Slot machines, high-rollers, and sold-out shows are the first thoughts that go through many people’s minds when the topic of Las Vegas comes up in conversation. It’s a town of secrets; what happens in Vegas, well, you know the rest, or do you? Maybe the best-kept secret of all is that Las Vegas is an excellent jumping off point for visiting some incredible outdoor venues.
Whatever brings you to Las Vegas, consider making time to get outside and enjoy the incredible public lands in the area. This article highlights five destinations that are all within a short drive of The Strip and make ideal day-trips: Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area, Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, Valley of Fire State Park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and Sloan Canyon.
Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area
Located a few miles west of Summerlin, Nevada, Red Rock Canyon is a half hour drive from the Las Vegas Strip. Take Highway 215 around the west side of the city, and as you’re driving north toward Summerlin, take exit 26 and head west on Highway 159.
Red Rock Canyon is a beautiful setting with magnificent sandstone cliffs surrounding a serene desert valley. It has a 13-mile, one-way scenic drive and a couple of dozen hiking trails of various lengths and difficulties. The main activities are sightseeing along the scenic drive, rock climbing, biking, and hiking.
On most of the hiking trails, the surrounding scenery will convince you that civilization is a million miles away, even though you’re in the shadow of one of the glitziest places on earth. But Red Rock is a popular destination with both locals and tourists; on most days, cars line up to enter the park and trailhead parking can be scarce. Don’t let the crowds deter you, though; it’s well worth the visit.
Spring Mountains National Recreation Area (also known as Mount Charleston)
The Spring Mountains Visitor Gateway (visitor center) is about 40 miles northwest of The Strip. To get there, take Highway 95 about 22 miles north of Las Vegas and turn west onto Highway 95, following it for another 20 miles to the visitor center.
The elevation in the recreation area ranges from 3,000 to about 12,000 feet. At higher elevations, there’s always a chance you might run into snow. Keep this in mind especially in the fall, winter, and spring months.
The Spring Mountains National Recreation Area is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and is a part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. In addition to being a great place to take a break from the desert and get up into the mountains, the area has several hiking trails, some of which are easy and wheelchair-accessible. To learn more details, follow this link.
Valley of Fire State Park
This park, one of the best state parks we’ve ever explored, is about 54 miles northeast of The Strip. To get there, take I-15 north of Las Vegas for about 34 miles, turn east at exit 36, and continue another 15 miles to the park entrance.
Valley of Fire State Park is a great place to explore the outdoors. When we visited, we hiked nearly every trail in the park in a single day. Its geology and petroglyphs are extraordinary: the Fire Wave and Atlatl Rock were two of our favorite destinations within the park, but also be sure to visit The Cabins and hike the White Domes Trail while you’re there.
Check out the park’s website to plan your visit.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Lake Mead is the reservoir that backs up behind Hoover Dam. From The Strip, it’s about a forty-five-minute drive (27 miles) to the southeast–depending on the time of day. Your first stop should be the visitor center, which is a couple of miles north of Boulder, Nevada on Highway 93.
If you’re in the mood for an easy, scenic hike, consider the Historic Railroad Trail, which begins close to the visitor center. When Hoover Dam was being built, the railroad that carried supplies and workers to and from the worksite followed this grade. The trail preserves one of the only sections of the original railroad route that has not been disturbed or flooded since the dam was constructed. Check this link for a map of the area and be sure to read the notifications on the park’s website when planning your visit. The park recently (early 2019) closed one of the railroad tunnels to foot traffic due to deteriorated support beams, so you’ll want to know the status of that closure before finalizing your plans.
There are many other spectacular hikes in the park; the folks at the information desk in the visitor center can help you decide which is right for you. Keep in mind that temperatures can be extreme during the summer months and the park may close some of the trails due to high heat danger.
One of our favorite hikes is the White Rock Canyon Trail, which starts at Highway 93 on the Arizona side of the park and follows a slot canyon down to the Colorado River a few miles below the dam. We hiked this trail one January, and the weather was perfect; by late spring this trail is usually too hot to hike safely. Always check trail conditions at the visitor center before heading into the park.
Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area
One of the premier rock art sites in Southern Nevada, Sloan Canyon has more than 300 rock art panels created by native cultures. Of the five areas discussed in this article, it’s the least developed in terms of services and facilities. It’s also the closest destinations to town at 13 miles south and east of The Strip.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers Sloan Canyon, which has several areas where you can park and access trails leading into the canyon. Check out this link for more information and driving directions.
One of the more popular trails in the canyon is the Petroglyph Canyon loop consisting of trails #100 and #200. This link will take you to a map of the trails. To read about other’s experiences hiking Petroglyph Canyon, check out this AllTrails link.
The point of this article is simple: you could spend a week day-tripping from The Strip, and see a new outdoor destination each day, AND still have time to catch a show or roll some dice each evening in the casinos–if that’s your thing.
If you want to add an extra day or two to your desert trip and are willing to drive a little farther, check out these world-class public lands (times listed are approximate distances from Las Vegas):
- Mojave National Preserve – 1 hour
- Death Valley National Park – 2 ½ hours
- Zion National Park – 3 hours
- Bryce Canyon National Park – 4 hours
- Joshua Tree National Park – 3 hours
- Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim) – 4 ½ hours