With world-class resorts, top-notch restaurants, and epic nightclubs, most of the people who visit Las Vegas rarely (if ever) venture off the Strip. For those who do, however, a multitude of outdoor adventures await. We're not just talking about the Grand Canyon, either. Instead, here are a few of our favorite underappreciated backcountry haunts.
River Mountains Trail
Rent a bicycle to appreciate this 35-mile ribbon of concrete that rings the River Mountains southeast of the Strip. The trail, which opened formally in 2011, is both a challenging workout (prepare for hills) and a great way to see local sights. Start in Boulder City and head counter-clockwise, through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, along the shores of Lake Mead, past Lake Las Vegas, and back into Henderson. Along the way, look out for jackrabbits and red-tailed hawks, as well as a variety of desert flowers. A nine-mile dirt spur trail near the Lake Mead NRA Visitor Center heads through five circa-1930 man-made tunnels down to the Hoover Dam. Especially if you've never seen the engineering feat, it's worth the detour.
Valley of Fire State Park
Marvel at petrified wood and 3,000-year-old Native-American petroglyphs at Valley of Fire, the oldest state park in Nevada. Located about 50 miles southeast of downtown Vegas, the park gets its name from the fire-colored sandstone prevalent in the area; even when the sun is weak, the rocks appear red, orange, and even pink. Start your visit with a stop at the Visitor Center, where interpretive displays present a comprehensive picture of the cultural story of the area. From there, grab a trail map, fill the water bottles, and head out for a tromp on White Dome Trail, a family-friendly (read: not too tough) hike that heads through a quarter-mile slot canyon and past a handful of natural stone arches.
Red Rock National Conservation Area
Sure, you can explore and appreciate the Mars-like landscape of Red Rock National Conservation Area from the air-conditioned comfort of your car along a 13-mile scenic drive. But it's better to get out and scramble over rocks to find some of the petroglyphs that characterize the area. On the west side of the park, look up, and you might catch a glimpse of local rock-climbers scaling walls like spiders. Camping is available here; the Bureau of Land Management-operated campground opened for the season May 29. Before you set out to drive the 10 miles back to the Strip, stop off at Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa to place a sports bet or catch a movie.
Beat the heat of the Strip with the fresh and breezy mountain air of Mount Charleston, located northwest of downtown. Hiking is the name of the game here, and the grueling, 17-mile Charleston Peak Trail is the main attraction, as it summits its 11,916-foot namesake peak. Elsewhere in the area, Griffith Peak, accessible by the South Loop and Harris Springs trails, offers unmatched views of the Strip, Red Rock Canyon and Lake Mead NRA. Most of the area is part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, a national forest bursting with critters such as wild burros, deer, and desert tortoises. Post-hike, if you're too tired to schlep back to town, grab a room for the night at the historic Mount Charleston Lodge. Locals swear by the hot chocolate there. You will too.
Bonnie Springs Ranch
Step back in time to the Old West at this recreated Western town located ten minutes southwest of the Strip. Originally built in 1843 as a stopover for wagon trains going to California along the Old Spanish Trail, Bonnie Springs has offered horseback riding and a host of other tourist-oriented activities since 1952. Today there's a dining hall that serves up banquet-style dinners, a petting zoo, a narrow-gauge railroad, and a quaint (read: no frills) motel for overnight guests. Costumed characters wandering around a recreated 1880s mining town offer lessons on the past, and participate in a nightly musical revue. Because the site is a popular destination for corporate retreats, it pays to make reservations in advance.
Photo credits: River Mountain Trails courtesy of River Mountain Trails/John Holman; Valley of Fire State Park courtesy of Valley of Fire State Park; Red Rock Canyon courtesy of Red Rock National Conservation Area; Mount Charleston courtesy of Mount Charleston; Bonnie Springs Ranch courtesy of Bonnie Springs Ranch