When the crowds are too big and the incessant noise of slot machines gets to be a little too much on your Vegas vacation, why not take a day and venture off the strip for a change of scenery. Southern Nevada is full of natural beauty and has one of the largest recreation areas in our park system. Not to mention a few must see attractions. The close proximity to the strip means you can rent a car and make a day of it. Road trip! These are my recommendations for the best things to do off the strip.
Lake Mead Recreation Area
When I heard that eight million people visit Lake Mead annually, I thought what are they doing? But the question actually is, what aren’t they doing? Lake Mead with 1.5 million acres, is one of the most diverse areas in our park system. The star, the lake or the reservoir from Hoover Dam, is a 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 welcome sight in the desert. You don’t even have to own a boat to enjoy it. 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.
Other activities in Lake Mead include:
Bikes and equipment can be rented at the various marinas and some places in nearby Boulder City. If you want to explore the park a little more and get off the strip for longer than a day, Lake Mead has eight campgrounds, back country camping and several hotels and a casino within the recreation area.
Lake Mead is just about 30 miles from the strip. It’s $25 per car to enter the park unless you have the America the Beautiful National Park pass. Tip: The park does not require you to hang your pass from your rear-view mirror like other parks do, due to high temperatures that could cause it and/or the hanger to melt.
Valley of Fire State Park
Just 50 miles from the strip lies Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada’s first state park. It’s the perfect escape for the day. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy one of its many scenic areas. Hike its domes and explore the arches, petrogylphs and fiery red cliffs it’s known for. Because of it’s size and diverse features, you can easily see a lot in a day.
Some of my favorites easy hikes were:
- Atlalt Rock
- Natural Arch Rock
- Rainbow Vista Trail
- White Domes Loop
The visitor center has exhibits and information about the formation of the park and a small store. If you want some extra time, the park has two cute campgrounds with great views for tent and RV’s. $10 per car. Open 24 hours a day 365 days a year.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
You may have noticed the beautiful glow and color the sky takes on at sunset in Vegas. In fact some of my most memorable sunsets have been in Nevada. One of my favorite place to watch the sky change colors is Red Rock Canyon. Located just 17 miles from the strip, it’s so calm and peaceful.
Red Rock has a 13 mile one way loop road that makes it super easy to see some of the unique features right from your car if you just don’t want to hike. For those that do feel like getting a little dusty, there are miles of hiking trails and world class rock climbing. You can even book a horseback riding tour nearby. The Visitor Center is super informative, has interpretive exhibits and a store for souvenirs.
Admission is $15 per car. Tip: 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.
There’s nothing more fun than leaving the Las Vegas strip behind and finding snow. Yes snow! Just 35 miles from the strip, Mt. Charleston, the fourth highest peak in Nevada, gets about 100 inches of snow annually. At the right time of the year, you can easily spot the snow covered peaks from the strip. It even receives enough snow for a small ski resort.
The snow doesn’t stay year round but there is plenty of hiking and camping on the mountain. As part of the Spring Mountain Recreation Area, the change of scenery makes for a great drive and way to spend the day.
Besides the scenery, one of the biggest surprises about Mt. Charleston is the Lodge at 7000 ft. It’s 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 menu with live music occasionally. There’s also a huge deck to sit and sip and just breathe in the scent of evergreens.
Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument
Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe that Las Vegas was once wetlands. That time is forever preserved at the Tule Springs Fossil Beds just 20 miles north of the city. In 1933, while digging in a quarry, some workers unearthed bones of a mammoth that they called Tule the baby mammoth, therefore the name. This discovery led to further exploration and expeditions in the area. Supposition is that animals traveled to the area for water and then got trapped in mud and died because there is a large concentration of fossils in this one area.
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 finds.
Because it is a relatively new park, there is no Visitor Center or facilities. You will see a fence marked NPS boundary and you can access the area by public parking right on the street by that fence. Please remember to leave things just as they were and use the Leave No Trace principles. If you happen to discover something while you are there, you can fill out a form to let the National Park Service know what you discovered.
Admission is free and you can enter the park during daylight hours.
Man Made Must See’s
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
If you are touring on your own and driving yourself to the dam, there’s a security checkpoint before you get there. Roll your windows down so law enforcement can look inside your vehicle. Parking close to the dam is paid parking but it’s free the further up the hill you go. It doesn’t cost anything to walk the highway over the dam and just 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.
Combining a visit here with the Welcome to Las Vegas sign would make a great day trip.
So if you are in Vegas, this list is a pretty good start for things to enjoy off the strip. By no means is it everything. In the future, I hope to check out Spring Mountain Ranch State Park and Sloan Canyon hiking area. If you wanted to add another National Park, Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and the Mojave Desert are all within driving distance from Vegas. It’s a long day but it could be done. Do you have a favorite place you like to get away to off the strip? Let me know in the comments.
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