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When most people think of Nevada, Las Vegas is the first thing that comes to mind, and usually not much else – other than perhaps a stark, barren desert land. But, The Silver State offers a lot more than that, and often the chance to enjoy it practically all to yourself. These reasons might just change your mind at how you look at Nevada, and perhaps even provide the inspiration to get packing.
Dedicated in 1935, Valley of Fire is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park. One of the best day trips from Las Vegas (just one hour away), this other-worldly place features red sandstone rock formations that look like fire spewing from the desert sands. The landscape’s impressive features were molded more than 150 million years ago, via erosion, shifting sand dunes and moving fault lines. There are a number of trails that will allow you to get a closer look at the park’s “fire,” as well as its ancient trees and 3,000-year-old Indian petroglyphs. Minus the crowds, neon lights and dancing water fountains, this is an ideal place to get away from the chaos of the city and just enjoy the silence.
Spring Mountain National Recreation Area, best known to locals as Mount Charleston, offers the chance to enjoy a cool mountain breeze, fresh air and spectacular scenic beauty. Part of the Spring Mountain Range and Toiyabe National Forest, Mount Charleston soars to nearly 12,000 feet in elevation at its highest point as the state’s eighth-highest mountain peak and one of the most topographically prominent peaks in the nation. Grab your hiking stick and take a trek through the Aspen and Ponderosa pines, spotting wildlife like desert tortoises, deer and wild burros along the way. Big Falls, with a 100-foot waterfall, and Cathedral Rock, with its impressive views, are both great half-day hikes. If you’re up for the 10-mile Bonanza Peak trail, you’ll have a chance to spot wild horses too.
Lamoille Canyon, located in the Ruby Mountains near Elko, is known as the “Grand Canyon” of Nevada. The Lamoille Canyon Scenic Drive is one of the best drives in the state, with the 12-mile drive whisking travelers away to 8,800 feet following a sheer-walled canyon flushed with brilliant wildflowers in the summer and spectacular colors in the fall. On your way to the top, don’t miss the Lamoille Glacier Overlook where you can view the results of two 1,000-foot-thick glaciers that were carved out of the U-shaped canyon over 250,000 years ago. You’ll have a prime spot for viewing the rugged glaciated peaks that soar overhead at up to 11,249 feet in elevation. This hiker’s paradise boasts more than 100 miles of trails, including an easy two-mile trek to Island Lake. Camping, picnicking, mountain biking and backpacking are just a few of the other outdoor activities available here.
Great Basin National Park is one of the least-visited and most remote national parks – even more reason to go, with hiking trails to pristine mountain lakes and ancient pine forests where you can walk for hours without seeing another soul. Located on the eastern border of Nevada, 250 miles from Salt Lake City and 320 miles from Las Vegas, its isolation and desert air also mean you can enjoy some of the darkest night skies in the continental U.S, with meteors, millions of stars and five planets all coming into view. Rising for more than 13,000 feet out of a massive 200,000-square-mile basin, Wheeler Peak offers another attraction to visitors with its unique ecosystem. Here, alpine forest meets high desert and adds a limestone cave to the mix. Lehman Caves, a beautiful marble cave ornately decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, popcorn and more than 300 rare shield formations, can be visited with a guided tour.
Tucked within the Big Smoky Valley about 20 miles southeast of Austin in Central Nevada, Spencer Hot Springs is a top weekend getaway in Nevada. It’s hidden in the terrain that looks as if it’s just another sea of sagebrush. Although more and more travelers are discovering this fabulous geothermal hotspot, the remote location still keeps most people away, which is the key to the level of relaxation found here. This cluster of natural hot springs sits on public land, and some of its enthusiasts have made significant improvements to the area over the years to create more comfortable bathing holes. Most of the baths are made from cattle troughs, with props built for the water to filter inside the tub. The largest “bath” contains water of about 140 degrees. Enjoy a good soak and then retire to your tent, camper or RV for an especially peaceful night’s rest.
Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park, located in the Egan Mountain Range south of Ely, is best-known for its six beehive-shaped historic charcoal ovens. The ovens offered a more efficient way to reduce the area’s abundance of pinyon pine and juniper into charcoal, in operation from 1876 to 1979, the silver boom years for the Ward mines. After their function as charcoal ovens ended, they were used to shelter prospectors and stockmen during inclement weather. They also developed a reputation as a hideout for stagecoach bandits. In addition to the historic site, the park also offers hiking, picnicking and camping as well as being home to a variety of wildlife, including deer, elk, mountain lion, bobcat, coyote and fox.
Cathedral Gorge State Park is another spectacularly unique spot in Nevada that feels as if you’ve stepped onto another planet with its dramatic and unique patterns carved by erosion in the soft bentonite clay. It almost looks like a mini-version of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, with its hoodoo-like spires. A true photographer’s dream, explore the slot canyons or follow one of the hiking trails for amazing views.
Set upon a patch of private land in the Black Rock Desert, the Fly Geyser is another one of Nevada’s lesser-known attractions, and it’s also one of the coolest. Many residents don’t even know it exists, but it can be found about one-third of a mile from State Route 34, which also functions as the viewpoint as the geyser is not on public land. It was once just an ordinary man-made well, drilled back in the early 1900s. Over time, the piping hot geothermal waters began to rise through cracks in the well, and up to the surface of the ground through what is now known as the Fly Geyser. While workers tried to cap it off, preventing the hot water from spewing out, they were obviously not successful.
Lake Tahoe straddles the border of Nevada and California just west of Carson City. It’s the largest alpine lake in North America and offers a myriad of things to do. In this year-round vacation paradise, you can enjoy hiking, mountain biking and sailing in the summer, and some of the world’s best skiing and snowboarding in the winter. One of the most scenic spots around the lake can be found at Sand Harbor State Park, three miles south of Incline Village on the Nevada side. Here, you’ll find 55 acres of long sandy beaches, forested areas and rocky coves. The gently sloping sands, crystal clear water and interesting rock formations make for outstanding swimming and even scuba diving.
Virginia City, one of the largest historical districts in the nation, is an early mining town and a top-rated small-town in Nevada. The discovery of the Comstock Lode in the late 19th-century made it a booming metropolis with over 25,000 residents. In its heyday, it was a center for arts and culture. Today, while the population has dwindled, not much has changed. You can stroll authentic boardwalk sidewalks, visit Old West saloons and ride a stagecoach or even a historic train. This authentic Wild West town is also known for its haunted hotels, annual Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry and World Championship Outhouse Races. The outhouse races take place over the first weekend in October, in which teams of costumed outhouse racers are pitted against each other – one person rides and the remaining team members push, pull or drag the elaborately decorated outhouses down a race track.
Update – World Championship Outhouse Races Have Been Cancelled for 2020
The Grapevine Canyon Petroglyphs are located in Grapevine Canyon on Spirit Mountain near Laughlin in southern Nevada. While the Mojave Desert may seem rather desolate and barren, taking a walk through the canyon will tell otherwise. During non-drought years, a freshwater spring flows out of the canyon floor, giving life to an array of plants and animals. Walk along the trail that meanders along the bench at the edge of Grapevine Wash, and as you near the canyon mouth, you’ll see the first petroglyph panels on boulders and cliff faces on either side. The age of the etchings has not been determined – they may be as recent as 200 years ago, or as ancient as 800 years old.
The official address may be Las Vegas, but this is anything but the bright lights of the big city. Located 17 miles west of The Strip, this nearly 200,000-acre area offers over 30 miles of hiking trails, horseback riding, mountain biking, picnicking and nature observing among the unique geologic features and wildlife that represents some of the best examples of the Mojave Desert. If you’re not up for anything too active, take the 13-mile scenic drive and you’ll see the desert come to life, including Keystone Thrust, a massive wall of rock with jagged, fiery red stripes that can be seen as far away as The Strip.
Tonopah was once dubbed the very best place for stargazing in the country. Located 215 miles north of Las Vegas, you can see more than 7,000 sparklers in the dark night sky, including the Milky Way on a clear, moonless night. Just about anywhere in the state that’s far from the lights of the big cities makes for some great stargazing. Desert environments in particular are usually where the world’s great observatories are built due to the dry climate and cloudless skies.
Lake Mead, located in southeastern Nevada and northwestern Arizona, was the first recreation area in the U.S. Created by dams that back up the Colorado River, the area is home to thousands of plants and animals which have adapted to survive in the desert, where rain is scarce and temperatures can sizzle. You can enjoy year-round outdoor activities here, including fishing, boating, hiking, picnicking and sightseeing. There are a number of campgrounds throughout the area, or you can even rent a houseboat and spend the night on the water.
This very remote region is the epitome of the state’s basin and range landscapes, with stark, treeless mountains enclosing a vast, dry lake bed. The region is extremely dry for the majority of the year, though it partially floods, and even freezes, during the winter months. Best known for hosting the annual Burning Man Event in the Black Rock Playa, an area that stretches for 35 miles just south of the small town of Gerlach to the edge of the Black Rock Range, it also offers a number of recreational opportunities throughout much of the year. The adventurous can enjoy primitive camping, rock collecting, off-road driving and hiking.
If you’re up for an offbeat jaunt, you can always hit the lonely stretch of Nevada State Highway 375, better known as the “Extraterrestrial Highway.” Even the road signs reads “Extraterrestrial Highway,” and is scrawled in an alien font for added kicks and grins. The drive is actually quite pastoral, dotted with glistening lakes, verdant valleys and lots of free-range cattle along both sides of the road. The town of Rachel is especially quirky – and, not surprisingly, home to many alien enthusiasts. Head to the Little A’Le’Inn, a restaurant/hotel/gift shop, and you’re bound to hear a few interesting tales, like the woman who saw mysterious red lights appear in the sky before they suddenly transformed into a five-point star. After watching for hours, the star eventually exploded into thousands of little lights.
Once a year, in the cracked terrain of the state’s Black Rock Desert, Burning Man, a week-long event, turns the normally desolate landscape into a utopian society and the state’s fifth-largest city, with a population of roughly 50,000 and growing. The event which begins on the last Monday in August and ends on the first Monday in September is described as an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression and radical self-reliance. While here, all inhibitions are left at the gates as one enters the five-mile wide camp sitting in a prehistoric lake known as the playa. While there is plenty of music to be heard throughout, this is a lot more than just a music festival – it’s the biggest, and most bizarre, party on earth. Take in an endless number of spectacles from amazing art installations that are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before to hundreds of workshops, focused on everything from laughter yoga to gong meditation and knife throwing. And, the only thing your money can buy is ice as the entire event operates on a thriving gift economy.
Even if you’re not into classic cars, this museum is likely to have at least a few things that fascinate. Also called The Harrah Collection because most of the vehicles on display are from late casino mogul William F. Harrah, the National Automobile Museum houses one of the largest collections of antique automobiles in the world, grouped by year in street settings that are appropriate to the time. You’ll see horseless carriages, a Phantom Corsair, a coppers Rolls Royce and a gold DeLorean, in addition to a Cadillac that Elvis Presley once owned. In some cases, the cars were the stars, like the 1912 Rambler that appeared in the 1997’s “Titanic.” Also on display are two art collections that encompass auto-related pieces, as well as costumes and accessories.
Spanning Black Canyon and the Colorado River about 30 miles from Las Vegas on the border of Nevada and Arizona, Hoover Dam is a National Historic Landmark. The immense concrete structure which confines America’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, provides power to California, Arizona and Nevada. It stores enough water in the lake to irrigate two-million acres, in addition to serving as a popular tourist destination as one of the country’s most recognized landmarks. The Visitors Center, located on the Nevada side of the canyon, provides an in-depth look at the dam’s history using photos, maps and a short film. On the third floor, you’ll find an observation area for some spectacular views.
Located about halfway between Reno and Salt Lake City, the isolated Ruby Mountains, dubbed Nevada’s Swiss Alps, offers some of the best backcountry skiing on the continent – and its remote location means you won’t have to share it with other snowboarders or skiers. This often-overlooked range offers ideal terrain for big mountain powder, with 10 peaks topping out at more than 11,000 feet and an average of 300 inches of dry, desert snow annually. If you don’t want to head out on your own, Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience offers ski packages.