Las Vegas skyline. Photo by Christopher Chan

There is much more to Las Vegas than the Strip. A curious traveler can get a sense of natural connection and “go green” in a city known mainly for decadence.

Rafael Riviera left his Santa Fe scouting party on Christmas Day in 1829. He traveled west, getting lost before discovering a lush valley with native grasses, tall cottonwoods and cool, clear spring water. He called the oasis Las Vegas, Spanish for “ the meadows”.

Pristine riparian areas are not what comes to mind when traveling to a city even people in the quiet corners of the world know about. But a scan of the horizon beyond the strip finds snow covered mountains, forest wilderness and red rock geology on all sides of the valley. For anyone wanting more than a “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” experience, there’s plenty of outdoor excitement to lure you away from the gaming tables.

Once You Arrive

When I moved to Las Vegas in 2004, we called the metro buses, CAT, (Citizens Area Transit) by a different name: Call a Taxi. The schedules were so erratic your bus might never come. A French company took over in 2005, purchasing hybrid coaches and sand colored double decker buses called “Deuces.”

Now getting around Sin City on public transit is a snap. Once you arrive at McCarren International Airport, buses leave from the lower level every 15 minutes towards the strip and downtown. Shuttles are provided by every major hotel/casino and taxis plentiful.

If you are staying on the strip and want to explore, opt for ground transport via a Deuce or go airborne on the monorail. Walking along the famous boulevard is an adventure in urban hiking, sidewalks teeming with citizens from all over the world.

No reason to rent a car unless you venture out to the wild areas listed below.

Where It All Began
The valley’s meadows provided vital lifelines for the Southern Paiute, who used the springs as a gathering place for trade with other tribes

About 12,000 years ago climate shifts started morphing the southern Nevada terrain into desert. The valley’s meadows provided vital lifelines for the Southern Paiute, who used the springs as a gathering place for trade with other tribes. The tradition continued when others discovered the region, shifting from Conestoga wagons, trains and jet planes over the centuries until Las Vegas evolved into the adult playground we know today.

To get a sense of place and history, start with the Springs Preserve. Encompassing 180 acres where it all began, this state of the art facility opened in 2007. A complex of interactive museums, walking paths, gardens, Wolfgang Puck’s version of organic cuisine, and an amphitheater for outdoor concerts, the springs represent the true heart of Las Vegas.

Bridge through the Gardens at the Springs Preserve

Curiosity is rewarded with thorough investigations of the geologic, ecological and cultural history. Each weekend the preserve hosts events highlighting important conservation topics, with smart water use always in the forefront in an area averaging 3 inches of rainfall per year.

Classes and workshops on xeriscaping, irrigation, recycling and sustainable construction are ongoing, serving the Las Vegas community and others committed to sustainable living. The Gardens at the Spring are supported by the Southern Nevada Water District, encouraging home owners to displace water sucking lawns with desert friendly native vegetation, paying cash for every square foot of sod converted.

In a city associated with consumption, the Springs is a model for environmentally sound design. All the buildings are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certified, constructed with recycled materials, utilizing solar energy and designed for sustainability in a harsh desert environment. The Inside Out section displays step by step how the buildings were put together in the context of a soft human footprint.

Hiking, Camping, and Skiing in the Forest
An early summer hike from a base elevation of 3000 feet to the top of Mt Charleston at 12,000 feet, is a lesson in wildflower diversity and ecological transition.

Thirty minutes from downtown Las Vegas discover the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area , 316,000 acres encompassing three wilderness areas, ten campgrounds, four hiking trails, Mt. Charleston Peak and the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort. Like all the mountain ranges in the Basin and Range, Spring Mountain is a biotic island, supporting flora and fauna found only in this part of the world.

An early summer hike from a base elevation of 3000 feet to the top of Mt Charleston at 12,000 feet, is a lesson in wildflower diversity and ecological transition. Camping requires a reservation four days in advance, but plenty of spaces are available if you plan ahead. This is where to go in during the summer, a perfect cool refuge from triple digit temperatures in town.


Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area

The Red Rock Conservation Area, is a 17 mile drive west from the strip on Charleston Avenue/ State Route 159. Take the scenic loop drive or advantage of 30 miles of hiking trails, cycling routes, or harness up and see the geology face to face. Red Rock Canyon is a favorite among climbers. Nevada’s only conservation area is in the center of the Mojave Desert; from the clean vistas it’s hard to believe Las Vegas is just over the ridge.

Tip: If you hit the visitor’s center at lunch time, watch endangered desert tortoises determinedly follow their human keepers for second helpings of sweet strawberries.

Buddhist Donuts Anyone?

Practically every conceivable ethnic cuisine is available in Vegas, with eclectic eating places tucked away in each part of the city. A personal favorite is Ronald’s Doughnuts, owned by a pair of Buddhists in the Asian Section on Spring Mountain Road. The doughnuts are 90% vegan. Being a lifelong Krispy Kreme addict, I scoffed; but the honey glazed, apple fritters or any of the other “healthy” choices will make even the most skeptical fried dough connoisseur leaving with a dozen to go.

For visitors preferring their meals uncooked, find one of two Go Raw Cafes to satisfy cravings for all things fresh, crunchy and fibrous. There is one right off the strip and another 7 miles west on Sahara

Walking distance from UNLV, (University of Nevada-Las Vegas), The Sunflower Farmers Market on Tropicana offers a complete selection of organic produce and earth friendly munchies plus an excellent deli . Stroll on campus to have a healthy picnic in the arboretum before taking in the Majorie Barrick Natural History Museum’s collection of Native American and pre-Columbian art.

It isn’t a Vegas trip if you don’t do at least one buffet. The Wynn’s version offers many vegan and vegetarian selections. This relatively new Vegas landmark has an open, airy interior and you’ll be patronizing a resort owned by the Springs Preserve most generous contributor.

Where: 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S. (Desert Inn Rd.)

The Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is a must see. The hotel’s management rejects “better life through chemistry” in their horticultural practices, using biological controls such as lady bugs and other insects to keep pests and disease in check.

A café off the main floor and a pastry shop just down the way make for an idyllic breakfast.

A City Constantly in Flux

Las Vegas continually re-invents itself, tearing down old landmarks ( circa the1980’s) and building new. With all this rapid-fire change, the city planners finally recognize a need to embrace environmentally sound construction and manage it’s exponential growth. The MGM City Center opens in 2009 on the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard, another LEED project incorporating water reclamation, heat recapture technologies and energy efficient lighting.

Las Vegas can be more than “bright lights, big city”, Sin City style holiday. It can also be an exploration of a long established Mojave oasis and its evolution into the 21st century.