshua trees are very showy this year with many other blossoms soon to follow. As summer arrives, look for roadside wildflowers where the roads course through forests of pine and fir.
Continue following the scenic byway by turning on Deer Creek Road about a mile west of the visitor center. This road over Deer Creek Summit presents panoramic overviews as it links to Lee Canyon Road, state Route 156. Complete the scenic byway from Lee Canyon back to U.S. 95 and the return to Las Vegas.
The loop route provides access to picnic areas, campgrounds and hiking trails in Kyle, Deer Creek and Lee canyons. There are six picnic areas in the national forest, most along the main roads and others in nearby side canyons. Three campgrounds serve visitors to the area with some sites available on a first-come basis and others reserved at least three days in advance online at recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. Groups planning picnics or campouts must reserve sites.
The roadways pass trailheads for many forest trails. A network of trails in the Spring Mountains includes 15 designated routes rated by length, altitude gain and degree of difficulty. Trail maps are available in the Gateway visitor center. For safety’s sake, never hike alone. Let someone know where you are headed. Wear layered clothing, including a jacket, and sturdy footwear. Carry drinking water and trail snacks. Do not overestimate your abilities, especially at high altitude.
Private facilities accessed by the scenic route include the historic Mount Charleston Lodge at the end of the road into Kyle Canyon, the Resort on Mount Charleston just beyond the visitor center and the ski and snowboard center in Lee Canyon. The Lodge has a restaurant, lounge and 23 log cabins for guests. The resort has hotel rooms, a restaurant, a lounge and banquet facilities often used for special events.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.