Every year, thousands of Utahns on I-15 zoom across the Nevada Desert en route to Las Vegas or Southern California. This stretch of road, one of the most barren in the world, must also rate as one of the most boring, too.

One way to reduce that boredom is to take a side trip to Nevada's "Valley of Fire" state park. Although this park isn't the caliber of national parks, it's worth a visit. It is similar to Southern Idaho's "City of Rocks" but with smaller rock formations..For a loop drive that can add as little as an extra 54 miles on to the mileage heading to or from Las Vegas, there's a variety of scenic options.

Heading south on I-15, take Highway 169 through Overton and through the Valley of Fire for a simple loop back to I-15. Or take Highway 169 at the south end (15 miles south of Glendale), off of I-15 for a loop through the Valley of Fire and then either travel north through Overton and back to I-15 or south to Las Vegas - via a scenic Hoover Dam loop.

The park has 320,000 annual visitors, is open all year and offers plenty of solitude. Admission is free. (The road through the park was washed out by a cloudburst last November but was repaired enough to be passable in January. This short gravel section should be paved by late April.)

Kids can have a heyday climbing the many small rock formations in the Valley of Fire. Most of the climbing is simply "stepping up" small rocks, or scurrying through small caves and tunnels.

The 18,000-acre park has some fantastically shaped rock formations in a spectrum of brilliant hues that change from deep purples to bright reds as the desert sun crosses the sky.

Originally the area was simply known as "Red Rock." But in the early 1920s, a representative from AAA auto club in California visited here and he noticed that the morning sun on the red sandstone made it appear as if it were on fire, hence "Valley of Fire."

King among the Valley of Fire's colorful rock formations is Elephant Rock, a behemoth figure shaped by centuries of wind erosion. Visitors need only take a 10-minute walk to see this feature.

Another prominent area of the park is "Beehive Rocks," a section of hive-shaped rocks that are so true to their name that visitors may expect giant bees to emerge from them at any time. Each rock weighs thousands of tons.

Mouse's Tank is another interesting feature at the far northwest end of the park. The tank is composed of two stone water pockets, used by a renegade Indian whose tiny stature and quick movements earned him the nickname of "Mouse."

The Mouse utilized this hidden storage tank of nature as a hideaway in the 1800s after he murdered two prospectors camped near the Colorado River. Mouse used this hiding spot on at least several occasions to avoid the law. The "tank" can be reached by a one-half mile roundtrip walk along a sandy trail.

There are also hundreds of visible petroglyphs (ancient Indian writings) in the park, such as "Atlatl Rock." Pronounced at-ul-at-ul, the word is Aztec in origin and means spear "thrower." The petrified log area is another interesting portion of the park.

There are three group campsite areas (used by reservation only), as well as 51 individual campsites in the park (available on a first come, first served basis.) The cost for these and the picnic sites is $2 in the off-season and $4 in the regular season.

Other nearby scenic attractions:

- North of the park is the Lost City Museum in Overton. Built in an adobe fashion, this displays the living conditions of the 12,000-year old Gypsum Cave people who once inhabited the valley. Most of the ruins of this ancient civilization lie under Lake Mead.

- For an additional scenic drive in the area, take Highway 167 past the Valley of Fire and wind through the Black Mountains (near Lake Mead), taking a shortcut to north Las Vegas via Highway 147. By continuing an additional 40 miles down to Hoover Dam, Las Vegas can be entered via Boulder City and Henderson, or bypassed on Highways 95 and 164 to I-15 in eastern California.

- For more information on the Valley of Fire, call (702) 897-2088, or write Valley of Fire, P.O. Box 515, Overton, Nev. 89040.