LAS VEGAS might not be the first city that comes to find for an outdoorsy vacation. It should be, however. The city known for bright lights, bars, and casinos, is the perfect basecamp for desert discovery and wide-open spaces. As a first-time visitor to the area this past summer, it was shocking to discover what there was to see beyond the strip — out in the desert is where the real action is. Here’s how to see the best
1. Valley of Fire State Park
It may not be worth it to rent a car if you stay on the strip, but it sure is if you plan to get out and explore the desert. Many of the resort hotels have car rentals available on-site. I stayed at the Bellagio, which has Avis available at the hotel. Renting a car for 24 hours cost $75, but the ability to visit Valley of Fire State Park more than justified the cost. Pack water and head out in the morning for the one-hour drive to the park entrance.
Entering the park about feels as though you’re entering Mars. Allow at least half a day to cruise the 40,000 acres of engraved Aztec sandstone, swirls of limestone, and stunning red rock along the winding roads through the park. Temperatures here at times exceed 115°, so you’ll be thankful for the air conditioning in your rental car. The rocks are bright red and when the sun hits them as it traverses above the desert, making each appear to be on fire at various points throughout the day. Throughout the park explorers will spot natural stones and arches, some in the shape of recognizable natural objects and animals like beehives or elephants, among other Native American art. Many rock formations are visible right off the road including the Seven Sisters at Valley of Fire State Park. This formation consists of seven bright red boulders amid the desert. Others require hiking further into the park, inlucing the 1.2-mile trek to Elephant Rock. If you plan to hike, head to the park early to avoid the extreme heat.
2. Nellis Dunes
Nellis Dunes lies about 20 miles northeast of the strip at the Apex Exit of Interstate 15. The Nellis Dunes are primarily used by off-road vehicles (OHVs) to tear through the sand dunes on a variety of trails and obstacles, along with various terrains to practice on before reaching the soft sand. Visitors can shred in their own vehicles or rent a dune buggy from SunBuggy Fun Rentals at 6925 Speedway Blvd c106. You’ll meet at the company’s main office first, located a couple of miles from the sand dunes, to be fitted for a helmet, a dust mask, and to watch a safety video of the animals you may encounter and what you can expect on your excursion. SunBuggy does what they call a Baja Case Tour. It can be difficult to communicate while you’re actually riding, so the guide will give the rider ways to get their attention — just be sure to keep an eye on the rearview mirror. The Baja Chase is essentially the rider mimicking the tour guide’s moves on the path throughout the sand dunes. That being said, it’s easily tailored to what the rider is comfortable with. Some people want to rip through the steep dunes and others are leery of flipping the vehicle and would rather play it safe while still getting a feel of the experience.
3. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is frequented by a legion of diehard climbers and recreators that claim this jaw-dropping expanse of rock faces and the canyon they surround is a better experience than Valley of Fire. I suggest seeing both if you have time. Drive west from the strip about 17 miles, and you’ll hit Red Rock Canyon, the state’s first national conservation area.
Like Valley of Fire, there are hiking trails and scenic drives, about 13 miles in total. Visitors come from all over to explore the trails by car, bike, horse, and even to try rock climbing for a birds-eye view of the landscape. Be sure to research ahead of time if you have to reserve a spot for your vehicle during their busy travel season. This generally begins around October and goes through May.
4. Seven Magic Mountains
Ten miles south of the strip is the Seven Magic Mountains art installation in the middle of the desert. The piece consists of seven brightly colored, massive towers of stacked totem limestone boulders up to 35 feet high. The creator of this large-scale artwork, Switzerland-born and New York-based artist Ugo Rondinone, is known internationally for his beautiful — iff oddball — works of art. If you can, visit at dusk. As the sun sets, the light reflects on the rocks, making the colors even more vivid. Rondinone created the outdoor installation near Jean Dry Lake off Interstate 15 on the Ivanpah Valley across from the Sheep Mountain Range.