I’ll be honest, I love me a little Las Vegas. What’s not to love with its celebrity restaurants, impressive acrobatic shows and fancy casinos. But, there is another side to Nevada. A side where fire-colored red rocks line the roads, hiking trails take you through tall cactus and bighorn sheep cause traffic jams. It’s true! Within a couple hours of Sin City, you can go from neon to nature.
Leaving Las Vegas: 3 Southern Nevada
Day Trips to the Outdoors
1. Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is just about a half hour west of Las Vegas, which makes it a really quick and easy day trip. You can even visit right before heading to the airport or after landing (that’s what I did!). It is known for dramatic rock formations, vivid layers of colors and scenic desert hikes. There are actually almost 30 hikes in the park, most of whose trailheads can be reached on the scenic 13-mile drive that loops through the park.
The 13-mile drive starts at the visitor center—just follow the “scenic loop drive” signs. It will have pullouts for many trailheads if you choose to hike, but if you don’t, it is picturesque EVERYWHERE during the drive! Sometimes you just need to pop out of your car right at the trailhead entrance to see the beauty, or just walk 1/10th of a mile on the trail. Not to say that you shouldn’t hike it, but don’t be discouraged to pay the entrance fee if you are not a hiker. It is worth it even if you don’t step foot out of your car!
There are many gorgeous hikes to choose from (check out the trails descriptions and map to determine which suits you best), but some of the most popular are Calico Tanks, Turtlehead Peak and Ice Box Canyon.
Stops Along the Way
Cottonwood Station: This little cafe is an unexpected gem in the historic village of Blue Diamond, a perfect stop before (or after) you hit the parks nearby. Cottonwood Station specializes in artisan pizzas, paninis and salads, but also has beer and wine. Did I mention that they have wine?!? If they have the blackened broccoli salad when you’re there, GET IT (and ship an order to me, or at least get the recipe). If not, sorry for you. Just kidding, everything else is yummy, too.
Spring Mountain Ranch State Park: You will find Spring Mountain Ranch State Park just five and a half miles from Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. It has all the beauty of its neighbor, but with a fascinating history as a working ranch and luxury retreat. Enjoy hiking the 520 acres of land (here’s the trail map), but don’t miss a guided tour of the old buildings on site, like the 1860s blacksmith shop.
2. Valley of Fire State Park
Imagine more than 40,000 acres of fiery red Aztec Sandstone dotted with the pale green cactus and maybe a random bighorn sheep. I take that back, don’t imagine it, get in your car and go see it right now! The Valley of Fire State Park is the oldest and arguably the most beautiful of all the Nevada State Parks, and it’s only about an hour from the flashing neon lights of Las Vegas.
There are plenty of stunning hikes, just check out the trail map, but if you only have time for one, don’t miss the Fire Wave Trail that starts in Parking Lot #3. The 1 1/2 mile roundtrip trail starts on sand, moves to gravel then to swirls of orange and red sandstone that makes you feel like you are on a different planet.
Insider Tips: Though the hike has very little elevation gain, it is in the full sun 99 percent of the time, so be safe when considering to do it in the extreme heat. I went early in the morning when temperatures were in the low 90s, and it was difficult. Not because of the hike difficulty level or unsure footing, but because the sun was beating down on me. If you decide to go in the heat, bring lots of water!
Oh, and most of the roads in the area look like this (yep—my jaw dropped to the ground too!)
Stops Along the Way
Breakfast in Vegas: Before hitting the road to the Valley of Fire, get breakfast in Vegas, and I’m not talking about at one of those $4.99 buffets on The Strip where you’re gonna eat way too much bacon. Head to Downtown Vegas and pop into PublicUs, a hipster breakfast and coffee shop 3/4 of a mile from the Fremont Street Experience. The food is a visual treat (their avocado toast is pictured below), but so is the interior—from waving Asian cats to dinosaur figures to trees in the middle of the tables. It sounds gaudy, but it’s fan-freakin-tastic! If it happens to be Saturday or Sunday, do brunch at Esther’s Kitchen in the Arts District which specializes in Italian soul food (and have an aperol spritz for me!)
Rogers Spring: Rogers Spring is a quick and cute roadside stop just south of the Valley of Fire. There are two pools of water, the main one that you see right from the parking lot and a tiny one tucked behind it over a bridge. Though the ‘hot’ springs are really more warm, about 85 degrees, it’s worth dipping your toes in. FYI—there are signs warning of the possible presence of naegleria fowleri, an amoeba commonly found in freshwater, so you should not submerge your head or nose in the water!
Lost City Museum: The Lost City Museum is a little museum packed with lots of history and artifacts recovered from local prehistoric archaeological sites. It is actually built on the prehistoric site of the Ancestral Puebloans and gives great insight into the indigenous people that lived there a long time ago. Don’t miss walking around back to see the pueblo replicas!
1880 Grill at Conestoga Golf Club: Located on the golf course in the city of Mesquite, 1880 Grill serves burgers, salads and sandwiches with gorgeous views of the green. Definitely bring your appetite, the portions are LARGE! I ordered a petite sized Chinese chicken salad and couldn’t even finish it.
Mesquite Fine Arts Center: If you are the type of person who loves to come home with a one-of-a-kind piece from a local artist, then stop at the Mesquite Fine Arts Center. Though it’s a small gallery, there are almost 200 members of the Virgin Valley Artist Association represented, and you can find an eclectic mix of art in a variety of mediums.
Virgin Valley Heritage Museum: Right next door to the Mesquite Fine Arts Center, is the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum that pays tribute to the early pioneer settlers of the Virgin Valley. If you like history, this small place is like stepping back into a time machine.
If you stay the night…
CasaBlanca Resort and Casino: If you choose to stay the night, CasaBlanca Resort & Casino is the choice. It seems to be in the middle of nowhere, but that’s okay because there’s enough onsite amenities that you won’t have to leave. My stay consisted of a soothing European facial, a fancy solo dinner at their upscale steakhouse and a little gambling. But, my favorite thing was movie night by the pool. Every evening they turn the pool and the lounge chairs surrounding it into a movie theater with a big screen—there’s popcorn, too! Check booking rates.
3. Christmas Tree Pass
Christmas Tree Pass is a picturesque 12-mile gravel road that goes from the little Nevada town of Searchlight to just outside of Laughlin. The road takes you through a ruggedly beautiful canyon that is a part of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Most people don’t know about this road, so traffic is light. I only passed one car the entire way. But, just because there were few people on the route doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth the trip. They just haven’t found out about it! The road will take you past amazing rock formations with views of the Arizona hills and plenty of wildlife. During my drive, white-tailed antelope squirrels darted across the road, lizards came out to say hello and a snake even slithered by (I was happy to be inside the car for that one!). Also, visitors on the road will sometimes bring ornaments to decorate a tree or a bush. During my trip, there was one sole tree adorned with sparkly Christmas ornaments (pictured below).
A highlight of the pass was stopping at the Grapevine Canyon trailhead and taking the short quarter mile hike into the mouth of the canyon. But, that’s not all, there are also hundreds of ancient petroglyphs to be found on the canyon walls.
Side Note: Christmas Tree Pass can be accessed from Highway 95 or off of Highway 163. It is recommended to have four-wheeled drive for the trip, but if you don’t, just take your time.
Stops Along the Way
Downtown Boulder City: The cute historic downtown of Boulder City is the perfect place to stop for a meal or a little antique shopping. Don’t miss getting The Dillinger Burger at The Dillinger, it’s a triple threat with a beef patty, bacon and brisket. Also pop into Goat Feathers Emporium to peruse the aisles filled with antiques that will bring you back to yesteryear.
Hoover Dam: Named after America’s 31st President, Hoover Dam has been called one of the top construction achievements of the 20th century, and it’s hard not hard to see why. Standing over 700 feet above the Colorado River, it is the highest concrete dam in the Western Hemisphere. First, take in the view from Mike O’Callaghan − Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (840 feet above the Colorado River). Then spend the $10 to park your car to walk across the bridge from below. If you want to learn more about the history, book the 3-hour tour.
Nelson Ghost Town: You may not find any ghosts in this ghost town, but what you will find is old cars, school busses, scattered ranch houses and so much more. Basically, Nelson is a photographer’s dream! If you are taking photos, the first 15 minutes are free, then it’s $10 per hour. Kudos to you if you can only take photos for 15 minutes, I on the other hand, coughed up my 10 bucks without a blink of the eye.
There are a few warnings for those wandering through, like beware of rattlesnakes and don’t get too close to the teddy bear cactus or else you may be taking them home embedded in your skin as a souvenir!
Laughlin Labyrinths: I love quirky roadside stops, and the Laughlin Labyrinths are definitely one of them. Set behind casino row in Laughlin, these nine-rock labyrinths are said to put you in a meditative mental state.
If you stay the night…
Avi Casino & Resort: If you are planning to stay the night, the Avi Resort & Casino has it all, including its own private beach along the Colorado River. It’s about a half hour from Laughlin’s Casino Row, but you won’t be lacking for entertainment because it has its own restaurants, casino (I won 20 bucks on roulette there!), pools and even a movie theater. My favorite thing to do at the Avi was to buy a Thrifty ice cream cone (remember those?) and sit on the beach to watch the sunset. Check booking rates.
Of course, on your trip to Nevada you should enjoy yourself some Sin City, but it also pays off big time to leave Vegas. Within just an hour or two you can be amidst towering red rocks, flourishing cactus and the wildlife that only can be seen in the desert. It is where you truly hit the jackpot.