I love a Vegas vacation but I’ll be the first to admit, the crowds can get a little overwhelming. Those slot machines you were so excited to see, lose their appeal on about day three after listening to them. Especially if it’s not a winning sound. The solution? Take a day and venture off strip. You’ll find there’s more to the state than just Vegas. Southern Nevada is FULL of natural beauty, including of one of the largest recreation areas in our park system. Don’t worry if you didn’t pack your hiking boots, most of the areas have scenic drives or some paved walkways. Here’s my suggestions for the best things to do off the Vegas strip.
Best Natural Beauties Off the Vegas Strip
Lake Mead Recreation Area
When I heard that eight million people visit Lake Mead annually, I thought really? What are they doing? But the question actually is, what aren’t they doing? Lake Mead Recreation Area with 1.5 million acres, is one of the most diverse areas in our park system. The lake and the reservoir from Hoover Dam is that beautiful azure blue that makes you just want to jump right in. On hot days where temps can easily top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s a beautiful sight in the desert. While a boat is the best way to enjoy the lake, it’s not absolutely necessary. You can tote your float down to Boulder Beach and spend the day on the water. The lake may be man made but the surroundings are all natural.
From Lake Mead marina you can rent a boat, jet ski or catch a cruise on Lake Mead’s paddle boat, the Desert Princess. You can even dine lake side at the Harbor House cafe. Don’t miss the Park Visitor Center where you can watch a movie about the lake and pick up your park swag.
Valley of Fire State Park
Valley of Fire was named Nevada’s first State Park in 1935 and it doesn’t take long to see why. The park is filled with fiery red cliffs, some of the best petroglyphs I’ve seen, domes and arches. It’s the perfect escape for the day. Because of it’s size, you can easily see a lot in a short amount of time. Pack a lunch and enjoy one of its many scenic areas with picnic tables. There’s a Visitor Center with info about how the area was formed, it used to be an ocean by the way. Don’t miss the cactus garden out front of the Visitor Center.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
As a sunset chaser, some of my most memorable sunsets have been in Nevada and one of my favorite place to watch the sky change colors is Red Rock Canyon. The sun brings out the different hues and colors of the rocks. With miles of hiking trails and world class rock climbing if you feel real energetic, you could make a day of exploring. Arrange to take a tour of the area by horseback or plan on meeting Jackson, Red Rock’s adopted wild burro. The Visitor Center is a must see with interpretive exhibits and a store for souvenirs.
Southerner Says: if you do plan on hiking, fill up your water bottle at the Visitor Center. There are no water filling stations in the park and the loop road is one way so you can’t turn around or back up. Check the website for hours that vary seasonally and download their visitor guide and map here.
There’s nothing more fun and surprising than leaving the strip behind and finding snow. Mt. Charleston is the fourth highest peak in Nevada. While the snow doesn’t stay year round, you can, at the right time, see it’s snow covered peaks from the strip. Receiving about 100 inches of snow a year, it’s enough for a small ski resort.
The mountain has a 41 mile scenic drive and plenty of hiking. As part of the Spring Mountain Recreation Area, the change of scenery makes for a beautiful way to spend the day. You can find a map here.
Besides the snow, one of the other biggest unexpected things about Mt. Charleston is the Lodge at 7000 ft. It’s designed to look like a ski chalet complete with a huge fireplace that might seem out of place in the desert but somehow works. They have a full bar and a great pub menu with lots of homemade options. Pair that with live music and a huge deck and you can easily sip the day away.
Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument
In 1933 workers in the area unearthed mammoth bones that they named Tule the baby mammoth. This discovery led to further exploration of the area. Tule Springs Fossil Beds has turned out to be one of the largest fossil beds in North America. The fossils and bone fragments that have been found so far are incredible. Huge Colombian mammoths, camelops, which are a larger version of today’s camel, 1100 lb. lions and sloths as big as a car, are just a few of the amazing things found.
Because it is a relatively new park, there’s no Visitor Center or facilities. There’s a fence and sign marked NPS boundary. Public parking is available on the street in front of this fence. Since there really is no one monitoring the area, remember to use the Leave No Trace principles and leave things as you found them. If you happen to discover something while you are there, there’s a form online that you can fill to let the National Park Service know what you found.
Best Man Made Things Off the Vegas Strip
If you’ve only seen Hoover Dam in the movies, do yourself a favor and make the short trip from the strip to see it in person. Located within the Lake Mead Recreation Area, but manged by the Bureau of Reclamation, Hoover Dam is one of those jaw dropping places that you have to see to believe. Photos do not accurately depict just how large it is.
Constructed during the Great Depression and named after Herbert Hoover, the Hoover Dam was completed in 1935. Although a dam like it had never been built before it was completed two years ahead of schedule.
Now, thousands of people come to see it annually and stare at it in amazement. There are couple of ways to get a closer look by guided tour.
- Hoover Dam Tour- includes a one hour tour the dam passageways, powerplant and visitor center. This ticket is first come first serve and must be purchased in person. Price is $30. First tour starts at 9:30 PT and runs every half hour until 3:30 pm PT. Only 20 people per group and no children under 8 are allowed. Because of the nature of the tour, its not accessible for wheelchairs or crutches.
- Powerplant Tour- includes a thirty minute tour of the powerplant and visitor center. Tickets are $15, $12 for seniors military and juniors ages 4-16. Children 3 and under are free, and can be purchased online up to ninety days in advance or onsite from 9 am to 3:45 pm
Parking close to the dam is paid parking only but the further up the hill you go, it’s free. It also doesn’t cost anything to walk the highway over the dam and look if you are not taking a tour.
Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge
You cruised over to Lake Mead and stared at Hoover Dam. Now imagine that narrow winding road you just took to drive across the dam was the only way across- because at one time it was. For years, the old Hwy 93 was the main route across the Colorado river into Arizona. With pedestrian traffic at the dam, bumper to bumper cars and tour buses, this route was unsafe and wasn’t very good for the environment with all those cars sitting there idling in congested traffic.
So to deal with the congestion, Nevada and Arizona joined forces and the Hoover Dam Bypass was constructed. They had to completely reevaluate and then create the best approach to cross the Colorado again. Because of the canyons and mountains, it was no easy task. Several approach bridges had to be constructed on the Arizona side.
The bridge portion that you now drive across is called the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. And it’s huge! It’s the widest concrete arch in the Western Hemisphere, the second highest bridge in the U.S. and the world’s highest concrete arch bridge.
One of the most clever things they did, was to create a pedestrian path on the bridge as well. Visitors can park, there’s a designated lot before you get to the dam, and walk across. Not only do you learn about the area and the bridge construction, you get one of the best views of Hoover Dam there is.
It’s free to park and walk the bridge.
Seven Magic Mountains
Seven Magic Mountains is a colorful art display by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone. It’s basically painted boulders stacked up on another like totems. Meant to signify life and human presence in the desert, it’s located just ten miles south of Las Vegas. Admission is free and it’s open 24 hours. Originally it was supposed to be removed in 2018 but it’s been extended through 2021.
Combine a visit here with the Welcome to Las Vegas sign and In N Out for the perfect off the strip day.
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