Viva Las Vegas!
With affordable and abundant flights, sunny Las Vegas is easy to reach and a hot spot for tourists. But for all the attention Las Vegas receives, one fact gets overlooked: There’s an entire city beyond the casino hotels and attractions of the Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard), plus a big, beautiful desert to explore. Here are some of the best activities to seek out on your next Vegas trip.
Red Rock Canyon
The ragged sandstone walls of Red Rock Canyon rise abruptly from the western edge of Las Vegas. Less than 20 miles from the Strip, the 195,000-acre conservation area offers easy access to the natural beauty of the Mojave Desert. A 13-mile scenic drive loops through the park, winding along brilliant ochre cliffs and a desert panorama studded with cactus. Hiking trails lead deep into narrow canyons and the wind-polished slickrock of the Calico Hills.
Vegas couldn’t have its trademark glitz and neon without Hoover Dam, which harnesses the power of the mighty Colorado River 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century, the behemoth hydroelectric dam is a truly impressive sight: a 726-foot-tall plug in a deep desert canyon, built with enough concrete to pave a highway from New York to San Francisco. Guided and self-guided tours depart from the Hoover Dam Visitor Center.
Lesson-plan resources: The Public Broadcasting Service has a 5-part lesson plan for high-school students on water use in the American West.
When the Hoover Dam backed up the Colorado River, it created an incongruous sight: a massive lake in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The source of water for much of the arid southwest, Lake Mead also provides a refreshing recreation area. Head for the Lake Mead Visitor Center for information on fishing, paddling and other water sports. In Boulder City, sign on for a scenic cruise aboard the Desert Princess paddle wheeler.
Off-road Jeep Tours
Photo Credit: Las Vegas Rock Crawlers
Guided Jeep tours take you off the pavement and into the desert to explore rugged landscapes. With outfitters such as Las Vegas Rock Crawlers, you’ll climb aboard a 4-wheel-drive Jeep with monster tires that can clamber up rocky slopes and over boulders. Depending on the trail and outfitter, you can ride shotgun or take the wheel.
The desert climate and landscape surrounding Las Vegas lend themselves to an abundance of great golf courses—at last count, more than 40 within an hour of the Strip. Like casino hotels, there’s one for nearly every style and budget. For deals, take advantage of twilight tee times, and check out consolidator websites such as VIP Golf Services.
Before there was the Strip, Las Vegas earned its flashy, freewheeling reputation a few miles north. In the 1940s and ’50s, Fremont Street was known as “Glitter Gulch” for its dazzling casino lights and neon signs. The 40-foot-tall “Vegas Vic” cowboy and a few other vintage signs still glow on Fremont Street. Plenty of other Vegas classics are preserved and on display at the nearby Neon Museum. For a very different take on Vegas history, check out the excellent Mob Museum that’s in the same neighborhood.
Valley of Fire
About an hour north of Las Vegas, stunning red sandstone formations glow like embers in the desert sun at Valley of Fire State Park. Equally spectacular is the abundance of rock art visible along many of the trails. Starting from the Mouse’s Tank trailhead, a short hike through the sands of Petroglyph Canyon reveals dozens of images of birds, dancers and other designs etched here more than 3,000 years ago.
In Vegas, anything seems possible—even operating massive construction equipment for fun. Think of Dig This Las Vegas as the world’s largest sandbox. After a hands-on orientation, you’ll be at the controls of a Caterpillar bulldozer or hydraulic excavator, digging trenches, building enormous dirt mounds and stacking 2,000-pound tires. Kids as young as 14 can participate, if they’re at least 48 inches tall.
Las Vegas is just one of many tourist spots that are worth the trip. Check out six other popular destinations that live up to the hype.