When you say Las Vegas, most people think of gambling and the glitzy neon Strip, and while that is definitely where the action’s at, there is much, much more to Sin City than games of chance and flashing lights.
I have been going to Vegas for many years, starting when I worked for the U.S. Forest Service on the Kaibab National Forest on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon from 1978-1994.
In those heady days, the Vegas bosses offered all sorts of enticements to get you to fly to the middle of a broiling desert to spend your hard-earned money – free drinks if you were gambling in a casino or betting at the Sports Book, all you could eat buffets for $5, and free tickets to shows were a part of the regular perks. Those days are long gone – or at least a helluva lot harder to find – now that Vegas has become a world class attraction. But there are still discounts to be found if you know where to look.
My Vegas game plan has changed little over the years. Recreate out in the desert during the heat of the day – hike, bike, or play in the water – and then come back into town in the late afternoon or early evening and grab a tasty meal before taking in a good show.
Most folks don’t realize that there are many wild places to play just outside the city. Having checked out lots of these hidden gems, I can tell you that you could easily spend weeks enjoying the high desert around Las Vegas and barely scrape the surface.
Here are a few of my favorite outdoor activities:
Paddle the Colorado River
Who would have thought that a mere 45 minutes away from the bustling town of Las Vegas is one of the world’s best outdoor adventures? For $60, the friendly folks from Desert Adventures pick you up in the parking lot above Hoover Dam, take you down the switchback service road to the bottom of the dam, provide you with a canoe or kayak, and then send you off down the river. Trips leave between seven and nine in the morning and they pick you up at three, down at Willow Beach, Arizona, where you pile into a school bus for the ride back to your car. It’s a little over ten miles of flat water paddling, with a steady current pushing you downriver – unless, of course, the wind is blowing up-canyon. With a stiff head wind, this can turn into a death paddle, but when you finish your journey, I promise it will be your very own adventure story of a lifetime. And I mean that in a good way. But it will test your mettle. Along the way, you will encounter steaming hot springs at Sauna Cave and Gold Strike Canyon; the Emerald Cave, where you can paddle inside a mountain; waterfalls and crimson canyon walls dripping with sparkling seeps and draped in ferns; a cable car and catwalk hanging over the river where the old gauging stationmaster used to live and work before the days of satellites; and the sunbaked remnants of historic mines. The wildlife is breathtaking, from the hawks soaring silently above the narrow canyon to the bighorn sheep clinging precariously to the rock walls. You may only be thirty-five miles from Las Vegas, but it feels like the wildest place on earth. I remember the first time I ran this section of the Colorado like it was only yesterday. My friends and I were driving back into town, and when we crested the ridge above Boulder City, and got our birds eye view down into the Las Vegas Basin, it felt like we had been transported to another planet. We stopped at a pullout and drank a few beers as the sun set over Mt. Wilson and the lights of Vegas came alive, and it was as disorienting, and yet wondrous, an evening as I have ever spent anywhere in the American Southwest.
Visit a Park
There are a myriad of public parks a stone’s throw from downtown Las Vegas, and you can find all sorts of books on Amazon that can point you in whatever direction you might find interesting. Let’s start with the most obvious: Red Rock Canyon, Nevada's first National Conservation Area. The park is located 17 miles west of Vegas and is administered by the Bureau of Land Management who charge $7 per car to enter the park. Over a million people a year visit the Red Rock Canyon and the new visitor center is kick-ass, with a gift shop filled with a huge assortment of neat things to buy, from jewelry to natural history gear. There is a 13-mile, one way scenic drive that accesses over 30 miles of hiking trails. You can rock climb, do some mountain biking or road biking, hop on a horse, bounce around in an OHV, or just enjoy the quiet solitude of the many picnic areas.
The park showcases the plants and animals of the Mojave Desert, also known as the high desert, even though it also encompasses Death Valley, the lowest spot in North America. It is a land of extremes, from sky-punching mountains, like La Madre Mountain at 8,154 feet, to full-on desert cactus country with spectral Joshua Trees dotting the landscape like thorny creatures from beyond. Basically, you drive around the loop road, stop at the numerous trailhead parking lots, and then start hiking. The trails come in all shapes and sizes, from steep to flat, and from short to long, and along the way, you will come across Indian rock art and agave roasting pits. I usually like to start with the Calico trails, about three miles of walking in a dry wash where rock climbers cling to the canyon walls above the trail. Then it’s over to the Willow Springs area where there is a network of stoner trails that can take you to Keystone Thrust, La Madre Spring, Lost Creek, and Ice Box Canyon. From the Ice Box Canyon Trail, you can access the park’s longer trails into Pine Canyon and Oak Creek Canyon. You can easily spend several days hiking in Red Rocks.
Take a Hike
If you were to draw a circle about forty miles out from Vegas, this area would encompass some of the finest hikes in the country. For those folks who really like to get off the beaten track and explore nature on its own terms, there are literally weeks and weeks’ worth of hikes around Las Vegas
Some of my favorites include:
Boy Scout Canyon – This is one of a network of hikes near Boulder City, the town built by the Bureau of Reclamation to house the workers building Hoover Dam. It is located about 45 minutes from Vegas via major highways. When I first started hiking around this area, back in the early 80s, Boulder City was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Today, it has microbreweries and spacy sculptures lining the downtown core.
The trailhead for the Boy Scout Canyon Trail is just out of town past the cemetery, garbage transfer station, and Boulder Rifle and Pistol Range – though one might argue that all BLM land is just one giant shooting range. The Boy Scout Canyon Trail is about eight miles roundtrip and the last two miles are inside the Black Canyon Wilderness Area. Along the way you will encounter ancient petroglyphs, a winding set of narrows, a dry waterfall to climb over, and polished pyroclastic (volcanic) rocks galore. The canyon runs all the way to the Colorado River if you really know what you’re doing. In fact, some of the best hot springs on the river are a short distance up Boy Scout, but at about the 4-mile mark when you are coming in from the top, there is a 20-foot pour-over to a sandy platform. Beware! Even if you could get down this first spillway, there is a 330-foot pour-over just beyond. So, don’t tempt fate. Please remember the cardinal rule of canyoneering: it’s always easier to go down than back up. I have heard many different stories about how the canyon got its name. My favorite involves Boy Scouts getting washed over the big waterfall in a flash flood.
Black Mountain Overlook Trail – This trail starts in a community park in Boulder City at the edge of a small subdivision. It’s about six miles round trip and fairly steep in spots but with some of the most spectacular views you could possibly imagine. When you get to the top of the mountain, there is majestic Lake Meade shimmering like a blue gem to the east and Las Vegas glimmering off to the north. The trail was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the overlook is a classic. Once you get to the top, you won’t want to leave. It's a great place to enjoy a cold beverage.
Gold Strike Canyon – If you want to hike to hot springs without doing a river trip, especially if you’re visiting Las Vegas during the colder months, then Gold Strike Canyon is your best bet. This hike is about an hour from Vegas, off Highway 93. You might want to combine your hike with a tour of the Hoover Dam, given that you will have to drive over the dam to get to the trailhead. This is a pretty popular hike, so I would recommend starting in the early morning or late afternoon. It’s about six miles roundtrip, depending on how far down the canyon you go. The trail begins in an open dry wash and features several scenes straight out of an end-of-the-world sci-fi movie. The new highway that bypasses Hoover Dam was recently completed and the trail runs under the road where gargantuan steel bridge abutments sprout from the red meat-colored canyon walls like silver spaceships. And on the floor of the canyon, you will find the rusted remains of trucks and cars that fell to their doom from the old highway when the dam was being constructed. The land you are walking through was made by volcanos and the rock is drippy with boulders and gravel stuck to the side of the canyon like out of some acid flashback. It’s an easy downhill ramble through a dry creek bed, but when the canyon narrows up, you need to pay attention because several side canyons come into play. I usually leave some sort of sign post, like placing a piece of driftwood on a large boulder, to point the way back home. The hot springs appear within a narrow boulder field near the 3-mile mark. The best spot to take a dip is at the Cave of Wonders where some helpful folks have created shallow pools by stacking rocks atop one another, creating stone basins. This will be the end of the line for most people. Experienced canyoneers might venture farther down canyon to the Nevada Hot Springs, which are really outstanding, but there are some tricky dry waterfall spillways that will need to be carefully navigated. From the Nevada Hot Springs it’s a pretty short hike to the Colorado River. But in order to get through this section of the canyon requires climbing down ropes that people have anchored along the trail to help circumvent the boulder drops. And while I don't mean to beat a dead horse, getting back up will be much harder than climbing down.
Bowl of Fire Canyon – This is one of my favorite canyon hikes around Vegas and is part of the Lake Mead Recreation Area, about 45 minutes from Vegas, off of the Northshore Road. This 5-mile roundtrip trail begins at an unsigned pullout. Off in the distance, you will see an east/west ridge of red and white rock that seems to have been dropped from space. It definitely stands out amidst the uniformly brown landscape. Just start walking toward the middle of the ridge. There are rogue trails all over the place, heading off in every direction. Follow the footprint trails that go straight toward the rock candy mountain and don’t get wigged out if you get off the main trail. It’s all good as long as you keep heading toward the red and white ridge. Unlike much of the Vegas area, this is not a volcanic zone. It was once part of an inland sea and is comprised of red sandstone (below) and white limestone (above). Once you get into the multi-colored ridge, you are walking in a dry wash that keeps getting narrower and narrower until it starts switchbacking steadily uphill, ending at a sweeping overlook with views into a magical world of melting rock and bighorn sheep. But pay attention because there are side trails all over the place and they will lead you astray. And it’s really easy to get turned around. My wife and I once ended up missing the main trail and we came out in the Callville Wash, which is a really nice place to walk; unfortunately, it won’t lead you back to your car. We ended up racing the setting sun, climbing through multiple washes of loose rock and cactus, and seriously testing our love. I used an old canyon trick to save the day: When you get lost, climb to high ground where you can see exactly where you are and figure out how to get back home.
Here is a link to most of the day hikes around Las Vegas:
Cruise the Lake
On the day after our wedding we took the whole wedding party for a boat trip on Lake Mead. For $300 a day, you can rent a 10-person pontoon boat and it’s one of the best deals around. We actually rented two boats and the folks at Lake Mead Marina made the whole transaction as easy as pie. They have all sorts of watercraft, from jet skis to jet boats, and Lake Mead is a fantastic place to explore. They gave us a map and suggested a nice all-day adventure, starting with a trip to the dam and then following the south side of the lake upstream for about ten miles, through the narrows and up to Virginia Bay where we turned around and headed back to the marina. We stopped in side canyons to swim in the crystal blue, 75-degree water and frolic like fools. It was all good. We were back at the marina at 5:30, paid an additional $40 for gas, got our deposit back, and were on our way back to Vegas. No fuss, no muss.
Vegas has shows galore, but for my money, Cirque de Soleil is the best game in town. But which show? If you have a taste for the erotic, then it’s Zumanity at New York-New York. If you want to take a trip down musical memory lane, then check out The Beatles LOVE at The Mirage. Mystere, at Treasure Island, features high-energy acrobatics and a light show extraordinaire. Acrobatic magic rules at Aria with the Zarkana circus show. O, at the Bellagio, is undoubtedly the best show in town by far, with in an eye-popping theater complete with a 17-foot-deep pool. But the tickets are pricy and both shows sell out every night. I think the best bang for the buck is KA, a colossal production with weird spinning contraptions, performers swinging and fighting across the face of snow-capped mountains, and an intriguing story line. You can usually snag a good seat for $60 on the day of the show and its home base, the MGM Grand, is filled with other attractions like a trippy rain forest.
Cirque de Soleil tours the world and they have may have even come to your town. But Vegas is the home base for these productions, and the monstrous hydraulic stages and amazing building infrastructure, like the honeycomb caves that line the side of the theater at MGM for KA, don’t travel along with them when they appear in Washington or even New York. So, while you may think that you have seen a Cirque de Soleil show, you really haven’t seen the real deal until you catch a show in Las Vegas. It will blow you away.
Wherever you go in Vegas – at your hotel, in the casinos, along any promenade – you will see magazines, booklets, and brochures offering discount coupons. Pick them up. Look them over. Much of what is being discounted is for stuff you would never do, but some of the offers are terrific. Half price to the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana. Two-for-ones at the Circus Circus buffet. Some truly hot deals are out there if you look. And the hawkers on the street are also offering some very sweet discounts. Many people ignore the aggressive street dealers. They are everywhere. They are relentless. And they come across like panhandlers. So, your first reaction is often to either ignore them or say, “No thank you” while avoiding eye contact. That’s fine when they are selling some service, like the prostitutes at the Chicken Ranch, but many of them are just trying to give you coupon books filled with exceptional discounts. Take those. It’s like free money.
And if you are looking specifically for show tickets, then check out the TIX Booths scattered around the Strip where they offer half-price tickets on the day of the show. The most convenient location is by the giant coke bottle across from New York-New York.
Walk the Strip
One of the great things to do in Vegas is just walk The Strip. Start at Mandalay Bay and keep walking until you are too tired to go any farther. Inna and I do this every time we visit Vegas. If it’s raining, we will spend the entire day cruising the incredibly interesting resorts. It’s like going to museums, only much hipper. Every resort is open to the public. Just stroll right on in, and rather than a scowling guard at a metal detector, you will be welcomed like a long lost friend. And you don’t necessarily have to be there to check out anything in particular; the inside trappings are drop dead gorgeous and well worth seeing even if you never drop a penny in a slot, or buy a ticket to a show. And another cool thing is that all of the resorts are basically in competition with one another, so they are always reinventing themselves and playing “Top THIS!”
Some of my favorite FREE places to check out, starting on the south end of The Strip, include:
Mandalay Bay – Outdoor gardens and sculpture that rival the world’s best botanical gardens, and you can drink.
Luxor – How can you beat a giant pyramid that changes colors and shoots a laser beam of light into the nighttime sky? And if you are a sports nut, their Interactive Sports Exhibit called Score! will open up a fantasy world of sports where you can scope out sports memorabilia, try out for an NFL team, or even take the NASCAR pit stop challenge.
Excalibur – Check out the Fun Dungeon and bring out your inner child.
New York-New York – How audacious can you get, building a replica of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Statue of Liberty with a roller coaster blasting through the skyline? And the Coney Island Emporium is like a sensual taste of cotton candy.
MGM Grand – The rain garden, complete with animatronic crocs and jungle birds will have you howling like a monkey.
Monte Carlo – Join the neon parade with the Blue Men before each nightly performance.
Aria – The whole Cosmo glass and steel architecture with glass butterflies in the lobby and a shopping promenade with its spinning basket restaurant that hangs in the air over tropical gardens conjures up some city of the future.
Crystals @ City Center – The Art of Richard McDonald captures the muscular grace of the Cirque de Soleil performers, including 10 “heroic-size” works framed by a 40-feet-tall waterfall.
Planet Hollywood – The Miracle Mile Shops Fountain offers an hourly musical show with lights, fog, and special effects that will make you want to buy something that you don’t even need.
Bellagio – The fountain light show each night choreographed to music will simply blow you away. This is a must see.
Paris – Where else but Vegas would you find a replica of the Eiffel Tower?
The Venetian and The Palazzo – If they can build Paris, then why not Venice and its grand canals?
Caesars Palace – They totally capture the wanton excess of Rome, from the golden sculptures that lines every hallway, to the Fall of Atlantis Fountain and Aquarium.
The Flamingo – Stroll through the 15-acre Wildlife Habitat tropical paradise filled with flamingos and tropical fish.
The Mirage – Watch a 100-feet-high volcano inside a palm tree-lined lagoon blow its top every hour on the hour.
Wynn and Encore – Local Wayson's Corner boy makes good, Steve Wynn, turned Vegas into a family destination and forever changed the face of Sin City. His two curvy golden resorts feature the very best of the best, but the pools are like out of a dream.
Circus Circus – The name says it all. Come one, come all to see the Carnival Midway and Circus.
Freemont Street Experience – This one is off The Strip, on the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard, but it’s a trip back to the original Las Vegas – pre-Strip, if you will. This was the home of Glitter Gulch where Vegas neon first began to make a name for itself, at places like the Golden Nugget, and the new ring masters were looking for a special way to attract people back to the old part of town. The Freemont Street Experience is a five block area that has been closed to vehicles and covered with a video canopy where they stage the world’s biggest light show – for free, non-stop. Underneath the canopy there’s the Neonopolis Shopping Mall, a pedestrian promenade, the VivaVision sound and light show every hour, and free concerts featuring big name bands from around the globe. It’s like walking through a constantly changing movie.
There’s no place on earth like Las Vegas, but gambling isn’t what makes it so special. That’s certainly part of it, but the sum of its parts add up to a one-of-a-kind experience – whether you are hanging on The Strip or bopping around the desert. Vegas is simply unforgettable.