Discovering hidden beauty in an area you’d thought didn’t amount to much makes it ever so much more delightful once you have.
I’ve driven Interstate 15 dozens of times on the way to Zion National Park or Bryce Canyon National Park and other of my favorite places in Utah.
But once I’ve left the rat race leading to Las Vegas behind me, I’ve rarely given the land on either side much of a glance.
That is not until this past year when a friend told me about this magical place not too far from Mesquite, Nev., he called Little Finland that he said I just had to visit.
“The rock formations are amazing,” he said. “There are these vertical fins that create incredible shapes, some of them almost paper thin. You’ve got to go there.”
That night I Googled “Little Finland” not quite sure what I’d end up with, but when I looked at the photos on the first site I visited I was blown away: gorgeous orangish-red rock, sculpted into hundreds of spacey shapes; beautifully layered bedrock that flowed elegantly across the hills. It was an ultimate photographer’s paradise.
I knew I needed to visit it and do it soon.
This past April I set aside a week to explore a number of places near Mesquite, including an absolutely incredible area called Valley of Fire and the Gold Butte region, where Little Finland is located.
Access to the Gold Butte region is via a turnoff about 10 miles short of Mesquite that leads to the small Mormon town of Bunkerville, located along the edge of the Virgin River.
Historic Mining District
Gold Butte is roughly a half-million acres of rugged, mountainous terrain and rock filled valleys just north of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Gold Butte’s original claim to fame was its mining. In the mid-1800s, prospectors began to roam through the area, lured there by the colorful formations that indicated the presence of minerals such as copper, lead and zinc. In 1873, when mica was discovered in the area, the Gold Butte Mining District quickly organized.
Several decades later, a short-lived gold rush began when the precious metal was found in some of the quartz veins in the area. The discovery led to the development of a town site, complete with hotel, livery stable, post office, mercantile store and a number of residences. But by 1910, the gold rush was over and most of the town’s residents moved on to the next promise of quick riches.
The Newest National Monument
In 2013, concerned that mining and possibly oil and gas exploration might return to the area, the Friends of Nevada Wilderness began working with then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on legislation to protect the Gold Butte Region.
Reid introduced the Gold Butte National Conservation Area Act, which would have set aside 350,000 acres to protect not only natural wonders like Little Finland, but also many other cultural and historic treasures that are found in the region.
While Reid was unsuccessful in securing passage of the bill, on Dec. 28, 2016, President Barack Obama designated Gold Butte as a national monument.
Ironically, the national monument lies just beyond a ranch owned by Cliven Bundy. The ranch was the site of a 2014 confrontation between the ranching community and federal authorities. Many of the ranchers in the area consider themselves part of the “sovereign citizen movement” and as such do not consider themselves beholden to federal laws or recognize the legitimacy of monuments like the one Obama just created here.
Into the Wild
The drive to the Gold Butte turnoff from Santa Barbara takes just under seven hours, which means that an early morning start will get you to Gold Butte in the afternoon with plenty of time to set up camp and enjoy the evening light.
Thankfully this afternoon, the Bundy ranch seems deserted as I pass it by. Gold Butte Road leads along the Virgin River for several miles, then turns southeast and winds its way through a series of small hills and wide plains on what might generously be called paved — were it not for the potholes and broken pieces of asphalt that I’m forced to dodge here and there.
The 50-minute drive leads to Whitney Pocket, a spot filled with a number of 200-foot-high boulder-like formations. This is one of the main spots that the Off Highway Vehicles (OHVs) crowd, hikers and mountain bikers set up camp to use as a base for day trips further into the area.
On a Wednesday in early April, there’s only one campsite occupied and I’m able to find a spot that provides plenty of privacy.
There are no defined campsites here, just a dozen or so spots next to the boulder fields that provide a bit of shelter and fantastic views out over the hills.
Reserving a site is as simple as setting up a table and a chair or two to let others know you’ll be spending the night.
Beyond Whitney Pocket: Unsigned Territory
From Whitney Pocket, the route to Little Finland continues along the Gold Butte Road due south. What was a rough road becomes even more difficult, with the surface consisting mostly of washboard and rock.
Other than a Bureau of Land Management sign at the start of the drive, there are no sign posts or anything else to tell you where you are — or if you’re even on the route that will take you to where you want to go.
With monument status that may change, but for now, having a hand-held GPS unit with you and taking the time before your trip to go online and find GPS locations for the turnoffs to points of interest in the area it is a must.
The turnoff for Little Finland I was looking for is known as North Mud Wash. The road basically consists of a graded track leading down the middle of a dry creekbed. Forty minutes and seven miles of pretty intense driving bring me to second turnoff, an even narrower wash that leads sharply right and back to the east for several miles to Little Finland.
The road dead-ends in a large open area framed by a band of red-colored cliffs, and a number of palm trees are growing out of what looked like a scattering of small springs near the base of the cliffs.
I made it!
Nature’s Fantasy Land
On a plateau 50 feet above the cliffs I spot the fin-shaped rocks that the area is named after. There is no official route up to the top of the cliffs nor any trails once you’re on top, just a maze of bedrock and fin-like shaped rocks to meander through in whatever way catches your fancy.
The easiest way to the top is west to the left along a steep sandy 4×4 track to a knoll, where an opening through a barbed-wire fence leads over a series of sandy knolls to solid bedrock.
Not too far beyond fantasyland begins. The forms are all types of unimaginable shapes. If you’re so inclined, you’ll find animals of most any shape, or perhaps mythical creatures of all sorts.
The Little Finland area is also known as “Devil’s Fire,” which seems the most appropriate to me given the finger-like shapes that closely resemble the intense flames of a roaring fire. Regardless of the interpretation, it is easy to spend hours exploring the entire formation.
As the sun begins to slip toward the far horizon, the evening light turns the rock a golden reddish-orange. In the distance other red, orange, purple, yellow and pink outcroppings create a surreal feeling.
I’m just lining up a final photograph when the loud bray of a wild burro echoes across the hills. Its mate answers with another bray, equally loud. Amazing!
As I head down for the drive back to my camp at Whitney Pocket, the impact of how far I’ve come in just a few road miles hits me. I’m barely 30 miles from Interstate 15. But in this little oasis where the wild burros roam, the golden hills are transformed into dark purple silhouettes at dusk and the stars begin to emerge, civilization seems so far away.
My friend was right: this was a place that I had to see. I can’t wait until tomorrow to explore another corner of this incredible place.
Click here for Ray’s Little Finland Photo Blog.
— Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford has been hiking, backpacking and bicycling in the Santa Barbara area since the 1970s. He is a longtime local outdoors columnist, author and photographer. Click here for additional columns, or view his previous work at his website, Santa Barbara Outdoors. E-mail him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter: @riveray. The opinions expressed are his own.