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If you plan to visit Las Vegas, unless you really want to, there’s no reason to spend all of your time in the casinos, or even in the city for that matter. While you might think the area that surrounds it is a stark, barren desert land, you’d be wrong. There are numerous amazing day drips that are worth taking from Vegas, including these.
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Valley of Fire State Park, Overton, Nevada
Just an hour’s drive from Vegas will bring you to Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, an other-worldly destination where the red sandstone rock formations really do 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 and offer a wealth of opportunities for hikers, nature lovers, artists and photographers. 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.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is a two- to three-hour drive from Las Vegas, or, if you want to get there faster, you can catch a 40-minute flight. You might be surprised to discover that it’s actually filled with life, at least during certain times of the year. While summer is probably not the best time to go, the rest of the year can be idyllic, especially the springtime, which brings a spectacular display of brilliant wildflowers. During a good year, meaning perfect conditions, the desert will be filled with a sea of gold, purple, pink or white flowers. If you arrive during an “off” year, or during another season, you can check out the phenomenon known as the “sailing stones.” These stones that weigh around 700 pounds mysteriously move across the sandy surface of the playa on their own – sometimes at a distance of more than 650 feet. They leave visible tracks in their wake and have puzzled scientists for decades. Many blame aliens, paranormal activity, magnetic fields and there are even some who refuse to believe this is anything other than the work of con-artists who want to attract more visitors to the area. Still others theorize that, in winter, the wet clay and strong winds – which can reach speeds of up to 90 mph – are to blame, but no one is 100 percent certain what causes it.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park can be reached with a two-and-a-half-hour drive. It’s well worth the time and effort, as it offers some of the most beautiful vistas and hiking opportunities in the southwest, with impressive rock formations, towering cliffs, magnificent waterfalls, valleys and deserts all just waiting to be explored. The Narrows, a gorge with walls a thousand feet tall and the river, sometimes 20 to 30 feet wide, is one of the park’s highlights. It can be viewed by hiking the easy, paved Riverside Walk for a mile from the Temple of Sinawava. If you’re up for it, you can travel beyond through the Virgin River, which may involve wading upstream. There’s so much to see and do here, you might want to stick around for more than a day.
Less than 45 minutes from The Strip and you can be at Lead Mead, one of the world’s largest man-made lakes. It’s famous for its awe-inspiring scenery with unique views of lava hills, Joshua trees, bighorn sheep, and red sandstone rocks, along with outdoor recreational activities like boating, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, camping and hiking. The Lake Mead Visitor center, located on the Nevada side four miles northeast of Boulder City, provides information on all of the activities and services in the area, including scenic drives, along with trail maps, brochures and more. It’s the ideal place to enjoy the sun during the day, taking occasional refreshing breaks in the water, and then heading back to Vegas to enjoy partying at night.
Hoover Dam is just 35 miles south of Las Vegas in the Black Canyon on the Arizona/Nevada border. The 726-foot-high curved wall is an architectural marvel that was constructed to control flooding, produce electricity and provide irrigated water. Without it, there would be no Las Vegas, at least as we know it. The neon and glitz simply wouldn’t exist – in fact, the growth of America’s Southwest can be tied directly to the electricity that’s created by the dam. Funded by Congress during the Depress, in controls floods, provides irrigation water and produces hydroelectric power. The massive concrete dam stands 726 feet tall and draws an estimated one million visitors every year. Visitors can learn about the dam in the visitor center and take a guided tour which includes an elevator ride in the canyon wall, seeing the power plant and generators. From the overlook, there are gorgeous views of the canyon, the Colorado River, Lake Mead and the dam.
Grapevine Canyon Petroglyphs, Laughlin
The Grapevine Canyon Petroglyphs are located in Grapevine Canyon on Spirit Mountain near Laughlin, about a 90-minute drive from Las Vegas. 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 Extraterrestrial Highway and Area 51, Rachel
If you’re up for an offbeat day trip, you can always hit the lonely stretch of Nevada State Highway 375, better known as the “Extraterrestrial Highway,” to visit the quirky town of Rachel, a couple hours north of Las Vegas. The trip there is part of the adventure itself. Even the road signs read “Extraterrestrial Highway,” and is scrawled in an alien font for added kicks and grins. The drive is surprisingly pastoral, dotted with sparkling lakes, verdant valleys and lots of free-range cattle along both sides of the road. Rachel is home to many alien enthusiasts and alien-related attractions. By visiting the Little A’Le’Inn, a restaurant/hotel/gift shop, 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.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Las Vegas
Located just 17 miles west of The Strip, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area feels like you’ve entered a completely different world. It’s anything but the bright lights of the big city. The 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.
Cathedral Gorge State Park, Panaca, NV
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, and it can be reached in about two-and-a-half hours. Hikers and photographers should not miss it – explore the slot canyons or follow one of the hiking trails for jaw-dropping views.
Havasu National Wildlife Refuge
The Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, located along the Pacific Flyway, a key north-south migratory route that follows the western coast of the U.S., serves as a stopping point for hundreds of birds that follow the route at various times throughout the year. In addition to bird watching, visitors can also enjoy hiking, boating, and fishing – there are many places to fish here, with abundant populations of catfish, striped bass, and largemouth bass on the Colorado River. Visitors can also simply enjoy stopping at viewpoints to snap pictures. Some of the most scenic include Topock Gorge and the multiple Colorado River viewpoints.