The 4-mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard, “The Strip,” is known as the capital of glitter and glam with its concentration of resort hotels and casinos, quick-hitch wedding chapels, and neon signs that light up the desert sky. While marble and earth tones are slowly beginning to replace the old-school neon and faux-crystal of yesteryear, Sin City is still an entertainment mecca where you can find shows, buffets, and entertainment 24 hours a day. What many tourists may not know is that just beyond Nevada’s city of lights is a vast landscape of unexpected treasures. Here’s a list of more than 7 natural attractions near Las Vegas, Nevada.
How Long? One way, it’s 456 miles. That’s excluding the side trip to Red Rock Canyon Scenic Loop, which is right outside of Las Vegas. That’s around 9 hours if you do not stop anywhere. Then you have to turn around and head back. It’s easy a three-day weekend road-trip from Las Vegas.
You can always break it up into segments. A straight trip from Las Vegas to the Great Basin National Park is a five-hour drive, heading north on Highway 93. It all depends on what all you wish to see.
If you’re planning for a full week, you can also jump over to the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest or down to the Mojave National Preserve.
Time of Year? Year-round, with one caveat. As you get into the higher elevations, especially near Echo Canyon State Park and Great Basin National Park, the trails or campgrounds may be closed due to seasonal weather. However, the closer you stick to Las Vegas, the easier it’ll be.
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Start in Las Vegas
This road trip assumes that you are starting from a downtown hotel in the Las Vegas Strip. Whether you are staying at the Mirage, The New York-New York Hotel & Casino, or the Luxor, take the Las Vegas Freeway ( I-15) South to Loop I-215. Loop I-215 will take you around to the Great Basin Highway, which turns into I-11. Take the Highway 93 exit to Boulder City Parkway and then follow the directions from there.
Backing up more than 100 miles behind Hoover Dam, Lake Mead is the world’s largest man-made lake that encompasses 1.5 million acres. At 110 miles long, Lake Mead is a mecca for swimmers, divers, windsurfers, boaters, and tourists lining up to see the Hoover Dam. The park has nine wilderness areas to explore with trails, including the Historic Railroad Trail that overlooks the Boulder Basin area.
Okay, so it’s manmade but it overlooks one of the natural wonders in the area. Less than an hour from downtown Las Vegas is the Lake Mead Recreation Area, Hoover Dam, and Lake Las Vegas. Considered one of the greatest engineering marvels of the 20th century, the 726-foot gravy-arch Hoover Dam harnesses the power of the Colorado River feeding into Lake Mead.
Start with the guided tour of the Hoover Dam tour, which includes a 1-hour guided tour of the powerplant and passageways within the Dam. From the observation deck, view a panoramic vista that includes Lake Mead and the Colorado River. Take one of the large elevators 500 feet down into the wall of Black Canyon and walk through a 250-foot long tunnel drilled out of the rock. From there, you can view the 650-foot long Nevada wing of the power plant along with its generators.
Boulder City, NV 89005
Located about five miles north of Hoover Dam, Boulder Beach is one of the more popular areas of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. It’s not a traditional beach with sand. It has rocks, lots of rocks, right before the water. It’s an oasis in the desert. However, it is beautiful in its own way with the starkness. A large campground area and places for boating and swimming are also available.
As you head north, the Valley of Fire State Park borders the northern arm of Lake Mead. The Valley of Fire Highway offers stunning views of the red rocks. These red sandstone formations were formed from shifting red dunes over 150 million years ago. The bright red Aztec sandstone outcrops are settled in gray and tan limestone throughout the park that contains ancient, petrified trees and 2,000 years-old petroglyphs. Interpretive trails lead past these petroglyphs and up into the red rocks. The visitor center also offers exhibits on the ecology, prehistory, history, and geology of the park.
As US-93 runs north between the lean hills of the Sheep Range to the west and the Delamar Mountains to the east, the desert landscape can look deserted. However, underground water feeds the Lower Pahranagat Lake that leads into a sprawling 5,380-acre wildlife refuge. Part of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the refuge has an abundant of songbirds, wildlife, and hiking trails. Free camping can also be found at the Upper Lake part of the refuge. The Upper Lake Trail is a three-mile loop that goes around the Upper Lake and eventually connects with the Waterway Trail. A parking lot is available near the Upper Lake Trail.
You can also find gas, restaurants, and groceries in Alamo, Nevada, which is located three miles north of the refuge.
Rainbow Canyon, Nevada 89008
South of Caliente, Nevada, the Rainbow Canyon Scenic Drive is a 21-mile side trip down State Highway 317 that takes you to Rainbow Canyon. Stained by minerals into a kaleidoscope of color, Rainbow Canyon is surrounded by the gentle Meadow Valley Wash. The Canyon lies between the Clover Mountains to the east and the Delamar Mountains to the west, lying 3,000 feet below the mountain peaks. The drive follows the Meadow Valley Wash, which collects just enough water for cottonwood trees to grow along its banks. Highway 317 also connects you to archeological sites such as the Kershaw-Ryan State Park. Not too far from Rainbow Canyon, you can also visit the Elkin Schoolhouse State Historic Site. The road is subject to washouts so check road conditions.
As you continue along Meadow Valley Wash, you’ll enter Cathedral Gorge State Park. The park is a 2,000-acre park that offers a visitor’s center, walking trails, camping, and a trailhead up to Eagle Point. Cathedral Gorge is spiked with buttes and columns that rise above 4,800 feet in elevation. Miller’s Point Overlook, a mile north of the park’s entrance, is also a great place to take in the broad views of the Cathedral Gorge. Miller’s Point also has a one-mile trail that connects the overlook to the picnic area within the park.
Echo Canyon State Park has a 65-acre reservoir that abuts steep rock walls, a perfect setup for echoes. Golden eagles soar through Eagle Valley and campers and hikers are known to enjoy the variety of songbirds, hawks, eagles and other birds that soar throughout the region. Hike the Ash Country trail, a 2.5-mile trail that climbs 300 feet up to the rim of the valley. The hike then descends into the Ash Canyon with its steep-sided walls and dramatic views. Camping is also available onsite, with flush toilets, an RV hook-up station, and drinking water at each site.
National Park, 100 Great Basin, Baker, NV 89311
Nevada’s only national park, the Great Basin National Park includes everything from the majestic crown of Wheeler Peak and Mount Washington to the caves and some of the world’s oldest trees. Drive the park’s 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive through forests of spruce and limber pine on a 3,400-foot climb from the visitor center. This drive will take you to the overlook of the glacier, centuries-old trees, and mountain caves.
Nevada’s only alpine glacier sits at the base of Wheeler Peak, measuring 300 feet long and 400 feet wide. Alpine glaciers are the types that sculpt mountain ranges, such as the one at the South Snake Range. You can view the glacier from the Wheeler Peak Overlook on the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive or take the Bristlecone/Glacier Trail 4.6 miles roundtrip to the foot of the glacier. At the end of the scenic drive, the Snake Range includes twisted pines in the rock-strewn soil that are estimated to be up to 3,000 years old.
Note that due to its high elevation, Wheeler Peak Campground closes for the season at the end of September.
One of the 40 known caves in the Great Basin National Park, Lehman Caves are the only caves open to the public. View four distinctive groups of caves, including the Lehman Hill Caves, Baker Creek Caves, Snake Creek Caves, and Alpine Caves. Most of these caves are at high elevation, such as the Alpine Caves or the highest solution cave in the park, the High Pit at 11, 200 ft. The bottom of the High Pit is impacted by snow. The deepest cave in the park at 480 feet is the Long Cold Cave, which is also at an elevation of about 10,000 feet.
After visiting the Great Basin National Park, turn around and head back to Las Vegas. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a circular loop. However, you’ll have the opportunity to see many of the early attractions from a different viewpoint.
Once you finish the four- to five-hour route back to Las Vegas, you can either immediately head west or spend the night and start fresh in the morning.
Located just 17-miles west of the Las Vegas strip is the Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive, a 13-mile path that takes you through the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The horseshoe-shaped drive takes you past spectacular sandstone cliffs. Turnouts along the way lead to stunning vistas and 26 numbered hikes and trails that can be found on a downloadable map. Take a short hike to Lost Creek or Pine Creek Canyon or longer ones such as the White Rock Mountain Loop or Grand Circle Loop. To find a list of hiking trails, visit the Red Rock Canyon Visitor’s Center or download the information online. If rock climbing is more your speed, you’ll find plenty of activities with the great boulders and sheer rock faces.
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