By E.C. Gladstone
Think you’ll be cooped up inside one of our Las Vegas hotels your entire time here? Think again. Despite the deserved reputation of our mega-resorts as never-need-to-leave wonderlands, fact is, the Vegas valley is filled with more outdoor activities than most visitors imagine. Now that the weather has cooled a bit, I thought it would be a great time to tell you about them.
First among our outdoor attractions would have to be the Hoover Dam, the marvel of the modern world whose construction put Las Vegas on the map. Little more than a half hour from the Strip, the tour that takes you 537 feet down into the power plant is a fascinating education in construction engineering, water usage and electricity generation for the old or young, and certainly worth the drive. (Several reputable tour companies run bus trips as well: the tour is the same no matter who takes you there.) On the way, you can check out Boulder City’s State Railroad Museum, bighorn sheep-dwelling Hemenway Valley Park, and Bootleg canyon zip lines.
The dam created what is now Lake Mead, which also offers rafting and kayaking in Black Canyon, the Desert Princess paddlewheel boat, a beach, fishing and more (speedboating on weekends is popular with locals).
Of course, Vegas is the closest major city to Arizona’s natural wonder the Grand Canyon: several tour companies offer several different ways to experience it, including the glass Skywalk over the west rim, pontoon boats and rafts on the river, and helicopter rides to the canyon floor. I haven’t tried all of them, but one I can recommend is Papillion helicopter, which runs clean, well-maintained modern craft with experienced, friendly pilots out of the McCarran Executive terminal on West Tropicana Boulevard. (Several other lines embark from there too; be sure to ask about the company’s experience and visibility from the craft when choosing.) Many bus companies also take longer tours to the canyon.
I should also mention several other flying options:
On the other side of the Vegas valley is gorgeous Red Rock Canyon, a sprawling conservation area with a 14-mile loop drive showing the wide range of rock formations at varying elevations, Joshua trees, juniper trees, cacti, ancient bristlecone pines (some of the world’s oldest trees) the natural spring in Calico Basin, petroglyphs and limestone cook pits from ancestral natives as well as a rock quarry and old wagon road from the first (white) settlers. Several companies offer tours, but one I think has a distinct advantage is Pink Jeep, whose custom mini-buses have off-road capability with cushioned comfort interiors. You might also want to consider the novelty of Scoot City’s three-wheelers. The adjacent Red Rock Resort offers an “adventure spa” program that makes them the most outdoors-oriented of the luxury resorts.
There are many more natural wonders and activity areas, including Spring Mountain Ranch, Valley of Fire, and the Techatticup Mine in Eldorado Canyon. For an entirely different experience, Mount Charleston, one of the highest peaks in Nevada, has a cozy lodge and even skiing in season!
Within a few hours of your Las Vegas hotel, you can also explore Death Valley National Park, Zion National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Grand Canyon Cavern, go horseback riding or offroading on sand dunes, visit several ghost towns (Rhyolite, Nev., Calico, Calif., Oatman, Ariz., Grafton, Utah)…the list goes on and on.
Insider Tip: For a closer, more controlled outdoor experience, check out Springs Preserve, with a remarkable garden of indigenous plants, indoor exhibits, and a Wolfgang Puck café.
Veteran entertainment and travel writer E. C. Gladstone writes regularly for Las Vegas Magazine and the Las Vegas Weekly, also interviewing top Strip entertainers, restauranteurs, moguls and behind-the-scenes players for other local and national publications and websites. Like many Las Vegans, he sleeps only when absolutely necessary.