By John R. Beyer
I like Christmas. I think most people do. In fact, American journalist Ray Stannard Baker once mused, “As for me, I like to take my Christmas a little at a time, all through the year.”
Fortunately, there’s a place where Christmas lasts year-round – a 16-mile drive in southern Nevada over a well-maintained dirt road near Laughlin.
Christmas Tree Pass Road meanders through the Newberry Mountains, near the location of the revered Spirit Mountain. This open public land area within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area is considered the center of creation for all Yuman speaking peoples. It is a sacred area for the Native Americans who traditionally resided near the Lower Colorado River Valley and other lands in what are now the borders of Arizona, Nevada and California.
In 1999, Spirit Mountain was listed as a Traditional Cultural Property and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also the highest peak within the Newberry Mountains at an elevation of 5,639 feet.
The dirt road is easily accessible for most standard vehicles, and though a signpost may mention a 4×4 is recommended, it is not necessary most of the year. During monsoon season, perhaps, but then a boat may be more appropriate during especially hard downpours of rain.
When traveling through the deserts of the southwest, it is prudent to keep an eye on the weather.
My lovely wife, Laureen, and I were driving from Searchlight to Laughlin on US-95 and decided to enjoy a short excursion over Christmas Tree Pass Road.
“Let’s enjoy a bit of winter, shall we?” I asked.
“It’s Spring,” she replied.
I nodded. “But it’s always Christmas here.”
As we drove southeast over the majestic peaks of the Newberry Mountains it dawned on us this is a road worth traveling.
The views of the country are gorgeous, with the rugged sharped peaks of this Nevada range reaching upwards into blue cloudless skies. The view of the Mojave Desert toward the Colorado River was breathtaking. The curves and twists of the roadway only bring new delights at every bend. It seemed unexplored territory.
Bumping along the roadbed, we encountered a few other visitors here and there, but overall, the drive was serene. We often stopped to take in the beauty of the mountains, staring up at the granite faced cliffs which many times resembled animals. Coyotes howling at the moon, pigs dancing and other rock formations waiting for a creative imagination.
Coming upon juniper, piñon and other bushes decorated brightly let us know we had made it to the holiday season. Ornaments, shiny and glistening in the morning sunshine hanging upon the trees. Tinsel carefully arranged across and through the branches of the green trees gave the impression of a forever Christmas.
True, there are no real pine or fir trees here, but it seemed as though that special season was truly shared here on top of these mountains with these conifer bushes.
We spent time exploring, taking photos, and marveling at how people will go out of their way to provide a bit of joy for all to share.
As we continued along the path toward US-163, northwest of Laughlin, we came upon Grapevine Canyon, where hundreds of petroglyphs are scattered throughout a boulder laden geographic slice in the Newberry Mountains.
Archaeologist Julian Steward first wrote about the petroglyphs in the early 1920s, prompting the need for a more thorough study on the Great Basin artwork created by early Native Americans. Due to the lack of precipitation, the petroglyphs are well-preserved, and clearly show the culture and lifestyles of the first inhabitants.
A mere third of a mile hike across soft riverbed sand allowed us a chance to gaze upon the ancient carvings. These works of art, according to current research, were originally etched into the granite 800 years ago.
The petroglyphs told stories of hunters chasing wildlife, people sitting as though speaking around a fire, maps showing water locations. And apparently space aliens standing around in space suits (but that could just be my interpretation).
It was also determined that other ancients traveled through the area and refreshed many of the carvings. This was a sign of the utmost respect for a previous artist. To freshen up, without any changes to the original work, is considered rather unusual in many cultures worldwide.
We met a gentleman from Great Britain who had been traveling the Southwest solo for the past two months and was amazed at the quality of the artists.
“This is wonderful to experience,” he said. “The time and patience it took to create so many carvings, and so intricate – it’s mindboggling.” We had to agree.
The canyon goes on for another mile and exploring requires a bit of rock scrambling. But there is a plethora of desert fauna to view, and possibly a chance to catch a glimpse of a golden eagle, desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and all sorts of lizards and snakes. The flora of the canyon also offers a chance to see red-spined California barrel cactus, creosote and indigo bushes.
Traveling this marvelous pass is good at any time of the year, but April’s weather seems especially perfect, with average temperatures in the mid-70s, offering the visitor cool mornings for hiking. It may warm up to the 90s in the afternoon calling for a little sunscreen, water and a wide-brimmed hat to allow the adventurer to experience this natural and historical wonder at its best and in comfort.