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Nellis Wash Wilderness Area
Southern Nevada Wilderness Areas
Nellis Wash Wilderness Area
Nellis Wash Wilderness Area


Nellis Wash is a small (16,423 acres) wilderness area that includes the bajadas on the northeastern slopes of the Newberry Mountains. The western boundary follows legal lines, and in doing so, captures two mountain sides with elevations to about 3,500 feet. Several major washes, including Nellis Wash drain the Newberrys, cross the wilderness area (lowest elevations of about 1,300 feet), and flow into the Colorado River (650 feet). Because the wilderness area does not include any peaks, the area can not be seen from the west (for example, from Highway 95). From the east side (for example, along the Colorado River), the landform is a gently sloping bajada leading to a steep, rugged ridge cut by deep canyons (some 1,000 feet deep). The southern end of the wilderness area has steep, nearly barren ridges separated by deep, well-vegetated washes, while the northern end is a gently rolling bajada. Spirit Mountain and the Newberry Mountains form a scenic background above the bajada.

Nellis Wash Wilderness Area

The Nellis Wash wilderness area is separated from the Spirit Mountain Wilderness Area by a dirt road, which is separated from the Bridge Canyon Wilderness Area by another dirt road. Combined, these three wilderness areas are fairly large, protecting nearly 58,000 acres of designated wilderness.

If you hike in wilderness areas, help protect them by learning about and reporting noxious and invasive weeds.

Link to map of the wilderness area.

Nellis Wash Wilderness Area


This wilderness area is located about 60 air-miles south of Las Vegas, between Searchlight and Laughlin.


This wilderness area is triangular shaped. The western boundary is coincident with the boundary of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The northeastern boundary follows a powerline corridor from the Lake Mead boundary to Empire Wash. The southern boundary is the Empire Wash Road, which is also the northern boundary of the Spirit Mountain Wilderness Area.

Nellis Wash Wilderness Area


Access to the wilderness area is from dirt roads. Powerline Road (Road #30), which runs along the northeast edge of the wilderness area, is a well-graded dirt road from the pavement at the Cottonwood Cove Road (Highway 164 east of Searchlight) to the Nellis Cove Road (Road #24). Beyond Nellis Cove Road, the Powerline Road is rough, rocky, and steep in places, and it should only be driven in a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle (driving south, the road might be passable in a 2WD, high-clearance vehicle, but I wouldn't risk it). The Empire Wash Road, which runs along the south edge of the wilderness area, is a narrow 2-track that runs down the wash. There are a few rocky places, but generally the road is pretty good and suitable for a 2WD, high-clearance vehicle.

Nellis Wash Wilderness Area

To get to the wilderness area, drive south from Las Vegas on Highway 95 for about 35 miles to Searchlight. In Searchlight, turn east (left) onto Cottonwood Cove Road to find Powerline Road, or continue south for 10 miles to Cal-Nev-Ari to find the Empire Wash Road.

To find Powerline Road, drive east from Searchlight on the Cottonwood Cove Road. The turnoff is 6.8 miles east of Highway 95. Watch for the high-tension powerlines that cross the paved road. Turn south (right) onto the wide, well-graded dirt road. A short ways out, signs announce your entry into Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and from there to the Empire Wash Road, everything west (right) of the road out to the base of the hills is in the Nellis Wash Wilderness Area.

Nellis Wash Wilderness Area To find the Empire Wash Road, drive south from Searchlight for about 10 miles to Cal-Nev-Ari. At the north edge of town, turn east (left) onto Loran Station Road. The Loran Station is a U.S. Navy facility with an array of tall radio towers that can be seen from the highway long before the turnoff. Drive east on the rough, paved road to the Loran Station, then continue eastward on the wide, well-graded road. When the road bends hard to the south (right), go straight onto a lesser road, which is the Empire Wash Road. The road continues generally easterly, heads over a low saddle, and starts down Empire Wash. About 3 miles from the Loran Station Road, you get to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area boundary, which also is the boundary of the wilderness area. From here to Powerline Road, everything north of the road is the Nellis Wash Wilderness Area, and everything south of the road is the Spirit Mountain Wilderness Area.
Nellis Wash Wilderness Area


The area includes a small portion of the east side of the rugged Newberry Mountains, but most of the wilderness area includes the drainages and bajadas that extend east from the mountains toward Lake Mohave. There are three basic landforms in the wilderness area: the rugged Newberry Mountains, the steep and nearly barren ridges in the southeast portion of the area, and the gently rolling bajada in the northern portion of the wilderness area.

The east side of the Newberry Mountains is steep, rugged, rocky, and cut by deep canyon. The hillsides are steep and rocky, with lots of boulders and short cliffs. This landform is best seen from the Empire Wash Road.

Nellis Wash Wilderness Area

The terrain in the southeastern section of the wilderness area is formed by ridges and washes that extend from the mountains to the lake. The ridges are not steep, but the sides of the ridges are steep and nearly barren. The washes generally are narrow at the base with steep sides or short cliffs along the edges.

The terrain in the northeastern section of the wilderness area is formed by a gently sloping bajada that extends from the mountains, which are low and rounded this far north, to the lake. Numerous washes run down the bajada, but the washes are shallow and the sides slope gently. From a distance, this area gives the impression of smooth, gently sloping desert flats.

Nellis Wash Wilderness Area

Habitat Type

The overall habitat type is Mojave Desert Scrub, dominated by creosote bush, white bursage, Mojave yucca, and a few other low-growing, sparse, desert shrubs and grasses. In the Newberry Mountains, barrel cactus and Mojave jointfir are common on the steep, rocky hillsides. In the washes, the vegetation is more diverse. In Empire Wash, catclaw acacia is common and highly parasitized by mistletoe, plus there are numerous other shrubs and buckhorn cholla. On the southeastern ridges, the vegetation is sparse, stunted creosote bush with little else mixed in. In some areas, however, patches of teddybear cholla blanket the hillside. On the northeastern bajada, creosote and bursage dominate, but they are more dense, less stunted, and other shrubs also are common. Mojave yucca and buckhorn cholla occur here too.

Nellis Wash Wilderness Area
Looking down towards Lake Mohave from along Empire Wash (view E)


Mammals that use the area include wild burros, coyotes, black-tailed jackrabbits, white-tailed antelope squirrels, kangaroo rats, desert woodrats, and other small rodents. Reptiles include side-blotched lizards, rattlesnakes, desert tortoise, and horned lizards. Birds include Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Black-throated Sparrow, Say's Phoebe, and Gambel's Quail.


I have no knowledge of prehistoric use by humans, but this wilderness area is adjacent to the Spirit Mountain Wilderness Area, so people undoubtedly used this area.

Nellis Wash Wilderness Area
Rocky hillside adjacent to Empire Wash (view NE)


As elsewhere in this part of the state, the geology is complex. The Newberry Mountains are composed of older metamorphic (1.7 billion years) and granitic rocks (1.4 billion years), overlain by Tertiary volcanic basalt flows and ash-fall tuffs that date to only about 6-17 million years ago. Below the mountains, the bajada is composed of Quaternary alluvial deposits.


There are a number of old mining sites along Empire Wash. Open mine shafts are always interesting, but remember, stay out and stay alive.

Note: All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 110506

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