It used to be that the highlight of the drive back from Las Vegas to Phoenix was that part of the trip that involved the descent to, the slow but nonetheless pleasing drive over, and the climb up into Arizona from Hoover Dam. And if you were returning after dark, there was an amazing eeriness to the experience because of the way the lights provided the Black Canyon of the Colorado River with an otherworldly glow.
Of course, now that they've built the elevated and time-saving bypass over and around the dam, we no longer are allowed to drive home across this man-made marvel. (You can drive across the dam from Nevada, but the road on the Arizona side is closed and you have to backtrack back to the Boulder City side and take the new high bridge to Arizona.)
However, that doesn't mean there still isn't a way to break up the monotony of the opening leg of your journey as you're leaving Las Vegas.
Let's face it, except for that dip down to the dam, neither route from Vegas to Phoenix -- U.S. 93, which runs nearly arrow straight on its diagonal through the Detrital Valley to Kingman, nor U.S. 95, with barely a kink in its way as it searches its way to Searchlight -- offers much of interest as you gaze through the windshield.
But there is a wonderful if somewhat rugged road on the way home that offers both natural and man-made wonders to behold. It's called the Christmas Tree Pass Trail. It starts a dozen or so miles south of Searchlight and returns you back on pavement just above Laughlin on Nevada 163 (which links to Arizona 68 and brings you into the northwest side of Kingman).
We'd seen the sign indicating the trail on previous trips to and from Vegas, and after being sent a copy of the new book Nevada Trails/Southern Region: Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails ($24.95 from Adler Publishing, Parker, Colorado), we made a point of taking the trail on our way back from an automotive trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
We were driving a sport utility vehicle -- a 2011 Nissan Xterra Pro-4X -- though as the new off-pavement guide book notes: "The trail is a wide, graded two-lane dirt road," which, it adds, "can be corrugated and slightly eroded in places."
Nonetheless, it rates the route a mere 1 on a 10-point scale for degree of driving difficulty and thus Christmas Tree Pass Trail can be driven in your typical family sedan. However, we'd recommend something more along the lines of a sport or crossover utility vehicle, a pickup truck, or at least a rental car because there are places where the road is washboarded and others where there are rocks sticking up a couple of inches through the road surface. As with any desert road, we recommend more caution in or so after rainy weather.
But in decent weather and road conditions, if you're comfortable driving the Apache Trail out to Roosevelt Dam east of Phoenix, you should have no worries about the route to Christmas Tree Pass.
And while the Christmas Tree Pass Trail is rated only a 1 in difficulty, the guide book gives it an 8 in scenic splendor.
You can drive the trail in either direction. We took it on the way back, which mean a left turn off U.S. 95. The first mile or so traverses the Piute-Eldorado Area of Critical Environmental Concern, with signs warning you to please stay on the road and to leave plant and animal life alone. The road is wide and covered in sand and gravel as it crosses the flatland before tightening and twisting up into the Newberry Mountains.
The tallest of the Newberry's in Spirit Mountain (5,639 feet), which the guide book notes is believed by the Yuman tribes of the Colorado River to be the spiritual birthplace of their ancestors and is included on the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property.
The Newberrys are an amazing outcrop of naked rock and boulder formations, of peaks and spires and wind- and water-carved sculptures. Near the top of the pass there's a stack of four huge boulders that look as though Mother Nature placed a cairn so she wouldn't lose her way.
The guide book doesn't specify how Christmas Tree Pass got its name, except to note that for some period of time, travelers have decorated trees near the pass with shoes, beer cans and other objects as though they were Christmas tree ornaments. We saw a tree with tinsel hanging from some low branches, and a small Christmas stocking duct-taped to a Rough Road Next 16 Miles sign.
After traveling east up to and over the pass, the road turns south toward Laughlin. Just two miles from its finish, there's a sign indicating the Grapevine Canyon trailhead parking area. There's a deep wash just north of the parking area. Walk about a quarter-mile hike west along the wash and you come to a cut in the mountain. On the rocks on either side of the cut are hundreds of petroglyphs.
The guide book says they were made as long ago as 800 years, by AhaMakav and Southern Piute people who used the canyon as a hunting grounds.
The Christmas Tree Pass Trail runs for only 16.3 miles, and the guide book says it should take only about 45 minutes to travel that way. We'd suggest you carve out a couple of hours because, like us, you'll likely want to stop frequently to take pictures or simply to inhale the amazing vistas.