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Keystone Thrust Fault Trail
Hiking Around Las Vegas, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Keystone Thrust Trail
Keystone Thrust
Trailhead sign (view north)

Overview

This moderately strenuous hike runs out a well-marked trail for 0.8 miles to a place where you can touch the Keystone Thrust earthquake fault. This thrust fault is interesting because older limestone rocks (gray) have been pushed up and over younger sandstone rocks (red). You can see the fault in other places around Red Rocks, but you can touch it here. There are grand views of the Red Rock (Wilson) Cliffs from this trail.

Link to map.

Keystone Thrust Trail
White Rock -- Keystone trail junction (view N)

Watch Out

Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert, ... this is a pretty safe hike, but if the earthquake fault starts thrusting, you should make a run for it.

While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and try to Leave No Trace of your passage. Also, even though this hike is short, be sure to bring what you need of the 10 Essentials.

Keystone Thrust Trail
Trail running towards Hogback Ridge (view NE)

Getting to the Trailhead

This hike is located along Scenic Loop Road in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, about 45 minutes west of Las Vegas. From town, drive out to Red Rocks, pay the entrance fee, and drive about half-way around the Scenic Loop Road to White Rock Road. Drive up White Rock Road to the White Rock Trailhead. Park here; this is the trailhead.

Keystone Thrust Trail
Agave roasting pit (view NW)

The Hike

A sign on the northeast side of the parking area marks the Keystone Thrust trailhead. This is also a trailhead for the White Rock Loop Trail. Note that other trails lead out from the west side of the parking area.

Along the trail, notice to diversity of shrub species and scattered pinyon pine and juniper trees. This area is located at the interface between the Mojave Desert Scrub habitat type and the Pinyon-Juniper Woodland habitat type. Watch for lots of Banana Yucca, Blackbrush, and Stansbury Cliffrose (typical Mojave Desert Scrub species), plus scattered Single-leaf Pinyon Pine, and Utah Juniper (typical Pinyon-Juniper Woodland species).

Keystone Thrust Trail
Old road (view NE)

From the trailhead (Table 2, Waypoint 01), the Keystone Thrust trail runs north up an old road. The trail passes an agave roasting pit on the left. An information sign explains that native peoples used this area as a kitchen, cooking foods such as Utah Agave hearts, desert tortoise, chuckwalla, bighorn sheep, and other tasty items by heating stones in a fire, then cooking the food with the hot rocks.

About 130 yards from the trailhead, the trail crosses the major wash (Wpt. 02) that comes down from the White Rock Hills.

At a trail junction (Wpt. 03) about 100 yards past the wash, the Keystone Thrust Trail turns right and climbs out of the wash to the east. Watch for trail signs and a few wooden stairs leading up the hillside. The White Rock Loop Trail continues north from the trail junction.

Keystone Thrust Trail

The Keystone Thrust trail runs northeast towards Hogback Ridge until it hits an old road (Wpt. 04) that comes up from the south. The trail turns and follows the old road northward along the steep west side of Hogback Ridge. Following the road north, the trail shortly passes another well-preserved agave roasting pit (Wpt. 05) off to the right (east).

Beyond the agave roasting pit, the old road winds around, curves to the east, and climbs onto the ridge at the north end of Hogback Ridge. A few yards farther, the Keystone Trail leaves the old road (Wpt. 06), turns right, and runs east and down into Keystone Basin. A metal T-post sign with an arrow placard marks the trail junction: the old road continues north up the ridge, while the Keystone Trail turns right and runs down the hillside.

Keystone Thrust Trail
Keystone Trail leaves old road (view NE)

From the ridgetop (Wpt. 06), the trail runs down into the canyon and out onto a broad, flat area (Wpt. 07) of red sandstone with manzanita, singleleaf pinyon pine, shrub live oak, Utah agave, blackbrush, few other shrubs and grasses growing in the area.

Across the wash to the east, a use-trail runs across the hillside near the top of the red sandstone. Just above the solid sandstone, a layer of yellowish soil is a mix of ground up sandstone and limestone. Just above the yellowish layer, limestone outcrops reveal solid rock. Thus, the yellowish layer marks the actual Keystone Thrust Fault. Here, limestone was pushed up over the sandstone, grinding some of the solid sandstone back into sand and mixing it with a bit of ground limestone. It is also interesting to note that much of the sandstone on the surface is broken up into individual stones rather than the slickrock sandstone seen in other areas around Red Rocks, revealing the pulverizing nature of the thrust fault.

Keystone Thrust Trail
View into Keystone Thrust area

The official trail ends on the broad, flat area (Wpt. 07), but a use-trail curves back into the wash and continues out across the hillside on the contour. The use-trail gives a close-up view of the thrust fault, then runs out onto a nice promontory (Wpt. 08) with grand views down Keystone Canyon and out across the landscape to the south.

Keystone Thrust Trail

On the way down into the canyon, the trail started by running across old, gray Bonanza King limestone that dates from the Cambrian (about 500 million years ago). At the bottom of the canyon, the trail ends young, red Aztec Sandstone that only dates from the Jurassic (about 150 million years ago). Generally, you find younger rocks on top of older rocks because rocks generally are built up as new layers form on top of previous layers (i.e., the new rocks need something on which to form; they can't form in the air). However, here older rocks lie atop younger rocks.

Keystone Thrust Trail This unusual positioning resulted from plate tectonic (earthquake) activity some 65 million years ago. In this area, tectonic activity compressed the surface of the earth and fractured it into plates. As the compression continued, the plates were pushed (thrust) together horizontally, and some plates slid up and over other plates, putting older rocks on top of younger rocks. Think of this as ice on the surface of a river breaking up during spring where moving water under the ice forces some broken sheets of ice up on top of other sheets of ice.
keystone thrust trail
Keystone Thrust Fault (view north).

During the 65 million years since this occurred, some of the limestone has completely eroded way, exposing the underlying sandstone. For example, the White Rock Hills formerly were completely covered by limestone. In other places, the limestone has not eroded away, leaving, for example, the La Madre Mountains and Hogback Ridge.

keystone thrust trail
Keystone Thrust (view NW from Charleston Blvd (notice gray limestone sitting atop red sandstone)

So the red sandstone at the end of the Keystone Thrust trail was the surface of the earth some 65 million years ago. It was eventually buried and covered by thrusting limestone, and it has remained covered since then. However, erosion has removed the limestone here and returned the sandstone to its former position on the surface.

Enjoy the area, contemplate the forces the produced the current terrain, and then return to the trailhead by following your footprints in the dust back to the trailhead.

On the way back down, consider making a bit of a loop at the end of the trail by staying on the old road when the trail cuts off (Wpt. 04).

Table 2. Hiking Coordinates Based on GPS Data (NAD27; UTM Zone 11S). Download Hiking GPS Waypoints (*.gpx) file.

Wpt. Location Easting Northing Elevation (ft) Point-to-Point Distance (mi) Cumulative Distance (mi) Verified
01 White Rock Trailhead 637004 4004066 4,871 0.00 0.00 Yes
02 White Rock Wash 636961 4004167 4,915 0.07 0.07 Yes
03 White Rock - Keystone Jct 636952 4004271 4,956 0.07 0.15 Yes
04 Old Road Jct 637054 4004383 5,009 0.10 0.25 GPS
05 Agave Roasting Pit 637047 4004599 5,094 0.16 0.41 Yes
06 Trail Jct 637222 4004908 5,247 0.25 0.66 Yes
07 Keystone Fault Area 637387 4004872 5,135 0.13 0.79 Yes
08 Keystone Canyon Overlook 637481 4004819 5,125 0.14 0.93 GPS

Happy Hiking! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 161002

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