A Safe Bet for Scenery, History in Nevada

Martin is a former copy editor for The Times Travel Section

Less than 20 miles west of the gaudy frenzy of Fremont Street and the Strip is an oasis of such spectacular scenery and contrast that you'll find it difficult to that believe the armada of slots and gaming tables is so near.

Odds are you may never have heard of it. If you're like most visitors to this city, you head straight for the hotel, check into your room and dash to the casino.

For the next two or three days, with the possible exception of an occasional trip to the pool or golf course, you never leave the hotel building . . . unless it's to enter another casino.

Next time, if you don't arrive in your own car, rent one or check with the hotel about bus tours. Gray Line operates one that goes to Red Rock Recreation Lands, an area abounding in history and spectacle.

To reach the first stop on your tour, drive north from the Strip to Charleston Boulevard. Turn west, then head south on Blue Diamond Road to the turnoff for Red Rock Canyon's 13-mile Scenic Loop Drive, a paved, well-maintained, one-way road that curves through a breathtaking geological wonderland.

Pull-offs are conveniently sited to let you park and study the incredible grandeur of the multicolored rock escarpments, their beauty changing with the shifting of the light.

Choice of Hiking Trails

For the adventurous and those with time, hiking trails lead off the loop: Lost Creek, with a year-round spring and a waterfall in season; Icebox Canyon, and the most popular trail, Pine Creek Canyon, a two-mile round-trip path leading to the ruins of a historic homestead, complete with a cool running creek and large ponderosa pines.

It would be easy to spend the entire day studying the geological wonders of the canyon, which evolved from a sea bed 400 million years ago.

Perhaps the most significant sight at Red Rock Canyon is Keystone Thrust Fault, a fracture in the earth's crust where, about 65 million years ago, an intense force thrust an older rock plate up and over the younger sandstone beneath it.

The wind- and rain-swept sandstone outcroppings and rugged cliffs, slashed with red, offer photographers a field day. Stop at either of the Calico Vista points on the loop drive for good vantage areas.

There are picnic grounds and designated campsites, and if you plan to explore, be sure to come prepared. A visitor center at the entrance offers maps and other information. Admission free. For more information, phone (702) 363-1921.

Colorful Ranch History

Continuing south on Blue Diamond Road at the end of the scenic loop, it's just a couple of miles to Spring Mountain Ranch, a 520-acre spread at the base of the magnificent Wilson Cliffs. It has changed hands many times during its long and colorful history. As early as the mid-1830s a campsite was established on the creek that runs through the area, an alternate route of the Old Spanish Trail.

It was a popular hangout for early outlaws and, in 1840, a group of Americans and Ute Indians led a raid on Mexican ranchos in California from there. For years the site was known as Bill Williams Ranch, after one of the raiders. In 1876 the property was acquired by James B. Wilson and George Anderson, who named it Sand Stone Ranch.

After the sons of Wilson died, the property became Willard George's and, in 1944, Chester Lauck, Lum of the "Lum and Abner" radio team, took over and called it the Bar Nothing Ranch.

After making many improvements, Lauck sold the ranch to Vera Krupp, wife of German munitions maker Alfred Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, who gave it its present name. In 1967 Krupp sold the ranch to Hughes Tool Co. (now Summa Corp.).

Secret Passageway

Many are the unverified stories of its use during this period, based on the discovery of a secret passageway to one of the guest rooms.

In 1972 Fletcher Jones and William Murphy bought the land, but after being denied permission for a real estate development, they turned the property over to the Nevada Division of Parks.

The main ranch house is a sprawling red barnlike building on a knoll overlooking acres of lush green lawn and trees, with white ranch fencing.

Peeking Through Windows

It is open to visitors for guided tours on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Visitors can also take self-guided tours around the grounds of the main house and peek through the windows any day. The guided tours through the historic areas of the ranch include the Wilson family cemetery, cabins built in 1880 and 1864 and many other outbuildings.

The ranch picnic area is open daily from 8 a.m. to dusk. There is a $3 fee to enter the grounds, which includes parking, restrooms, a picnic area and facilities for the handicapped. For more information, call (702) 875-4141.

Another few miles south on Blue Diamond Road takes you to Bonnie Springs, Old Nevada. There Al and Bonnie Levinson, he an ex-New Yorker and she a former Strip ice-show performer, have pursued their dream to faithfully create an Old West town as it must have been in the mid-1800s.

Painstakingly researched and constructed, the five-acre town of Old Nevada includes stores, an opera house, saloon, a blacksmith shop, a schoolhouse, a wax museum and a small cemetery. The town is built next to the original ranch house on the 115-acre property, which served as a stopover for most of the California-bound wagon trains.

Daily entertainment includes shoot-outs, a hanging and an old-fashioned hiss-the-villain melodrama.

Wide overhangs shelter sidewalks of wormwood planking imported from Oregon by Al Levinson. An avid student of Nevada history, he has collected many authentic artifacts and antiques that are on display and for sale in the shops, along with craft items and Indian jewelry.

The town is not a slick, sterile amusement park, but wears the look of authenticity--slightly scruffy and weather-beaten--with dirt streets and the occasional weed.

Stunt men and women wearing period outfits stroll the streets as prospectors, gun-toting outlaws and frontier women.

Cinematic Setting

The setting is a movie maker's dream, what with its background of towering Red Rock Canyon cliffs and, in the foreground, the desert studded with native yucca, sage, Joshua trees and mesquite.

Friendly burros roam the desert and will approach to mooch treats. Jack rabbits, coyotes and bighorn sheep are among the other animals you see during a ride on the old-time mini-train that on weekends carries passengers to and from the town entrance.

Expanding and refurbishing the old ranch house, which was built in 1840, was the Levinsons' first project. For years it had been known as the Red Rock Tavern before being renamed the Bonnie Springs Ranch restaurant, a reasonably priced dining place and bar for residents of Las Vegas and others in the know.

Improvements to the ranch house include picnic tables under the large old trees and building a pond adjacent to the dining room where guests can feed ducks and geese that have made it their home. To further encourage family trade, a large petting zoo was added for children.

Horses also are for hire to explore the fringes of Red Rock Canyon.

Admission to Old Nevada is $4.50 for adults, $2.50 for children and $3.50 for seniors. For more information, call (702) 875-4191.

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