Las Vegas offers more than bright lights, loud slot machines and all-you-can-eat buffets. The city still hosts gambling and adult entertainment. It provides family fun with swimming pools and amusement parks. Inexpensive hotels and meals make Las Vegas the perfect place to stay. But, when you need a break from the chaos of the city, escape by taking a day trip. With easy access to Interstate 15 and US Highway 95, you can discover dozens of interesting sites less than an hour or two from the city.
Stunning Scenery in the Mojave Desert
To the west and north of Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert, red sandstone from the Mesozaic Era shifted into layers leaving formations of red rocks, shale, limestone and conglomerates. Nevada’s first national conservation area, Red Rock Canyon, is located on State Route 159 about 17 miles west of the city. It features rocky bluffs lined with layers of red rocks, grey stones and light sand. A one-way 13 mile scenic drive winds through the park with pull off points for hiking and taking in the sweeping views. Several organized trails are marked with maps provided at the visitor’s center. Red Rock Canyon’s impressive visitor’s center also offers educational displays, wildlife exhibits and a gift shop.
In addition to hiking, rock climbing is allowed. Horseback riding and mountain biking are also popular. Although the canyon is filled with wildlife ranging from coyotes and bobcats to kangaroo rats and jack rabbits, most are nocturnal. Desert bighorn sheep or burros are active during the day. But, visitors won’t see most of the animals and reptiles in the desert setting.
Less than an hour northeast of Las Vegas on Interstate 15, a Scenic Byway exit weaves through Nevada’s oldest state park, Valley of Fire State Park. It covers almost 40,000 acres of sandstone cliffs and petrified dunes surrounded by swirls of pinkish sand. When the sun shines directly on the red rock strips contrasting with the dark stones of the rocky bluffs, the layers appear to be on fire.
The park offers picnic tables, maps, and hiking trails. Visitors can find evidence of prehistoric times as examples of 3000-year-old petroglyphs are carved into the rock walls. A variety of strange boulder shaped arches look more like sculptures than ancient terrain. The statue-like vertical rock formations called hoodoos grab attention with colored stone and contrasting textures formed by erosion. Many hoodoos and arches are named. One of the most popular arches, Elephant Rock, looks like a massive animal extending a long trunk.
Man Made Wonders of Water
The northern edge of Lake Mead’s 110 mile length is less than six miles outside the Valley of Fire’s western boundary. The scenic region shows silhouettes of layered cliffs behind the desert basin and glimpses of blue water framed with red rock bluffs.
A popular year-round destination, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, is about 25 miles south of Las Vegas on Highway 93. The country’s first national recreation area includes Lake Mead and Lake Mohave. Set on the Colorado River, Lake Meade is the largest reservoir in the United States. The lake was formed by the Hoover Dam.
Due to the size of the lake, you need a boat to see most of it. You can rent a jet ski, pontoon, canoe and a variety of other recreational items at one of the marinas. Swimming, boating, skiing, and fishing are popular lake activities while exploring abandoned railroad tunnels and deserted mines are a few unusual sites in the area. Campgrounds and hiking trails are located around the lake. The large recreation area is home to a diverse collection of plants and wildlife.
Once known as Boulder Dam, Hoover Dam was named one of America’s Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders. It’s also listed as a National Historic Landmark. The massive dam was constructed during the Great Depression. Built on the border of Nevada and Arizona, you can walk on the bridge and stand in two different time zones.
Increased security at Hoover Dam includes inspection of all vehicles and can include individual searches.
If you plan to drive, you’ll need to park and walk to the visitor’s center where each person is screened. Going out on the bridge is the best way to get a view of the damn and its enormity. If you don’t want to hassle with parking and walking, there are several bus tours offered from Vegas to Hoover Dam. You can choose a 2-hour tour or stay half the day if you are interested in touring the dam.
Built during the great depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the dedication ceremony for Hoover Dam in 1835.
Death Valley National Park is One of a Kind
At its lowest elevation of 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park is the lowest, driest and hottest spot in North America. Located about two hours west of Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert in Eastern California, the highest reported temperature in the world of 134 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded at Furnace Creek on July 10, 1913. With 50 endemic species of plants found nowhere else in the world, over 1000 plants species live in Death Valley. Visiting Death Valley is a photographer’s dream. In addition to the plants and wild flowers on the valley floor, rifts of sand dunes, rugged canyons, sand flats, snowy mountaintops, and colorful badlands provide diverse colorful scenes.
Although the park is open year round and provides nine campgrounds, the extreme heat keeps most of the low elevation campgrounds closed during the hottest months of May to September. Furnace Creek Campground stays open as well as campgrounds in the mountainous areas. Furnace Creek offers camp stores, car services and gas, and places to eat. Those services can also be found at Stovepipe Wells Village and Panamint Springs.
Unless you are a die-hard camper or avid outdoorsman, you probably want to explore for a few hours and return to the comfort of air conditioning. If you’d rather avoid the extreme heat, visit Death Valley between October and April when temperatures drop below 100 degrees. Make sure your car is well maintained and you take plenty of water. The desert heat in the summer at such low elevations can be brutal.
When you get back to your Las Vegas hotel, you can relax and decide what to do next. Wake up early and hit the greens at a championship course, go shopping at the designer outlet mall, lounge by the pool with an umbrella drink or head down the road for another Las Vegas day trip.
If any readers have visited the places mentioned, please add helpful details or tips. Do you have favorite places to explore near Las Vegas?