Viva Las Vegas!

Sin City: gateway to nature?




Las VegasThink about Las Vegas. Gambling. Shows. Glitz. One thing that probably doesn’t come to mind is nature. But, as I suggest in my book Go Outside and Come Back Better, it should.

That’s right, Sin City happens to be an outstanding gateway to outdoor recreation. Some of the country’s most spectacular scenery lies within a 150-mile radius.

What really sets Vegas apart, though, is its insatiable appetite for tourists, which makes it highly accessible and affordable. Flights in and out are plentiful and, depending upon the timing, relatively cheap. Car rental frequently costs less than it would in other cities, too. And of course the hotels will do most anything to fill their rooms—and their casinos, through which you must pass to get to those rooms. So a midweek stay in a posh room can be a real bargain when there’s no big convention going on.


Then there’s that little issue that many couples face: compromise. You may enjoy the desert, but your partner prefers savoring dessert. You might want to gaze at rocks, but your significant other only has eyes for those in the jewelry store.


When Las Vegas is your gateway, you can have it all. Obviously all the gambling, entertainment, shopping, and dining one could desire is available. And, as you’re about to see, exciting excursions into nature await you. Whether you split up or split your time, everyone can be happy. That would not be so easy for trips to many other excellent parks, like Glacier National Park in Montana.


Now remember, it gets hot out there, dangerously hot. So please take the appropriate precautions when venturing out into the desert during hot weather.


OK, let’s take a brief look at some of the wonderful parks within a few hours' drive. And please note that driving through the desert is considerably easier and faster than driving almost anywhere else in the country.


Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada (30 minutes away)


Red Rock CanyonIf you don't have much time and just want a quick nature break, Red Rock Canyon may be the answer. Only 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip, the park provides an easy way to get a taste of the Mojave Desert scenery.


Not a hiker? Not a problem. Although miles of hiking trails are available, you can simply take the 13-mile scenic drive.


Even with just an hour, you have time to stop at the visitor center, check out the exhibits, and then do the scenic drive, stopping at the various viewpoints.


With a little more time, you can take advantage of the 19 hiking trails, which are easy to moderate in difficulty.



Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada and Arizona (30 minutes to West Entrance)


Hoover DamEven if you're not interested in the outdoors, Lake Mead is well worth a visit. That's because the area's star attraction is the world famous Hoover Dam, only about 40 minutes from Las Vegas.


And what do you get when you put a marvel of engineering like the Hoover Dam on the mighty Colorado River? You get colossal Lake Mead, America's largest reservoir, which is split between Nevada and Arizona.


Boating is the prime recreational use of this park, with five marinas around the lake, but there are hiking opportunities also.


Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada (1 hour away)


Arch RockIf you think the federal government has cornered the market on great scenery, Valley of Fire State Park and the other state parks below should set you straight.


Bring your imagination to this park and you'll see colorful sandstone forming arches, an elephant, a grand piano, a beehive, and a human head.


If the fiery landscape isn't enough to excite you, you'll also find 3,000-year-old Indian petroglyphs here.


There are several hiking trails, but the park, which is adjacent to the northern section of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, is easily enjoyed by car using the various pullouts.



Death Valley National Park, California (2 hours to Furnace Creek)


Zabriskie PointIt's not entirely fair to say that Death Valley is only two hours away from Las Vegas, given that the park is larger than the state of Connecticut. However, some of the park's prime attractions in the Furnace Creek area, like Zabriskie Point (pictured), Badwater, Artist's Drive, and Devil's Golf Course, are reasonably close to that.


If you're able to do a hike, consider Golden Canyon for a trip through the badlands to Manly Beacon, the most prominent feature in the view from Zabriskie Point.


Ideally you would have time to visit the other areas of this huge park, like the Stovepipe Wells area, to experience the massive sand dunes.


While famous for being the hottest place on earth, Death Valley can be quite pleasant, with warm days and chilly nights from November to March. And under the right conditions, the park can have explosions of wildflowers in the spring.



Snow Canyon State Park, Utah (2 hours away)

Snow CanyonDon't be fooled: this park was named for a couple of prominent figures in Utah history, not for the white stuff. While you might encounter a little snow here in winter, you're sure to find colorful petrified dunes, an extinct volcano with lava flows, and plenty of striking views.


Got little kids? Try the Sand Dunes Trail, where they can play in the copious red sand.


For photographers, consider visiting in the early morning when it's cooler and the low sun angle yields shadows that bring out the texture of the sandstone.


The park is a mere ten miles from I-15 and definitely worth a visit.



Mojave National Preserve, California (2 hours away)

Kelso DunesIf you're feeling adventurous and looking for a good workout, here's an idea: go climb a big sand dune. In the southern part of Mojave National Preserve you'll find the Kelso Dunes (pictured). It's 1.5 miles (one way) and 400 feet up to the top of the tallest dune. The trail is only visible for a quarter mile or so, and the rest is up to you. And don't be seduced by the short distance; hiking in loose sand is work, so be prepared.


At the top, the view of neighboring dunes and nearby mountain ranges is excellent.


A longer visit would enable you to explore some of the park's other features, like the cinder cones and Joshua trees.


Zion National Park, Utah (2.5 hours to South Entrance)

The WatchmanThe Watchman (pictured), The Great White Throne, Altar of Sacrifice, Court of the Patriarchs, Temple of Sinawava, Checkerboard Mesa and Angels Landing. The names alone should draw you to this special place in southwestern Utah.


Zion National Park welcomes about three million visitors annually, making it one of the most popular parks in the country. So busy is the park that a mandatory shuttle system was introduced in 1997 to alleviate congestion in the main area of the park, Zion Canyon, which is about 2,000 feet deep.


While it's possible to see Zion in a long day trip from Las Vegas, a longer visit is advisable to appreciate all the spectacular scenery that this park has to offer. Numerous hiking trails accommodate visitors of various abilities.


If taking in Zion Canyon will consume too much time for you, consider a quick trip to the quieter Kolob Canyons in the northwest corner of the park, right off I-15. It has a 5-mile scenic drive with pullouts.



Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada (2.5 hours away)


Cathedral GorgeWant to get away from it all? Well, just head north on US-93 out of Vegas and you will. But stop at Cathedral Gorge and you may feel like you've ventured onto another planet. The otherworldly cliffs and spires make for a fantastic landscape to see and photograph.


The bentonite clay formations here are made of volcanic ash sediments from an ancient lake. After the lake drained, the exposed landscape was carved by rain and wind.


An easy 4-mile loop trail takes visitors through the scenic part of the park.





With a couple days, it would be straightforward to head east and then northeast from Las Vegas to see a combination of parks: Lake Mead, Valley of Fire, Snow Canyon, and Zion.


So, while the masses sit in darkened casinos, hoping that Lady Luck smiles on them, you can place your bet on the outdoors, knowing that Mother Nature reliably delivers great rewards. Viva Las Vegas!