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Cold Creek, on the edge of the Spring Mountains, provides a quiet respite near Las Vegas.
Photo: Margie Klein (all)
On the northeastern side of the Spring Mountains, a tiny window into Nevada’s past lies concealed. The place is called Cold Creek, and it offers a glint of unique beauty in the desert, very near but seemingly a million miles away from Las Vegas. If you’re looking for a quiet respite where you can get in tune with nature and the Old West, this is the place.
Cold Creek is about 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas between Willow and Wheeler Peaks, just north of Mount Charleston. Most people don’t go beyond Kyle or Lee Canyon, thinking that the attractions end there. But seasoned outdoor recreationists know that more treasures lie a little farther. And they don’t exactly spread the word. Perhaps they like to keep this place to themselves.
Cold Creek is named for the little creek that runs through it and feeds three small ponds. The source of its cool, clear water is a mountain spring, and the creek and ponds provide recreational opportunities of all types. Located at 6,500 feet, Cold Creek is much cooler than Las Vegas. It’s possible to see patches of snow even into early summer.
To get to Cold Creek, follow U.S. 95 north from Las Vegas and turn left on State Route 172—or Cold Creek Road—about 21 miles from the Durango exit. You will pass the turnoffs for Mount Charleston and Corn Creek. This paved road travels about 15 miles past the High Desert State Prison to the tiny hub of Cold Creek. Follow the gravel road to the right, which will lead to the creek and ponds. There is plenty of parking in the open gravel area.
The first thing you will notice about the community is that it is quite hidden. Most of the town can’t even be seen from the road. Yet the entire Sheep Range can be seen from this location. Just up the road are the ruins of an old ranch house, and the history of this place takes visitors back to the days of the wide-open west.
In the 1930s, the place served as a dude ranch, but different from the dude ranches of today. Stacy Irvin, curator of education at the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas says, “Dude ranches were popular after the law for quickie divorces was passed in Nevada. Women would stay there for six weeks in order to get Nevada residency and be eligible for a divorce.”
According to Kelly Turner, archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service, there was a working horse ranch near the creek in the 1940s. Cowboys rounded up feral horses that frequented the area and branded and sold them. Springs dotted the landscape, watered the horses, and provided water for alfalfa fields and gardens. A few prospectors and trappers could also be found in the area at the time. The remnants of an 1800s saw mill from the 1800s stood on the mountain, just above the ranch site.
Later in the 1940s, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist stayed at the ranch house while he worked out of the Desert Game Refuge headquarters at Corn Creek. The ranch soon passed into federal hands, with the Bureau of Land Management taking over and installing rangers at the ranch house. Articles in the Las Vegas Review Journal reference the BLM as managers of the area in the 1970s, when the site of the ranch house, since removed, was designated as a group picnic area. Eventually it was transferred to the Forest Service, which currently manages it.
Today, a few hundred people live in the town. These are folks who want to live away from it all. There is no power, so homeowners use generators and solar power. There is also no phone service except for cellular.
But Cold Creek residents know it’s worth the inconveniences to live amidst such natural beauty. Cold Creek is located at a confluence of ecozones. The most unique feature is the water, seemingly out of place in the middle of the desert. This water draws many plant and animal species, some found nowhere else.
Vegetation is varied around Cold Creek, and you will find cottonwood and willow trees, as well as pinion pine and juniper. Shrubs include scrub oak, mountain mahogany, and wild roses, and myriad wildflowers such as penstemon and columbine grace the spring.
Higher above town, the vegetation changes to ponderosa pine and white fir. But perhaps the biggest secret is that Cold Creek is one of the few places to view elk near Las Vegas. The grown-over McFarlane burn area east of Cold Creek is a prime viewing area for the animals. Both elk and feral horses are commonly sighted as they graze and drink their fill of the cool, fresh water.
Recreational opportunities in the Cold Creek area are many and varied. It is the perfect destination for a day trip, or it can serve for a quick overnight camping trip. Here are some more details:
There are three good spots for birding, at the creek, ponds, and higher up the mountain at the edge of the forest. Birds can easily be seen near water and also moving between forested and open areas.
Since there are no developed sites, you must bring everything you need, including toilet supplies. Remember to practice outdoor etiquette and dispose of waste properly.
The Nevada Department of Wildlife occasionally stocks the largest pond with rainbow trout. Best fishing times are in the spring and fall.
Hiking can be done all around the ponds and the meadow, but for something more vigorous, take the Bonanza Trailhead hike, which leads to 10,397-foot Bonanza Peak and is considered difficult.
The Wheeler Pass trail leads over the mountain into the valley on the west side of the Spring Mountains.
Hunting is limited in the area as private property is interspersed with federal land. It is legal to hunt on National Forest land for a variety of species, including game birds, rabbits, deer, and elk.
ATVs can follow trails over the mountain through Wheeler Pass into Pahrump. There are other ATV trails that go toward Indian Springs.
There are several tables available for picnicking, and informal picnicking is possible around the ponds as well. You’ll need to bring drinking water, and trash pick-up is on your own.
A large variety of mid-elevation annual wildflowers can be seen across the meadow area and in the surrounding hills in the spring.
The best times for viewing animals are early morning and early evening, when they are looking for food and water. The creek and ponds are perfect places to spot squirrels, birds, foxes, coyotes, deer, and elk. Cold Creek is famous for its wild horses, which can be seen all around the little valley. If you don’t get to see them, you will certainly see signs of their presence.
Amenities are sparse around the community. There are some picnic areas and campsites, but if you’re looking for a restaurant with local flavor, you won’t find it. The nearest place for gas and food is Indian Springs.
If Cold Creek appeals to you for a visit, you’ll need to make some preparations. Consult a map and consider the timing of your visit. Be sure to bring food, water, and trash bags. Dress in layers, and be prepared for rapidly changing weather conditions. When you go, be respectful of the unique natural environment and the residents by staying off private property. Be sure to follow USFS rules for all activities.
Cold Creek is the perfect getaway spot. Tourists and locals alike will appreciate the return to a slow-paced, wide-open Nevada. When you return to Las Vegas, you’ll feel refreshed and invigorated, as though you’ve been to another world. And it’s only an hour away.