For gorgeous views of colorful sandstone, take Charleston Boulevard west 17 miles to drive through Red Rock Canyon and then stop at Spring Mountain Ranch on the park's southwest edge. The spot, at the base of the dramatic Wilson Cliffs, was a resting point for a leg of the trail that crossed Cottonwood Valley. It has a picnic area, and visitors can tour the 19th-century buildings.
A bit farther south, stop in the square of the tiny town of Blue Diamond to see Cottonwood Spring, which provided refreshment for thirsty trail travelers.Head west onto State 160 and the route will begin to climb, topping out at the Mountain Springs Summit at 5,502 feet. A white pillar marks the trail's path. To the west is the vast dry Pahrump Valley, with mesas to the north and jagged mountains to the south.
You can turn around here and return: take State 160 east to I-15 north. Or venture on: farther west, State 160 connects to the Old Spanish Trail Highway, which leads west into California and, after 23 miles, up to Emigrant Pass. "Looking out on the landscape there gives you a feeling for that lost time," says Madsen.
If you look carefully near the pass, you can still see wagon ruts― history made manifest in the desert.