Neon to Nature:
Action-packed overnighters and day trips from Las Vegas

By: Suzie Dundas

  • #1: Red Rockin’ Loop
  • #2: Fire and Water Loop
  • #3: Colorado River Corridor
Photo: Kelly Noecker

What comes to mind when you think of Nevada? For many visitors, it may be no more than bright lights and colorful stage shows. But most of the state’s nearly 110,000 square miles are less about neon glamour and more about geological wonders, red-and-orange-striped canyons, and Wild West vibes that’ll make you want to pan for gold or knock back a local beer at a 100-year-old saloon. Oh, and there are secret hot springs. And massive installation art exhibits in the middle of the desert. And off-road ATV tours.

Starting in Las Vegas, the three-pronged Neon to Nature road trip loops through ghost towns, gorgeous landscapes, and some of the weirdest, wildest towns in the West before brining you back to the city. Thanks to remote deserts, vast mountain ranges, and few crowds to roam them, socially distant, uncommon adventures happen naturally in Nevada. And the open road leads to all of them.

This guide is proudly produced in partnership with TravelNevada.

#1: Red Rockin’ Loop

Photo: Zack Frank/Shutterstock

Beyond the Las Vegas city limits, magic happens. Canyons emerge from the rocky landscape. Ghost towns shimmer somewhere between the past and the present. Rainbows burst forth from the desert (and are more solid than you think). At 110 miles, the total driving time for this itinerary may only be about two hours, but it deserves at least one full day.

Before you pack that glovebox, though, get your expectations in line: This is not merely a “break from the city” kind of trip. These are destinations in and of themselves, where art and history and Mother Nature collide. Ready to explore the transition from neon to nature?

Suggested duration: 1–2 days
Distance: 110 miles
Stay: Red Rock Casino Resort Spa, Las Vegas


Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

You’ll start in Red Rock Canyon, full of vivid, towering rock piles...

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Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

You’ll start this loop in Red Rock Canyon, a BLM-managed site full of vivid, towering rock piles and stark canyon ridgelines spread across nearly 200,000 acres of the Mojave Desert. The park’s 13-mile scenic drive is the most efficient way to experience the photo-worthy sights, from sandstone cliffs and visible fault lines to ancient dino tracks.

If you’ve got more time, 26 different trails wind through the conservation area. Calico Tanks and Ice Box Canyon Trails—two standouts—will make you scurry and sweat, but with grand views and ephemeral waterfalls, they’re well worth their treks.

TravelNevada pro tip: Get your hands on daily passes for time reservations through Recreation.gov before you hit the road. Advanced reservations are required to enter Red Rock Canyon.

 

Photo: Shackleford Photography/Shutterstock


Spring Mountain Ranch State Park

Next, head to the historic Spring Mountain Ranch State Park...

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Spring Mountain Ranch State Park

From Red Rock Canyon, head to Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, a historical site once owned by billionaire playboy Howard Hughes. Stretch your legs on the short hiking trails—similar landscapes to your last stop—or catch a live history performance near the park’s Sandstone Cabin. It’s one of the state’s oldest buildings, and the performers do an excellent job of drawing you into their stories.

TravelNevada pro tip: The trees here know history, too. They’re some 400 years old!

 

Photo: Matador Network


Seven Magic Mountains

Change up the pace with a stop at this multi-colored installation art piece...

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Seven Magic Mountains

Change up the pace with a stop at Seven Magic Mountains, an installation art piece by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone. Take photos in front of the multi-colored, stacked-boulder towers, which stand 30+ feet tall and look even more impressive against the starkness of the desert.

Created in 2016, the installation comes down at the end of 2021—three years longer than planned, thanks to its unprecedented popularity.

 

Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada


Vegas Off-Road Tours

Your next stop on this looping road trip is an ATV tour...

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Vegas Off-Road Tours

Hello, adventure! Your next stop on this road trip is Vegas Off-Road Tours. Their two-hour Mojave excursion will take you beyond the tourist trail into the wide-open desert on an ATV. You’ll drive through the rocky Nevadan terrain using built-in helmet communications to ask your guide questions about the surroundings along the way.

Beyond the classic Mojave landscapes, your tour will provide an informative introduction to the Goodsprings Ghost Town, which also happens to be the next stop on this Neon to Nature loop.

 

Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada

Goodsprings Ghost Town

Get ready to go back in time...

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Goodsprings Ghost Town

Get ready to go back in time, but not too far—you’ll journey to the turn of the last century in Goodsprings Ghost Town. Many buildings still stand in Goodsprings, which actually had more residents than Las Vegas in its heyday. The town’s Keystone Mine produced lead until around 1940, but when production dipped, so too did the local population. Some 200 residents stick it out today, keeping a few spots—like your next stop—alive.

TravelNevada pro tip: Pick up a walking map at the Goodsprings gift shop before you set out on foot.

 

Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada


Pioneer Saloon

End your time in Goodsprings—and this road trip—at the Pioneer Saloon...

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Pioneer Saloon

Finish up the day in Goodsprings by bellying up to the original bar of the Pioneer Saloon, built in 1913. It’s a Sears, Roebuck, and Co. building (yes, you could order buildings from the Sears catalog once upon a time)—thought to be the last stamped-tin manufactured structure still standing—and has quite the history.

Ask the bartender—or the local sharing the bar with you—to tell you some of the saloon’s spookier stories as you sip a pint. Guaranteed, you’ll walk away with a memory or two.

 

Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada


#2: Fire and Water Loop

Photo: Dominic Gentilcore PhD/Shutterstock

If the mark of a good road trip for you is getting your walking shoes as dusty as your tires, set out on this nature-bound loop. At 300 miles and with plenty of opportunities for long hikes and paddles, you’ll want to make this at least an overnight to not feel rushed.

Camp under the starry Nevadan sky at one of the natural areas along the way, or choose from among the casino resorts in Mesquite. Or stretch the trip to two nights and do both! There’s certainly plenty here to fill your days and then some.

Suggested duration: 2–3 days
Distance: 300 miles
Stay: Virgin River Hotel & Casino, Mesquite


Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Fun fact: This recreation area is nearly the size of Delaware...

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Lake Mead National Recreation Area

From Vegas, it’s on to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, anchored by the sprawling arms of the eponymous reservoir. You can rent powerboats, pontoons, kayaks, paddleboards, and more at the Lake Mead Marina or Hemenway Harbor; the latter is the meeting point for cruises to the Hoover Dam aboard the Desert Princess paddle wheeler.

Fun fact: The recreation area is nearly the size of Delaware and contains the nation’s largest manmade reservoir. Needless to say, there’s hiking, camping, fishing, cycling, and swimming opportunities here to last you well beyond your time in Nevada.

Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada


Valley of Fire State Park

The park’s undulating red stone was formed about 200 million years ago...

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Valley of Fire State Park

From Lake Mead, head north to Valley of Fire State Park, the state’s oldest and largest. If this spot hasn’t already been on your list for a while, you’re in for a treat.

The park’s undulating red stone—rivaling lottery-only spots like Arizona’s The Wave—was formed about 200 million years ago, when inland seas receded and left the sandy ocean floor behind. That’s why the rock here is called “sandstone”—combine sand, other minerals, pressure, and enough time, and you get sandstone. When you hike here, you’re walking on a geologic time capsule.

 

Photo: Ashley Hadzopoulos/Shutterstock


Lost City Museum

The Lost City Museum provides a glimpse into a bygone Nevada...

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Lost City Museum

Even if you only have a passing interest in history, you should swing by the Lost City Museum for a glimpse into a bygone Nevada. It’s packed with Ancestral Puebloan artifacts perserved by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers in the mid-1930s as they built Lake Mead, damming the Colorado and flooding these ancient sites.

TravelNevada pro tip: Admission is $5, and the museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

 

Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada


Virgin Valley Heritage Museum

To learn about Nevada’s pioneer history, stop by the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum...

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Virgin Valley Heritage Museum

To learn about Nevada’s pioneer history, stop by the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum on your way to your next stop. The historic building has served as everything from a hospital to a library to a Boy Scout hall; now, it’s a local museum well worth a quick visit.

Here, you’ll realize just how recently this era of the state’s history transpired, and how little comes easy out here in the Mojave.  

 

Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada


Skydive Mesquite

Seeing the landscape from the air perfectly complements the time you’ve spent exploring the desert on foot....

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Skydive Mesquite

One can’t-miss stop for adventurers on this Neon to Nature itinerary is Skydive Mesquite. Apart from the obvious thrill, seeing the landscape from the air perfectly complements the time you’ve spent exploring the desert on foot.

Here’s how it works: After a scenic 15-minute flight, first-time skydivers will make the 13,000-foot jump strapped to an instructor; the pros will handle most of the equipment while you enjoy the 50-second freefall. Once the parachute deploys, you’re in for a more leisurely descent, which frees up your senses to take in the sights below.

 

Photo: Mauricio Graiki/Shutterstock


Gold Butte National Monument

To get WAY off the beaten track, head to Gold Butte National Monument...

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Gold Butte National Monument

To get way off the beaten track, head to Gold Butte National Monument, a 300,000-acre remote reserve and another place where you’ll want to have plenty of time to explore. The monument is home to sheep, jagged ridgeline rock piles and formations as tall as houses, and the Gold Butte ghost town, which you’ll pass if you drive the monument’s Backcountry Byway.

You can stop and hike just about anywhere, but the unique formations in “Little Finland” and the American Indian petroglyphs at “Whitney Pocket” make those two sections especially noteworthy.

TravelNevada pro tip: This is serious backcountry. Remoteness, rugged roads, and sweltering summers are only fun if youre prepared to survive them. Make sure you have the right vehicle and gear, and bring plenty of water. Do your homework and come prepared!

 

Photo: sunsinger/Shutterstock


#3: Colorado River Corridor

Photo: Kelly Noecker
After getting sweaty in red-rock canyons, after navigating ghost towns, after off-roading through the desert and jumping out of planes, you’re allowed a moment of respite. While there’s still plenty of adventure on offer, this 250-mile itinerary up and down US-95 — breaking in Laughlin to refuel at a riverfront resort — is all about southern Nevada’s most-beloved oasis: the Colorado River.
Suggested duration: 2–3 days
Distance: 250 miles
Stay: Aquarius Casino Resort, Laughlin


Boulder City

You’ll start just southeast of Las Vegas...

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Boulder City

You’ll start just southeast of Las Vegas by checking out the Art Deco spirit of Boulder City. First established to house workers building the Hoover Dam (then called the Boulder Dam), the town is now more about outdoor thrills, from haunted mine tours and historic trails to railroad-track pedal bikes and kayak and zipline tours. 

Boulder City’s also a great spot to grab lunch before heading for your next stop. Get your feet moseying down Main Street, and pick a patio, any patio. The Dillinger will serve you the juiciest of burgers, while Southwest Diner has mom’s best recipes on speed dial.

 

Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada


Gold Strike Hot Springs

The various springs here average 100ºF or hotter...

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Gold Strike Hot Springs

Just off US-93 on Goldstrike Canyon Road, you’ll see signage for Gold Strike Hot Springs. Don’t skip this! It’s a three-mile hike from the trailhead, gaining about 1,400 feet of elevation along the way. The various springs average 100ºF or hotter, and you can also jump in the Colorado River at points along the way. The trek involves some scrambling and rope-assisted climbing, so it’s not recommended for novice hikers.

Note that the hike is too hot take on from May to September. But don’t fear, because there’s a second way to access Gold Strike: on a guided kayak tour with Desert Adventures. It’s an easier journey, and arguably more enjoyable, with the same hot-spring payoff.

 

Photo: Ben Evered


Hoover Dam

Post-soak, head east to the famous Hoover Dam...

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Hoover Dam

Post-soak, head east to the famous Hoover Dam, within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area detailed above. First operational in 1936, it’s still a modern marvel, a feat of engineering, and a piece of American history.

You can tour the dam and ride to the top, see just the powerplant, or take a $10 self-guided tour. Whatever you opt for, you’ll get 360-degree views of the Colorado River, a lesson in Art Deco engineering architecture, and a chance to cross the world’s tallest concrete arch bridge.

 

Photo: Oleg Bakhirev/Shutterstock


Techatticup Mine

Opened in 1861, the mine is the oldest in Nevada...

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Techatticup Mine

Next, zoom 30 minutes south of Boulder City to the Techatticup Mine in Eldorado Canyon. Opened in 1861, the mine is the oldest in Nevada (one of the richest, too). While it no longer produces precious metals, it’s accessible for guests who want to descend into the earth and learn about the town’s sometimes-violent history along the way.

The area outside the mine is also well-preserved, seemingly popping right out of a John Wayne movie—naturally, it’s popular with photographers and artists, as well as history buffs.

 

Photo: Kelly Noecker


Laughlin

The end of the line on this trip is the town of Laughlin...

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Laughlin

The end of the line on this trip is the town of Laughlin, where you can paddle or float along the Colorado River before it flows out of Nevada on its way towards its final destination of the Sea of Cortez. You don’t even need to SUP or kayak—you can tube it, too.

Even if you don’t get out on the water with a guide, take time to stroll along the Laughlin Riverwalk, paralleling the river. You’ll often find local events and farmers markets or live performers drawing a crowd on summer evenings. If you have an extra day to spare, you may want to book an overnight paddle tour, allowing you to camp on some of the Colorado River’s most remote banks—and to end your trip on a memorable high note.

 

Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada



This guide is proudly produced in partnership with TravelNevada.