Southern Nevada Photo Hot Spots
June has been an adventure as I traversed all over the Pacific states making my way from Seattle to Las Vegas to Monterey, CA and back to Las Vegas. It was over 3400 miles driven, three flights, and a boat ride. Unlike other months though, I did not get a ton of time to photograph during these travels. So I would like to introduce you to some locations here in Southern Nevada that are excellent for wildlife and landscape photography.
Here are my top five spots in Southern Nevada:
Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve
Located about thirty minutes south of the Strip in Las Vegas, the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve is an important oasis for both migratory birds and natives to the area. The park is recycled land that preforms double duty not only as an environmental oasis but also as active evaporating ponds for the city's Water Reclamation Facility.
The nine ponds, surrounded by trails, are the area's premiere birding spot. Here over 270 species of birds have been spotted and thousands congregate here on a regular basis during fall and spring migrations. Don't be fooled though, there is a good concentration of birds here year round even if you visit outside the migratory peak.
Best part about this location? Its free to visit! Just make sure to plan your visit in the morning as they close at 2PM in Fall, Winter, and Spring; and close at noon during the summer months.
Suggested camera equipment for your visit here includes a telephoto lens between 300 and 600mm and a monopod if you have trouble hand-holding said lens for prolonged periods of shooting. These birds are wild and many visit here from areas where hunting is legal so they can be skittish. Wildlife photography ethics state that we, as the photographers, should not impact the bird's behavior with our own. This means that by using the longest lens you have, you do not have to get as close to your subject and it allows the birds to remain resting and feeding versus fleeing.
Floyd Lamb Park
North of the Strip, on the northern end of the valley there is a 680 acre city park that offers a wide variety of photo opportunities. Floyd Lamb Park gives visitors the chance to visit a historic desert ranch and learn what ranching was like in the early Las Vegas years. A series of ponds attract a variety of wild birds and the park has some domestic and exotic birds wandering around including a handful of peacocks.
I prefer to visit the main ponds where ducks, geese, wading birds, and songbirds typically congregate and work my way towards the outskirts of the park where the trails lead to less manicured and more wild desert scrub. Hummingbirds are year round residents. Roadrunners are common along the park roads (go figure right?) so make sure you drive slowly to avoid potentially harming these fun birds. Desert cottontails and the long-eared jack rabbits are also commonly seen; however the later are especially hard to photography as they are extremely wary of humans.
Again the suggested camera equipment is a 300 to 600mm lens if trying for any of the wildlife. Mid to wide angle lenses can be used for scenery and this is a great location for family or portrait work as well.
Valley of Fire State Park
Probably the most well known location on this list, Valley of Fire State Park's fame is well deserved. The park contains some of the brightest red, orange, yellow, and white rock formations in the area. With trails that lead through slot canyons and to striated rock wave features, this park is amazing for any outdoor enthusiast and is tame enough for the whole family, dogs included!
Kind of the mid-point in distance from Las Vegas in this list, it takes about an hour and a half to get from Vegas proper to the Visitor's Center here. If you have the time, I highly suggest taking a few days and camping in the park as the best times to shoot are early morning and late afternoon while mid-day is good for exploring and working on intimate landscapes or detail shots.
All this being said means that for this location I highly recommend bringing a variety of lenses with you. Wide angle lenses can be used for capturing the grand landscapes of unique geological formations as well as maybe doing a bit of astrophotography from your campsite. Mid-range lenses would be great for hiking with as they are often lighter and versatile. Yet, I always have my telephoto Tamron 150-600mm ready to go at a moments notice as you never now when the Valley's herd of desert big horn sheep will show up.
Cathedral Gorge State Park
This park is in the middle of nowhere, and yet so amazing I have spent several weeks camped here over the last year. Unlike Valley of Fire, Cathedral Gorge is not very well known even by Vegas natives. Located about two and half hours from Las Vegas, Cathedral Gorge is a geological beauty filled with a dramatic landscape of eroded bentonite clay. In essence it looks like an entire series of shallow slot canyons made of melted wax in a clay color and texture.
Preferred times to photograph would be in the evenings, especially if there are clouds at sunset. If not, get a camp spot and settle in for an evening of astro shooting. With very little light pollution and at about 5000 ft of elevation, the night skies here are prime stargazing territory.
Suggested camera gear for this location would be wide angle lenses and macro if you have them. Some very interesting images can be created with wide angle lenses within the slots and if the sunset pops off you want to be able to capture not just the sky but these unique formations as well. The macro lens will help you photograph the various abstract patterns and textures in the rock as well as a variety of wildflowers that can be found during much of the year.
Some environmental considerations to think about before and during your visit. Due to the actual composition of the geology here, please do not enter the slots or go off the sand/gravel paths after a rain. The clay can be slippery and the formations are at their most vulnerable to damage when wet. Flash floods also frequent the area. Due to the elevation, nights can be chilly even in summer. During the winter this location can see snow and road conditions will vary.
Spring Valley State Park
At just over three hours drive from Las Vegas, this is the furthest location on the list (hint: you have to drive right past Cathedral Gorge to get here so maybe make a multi-day camping trip of it?). But, Spring Valley is so different in the environment that, once you are in the valley, it can be hard to remember you are still in the middle of the desert!
As the name suggests this area has natural springs that form a small creek which provides this region with a year round supply of water. At the southern point of the park is Eagle Valley Reservoir where fisherman and boaters take over most summer weekends. Just below the reservoir is a small shaded riparian ecosystem that flows out of the park.
The paved road ends at the reservoir; however, some of the best scenery and wildlife sighting opportunities lie beyond the pavement where a well maintained hard packed dirt road leads visitors upstream, past both historic and active ranching operations, and into the Nevada high desert where wild horses, meadowlarks, and elk can be seen.
Much like Valley of Fire, I highly recommend a variety of lenses for shooting in Spring Valley State Park. There are plenty of landscape opportunities that warrant a wide angle while the bird and wildlife call for a telephoto of 400 to 600mm.
Again, some safety considerations to plan for before your visit. The park's elevation is at almost 6000 ft and so weather tends to be cooler than expected. For example, just last month, late June, when I visited I woke up to sunrise temps of 35° F! It was triple digits in Vegas with overnight temperatures no lower than high 70s, yet in Spring Valley it was literally freezing still. This is not a location I suggest for winter due to the snow and limited road maintenance during the season. Year round there is NO cell service here either, so make sure you let someone know where you will be and when you expect to return before venturing out this way.
Side Note: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
By far the closest shooting location to the Strip at a mere 20 minute drive, Red Rock is very popular for a quick photography stop and I'm sure you are wondering why I did not include it in my Top 5 list. Here's the thing, its a beautiful 12 mile drive through the area and is one of the best spots in Southern Nevada for rock climbing. However, as a photographer, those beautiful layers of mountains you see from a distance as you approach Red Rock disappear by the time you actually make the conservation area as you are so close to the fore-mountains that they block the ones in the distance.
I have just never really had much luck finding great compositions in this spot so it doesn't make my list. Does that mean you shouldn't visit it? No! If you have time, I highly recommend taking a drive and seeing what you might be able to shoot there.
Well, that wraps up my top five locations to shoot in Southern Nevada. There are so many more, but these are the ones I most frequent and adore. Have you visited any of these or do you have other spots here that you love? It would be great to hear from you if you have visited any of these places or if you found this guide useful in helping plan your next visit to the Vegas area.
Until next time, cheers!
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