Lake Mead visitors caught on video destroying ancient rock formations

A video posted to social media this month captured two men destroying ancient rock formations at Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada. National park rangers are asking for the public’s help in identifying the visitors, who could face federal charges for vandalizing protected land.

In the footage from April 7, a man in a long-sleeve red shirt and another man in a black T-shirt stand atop a rock formation at Redstone Trail, one of the protected site’s most popular hiking trails. In the video, the pair dislodges and shoves boulders over the edge while a frightened girl screams and pleads with her father to not fall. The sandstone chunks crumble on their descent, millions of years of geologic history pulverized in seconds.

“These aren’t just rocks. They’re ancient resources. They were formed millions of years ago,” said Neal Desai, senior program director for the Pacific region of the National Parks Conservation Association. “That’s why we as a country have set them aside and have ensured that they will be equally owned by all of us forever.”

On social media, Lake Mead officials shared incriminating images of the perpetrators defacing the rocks and requested information about the pair. Authorities are accusing the men of vandalism, which the National Park Service describes as “an act of cultural violence.” It is also illegal.

An NPS spokesman said law enforcement rangers are investigating the case. The penalty depends on the type of damage and level of severity, and can range from a misdemeanor to a felony.

John Haynes, the recreation area’s public information officer, told Fox 5 KVVU-TV the vandals could face six months of jail time and a $5,000 fine. Lake Mead officials did not respond to a request for information.

The agency urges anyone who witnesses an illegal or irresponsible act on protected public land to take a video or photos of the infraction. They can anonymously share the information through the NPS tips line (888-653-0009), an online form or via email (


Desai said the majority of visitors respect the sanctity of national park sites, but a few bad apples do roll through every so often.

According to NPS’s Investigative Services, visitors attempted to break into the Mission San José, part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, last June and damaged the church’s baroque Rose Window. In May 2022, park rangers sought help from the public to recover reptile track fossils stolen years before from Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.

State parks are equally vulnerable to vandalism. In 2013, three men leading a Boy Scout outing in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park pushed a boulder off its spindly rock pedestal. Two of the culprits were initially charged with third-degree felonies but pleaded guilty to misdemeanors.

According to the NPS, nearly 5.8 million people visited Lake Mead last year. The 1.5-million-acre natural playground features the largest reservoir on the Colorado River and a trove of geologic features sculpted over millions of years.

“Geologically, it’s really interesting because it has rocks spanning from really old - 480 million-year-old sand dunes - to much more recent volcanic rocks that are 5 to 7 million years old,” said Matthew Lachniet, a geology professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

Lachniet said the defiled rocks originated from the Aztec sandstone unit that dates from the early Jurassic period. The rocks are roughly 180 million years old, and the formations are younger - only a couple million years old.

Though common in the Southwest, he said, the red sandstone is unique to desert environments. Over time, the confluence of rain, frost and erosion shapes the rock into castle-like spires, delicate arches and sculptural shapes with peek-a-boo holes. These formations are typically weaker and easier to break, but they would not have shattered without human intervention.

“They would have slowly disintegrated away, sand grain by sand grain, over hundreds of thousands to millions of years,” Lachniet said.

The destruction of the rocks will permanently alter Lake Mead’s distinctive landscape, one of the primary reasons the recreation area was established in 1964. Park officials can’t patch up the fallen rocks and perch them back on their original site. Once people intervene, the attraction is no longer a product made by Mother Nature.

“If you restore it, then it becomes anthropogenic. It is art rather than something natural,” said Elizabeth Cottrell, a geologist at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “That doesn’t invoke the same wonder and awe of nature.”