Las Vegas Beyond Gambling: Getting outdoors near Sin City

Valley of Fire State Park
Valley of Fire State Park

There are plenty of light shows in and around Las Vegas but the ones I prefer have nothing to do with the Strip. Surprisingly, this overdeveloped city has some pristine patches of wilderness just a short drive from the erupting volcanoes and Egyptian pyramids that capture tourist attention along the Strip. Sure, when I’m in town I hit the craps table for one to two hours, making sure I quit while I’m ahead. But I prefer to stay off the Strip -- at the lower-key boutique Rumor Las Vegas, that is thankfully free of a casino.

These are three venues where I spend a lot of my time when I’m in Vegas:

1. Just 45 minutes from the spinning roulette wheels is a wilderness area with almost blinding colors, so intense you may wonder if you've stepped on the surface of the sun. At Valley of Fire State Park, light explodes off the red, mauve, vermilion and white-colored sandstone in Nevada's oldest park in stark contrast to the surrounding drab brown foothills. With names like the Beehives, Elephant Rock, Balancing Rock and the Limestone Hoodoos, these otherworldly formations, resembling their names, are arranged almost like a unique sculpture garden. And scattered about are petroglyphs, Indian drawings and geometric symbols, probably from 225 million years ago. Hiking this park is almost like a treasure hunt. On a short trail to Petrified Logs, you'll find wood from ancient forests that had washed down and transformed to glassy stone millions of years ago.

2. Visitors can escape the chaos of Las Vegas by driving under 30 minutes to a serene, unspoiled landscape where towering sandstone formations replace Vegas' concrete canyons. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area with its artist's palette of terra cotta blending to rose, tan and alabaster, is ideal for a day getaway. Here, the driver, hiker or cyclist alike can experience sweeping scenery and rolling desert valleys. A one-way 13-mile road circles the canyon's perimeter where fifteen trails take hikers to the foot of rugged hilltops or across sandstone arches and domes. Driving this scenic road, you'll be surrounded by red- and buff-colored cliffs, yucca and Joshua trees and dense stands of pine that wash the mountainsides with hues of green. Easy walks cross flat beds of wildflowers or wander past stands of ponderosa pines. Strenuous hikes involve rock scrambling to waterfalls.

3. Instead of sweating at the craps table watching your supply of chips dwindle, cool off by jumping on a chair lift. At the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort and Mt. Charleston you can cross-country ski, horseback ride, camp, or hike. Mt. Charleston is a place where you can get the whole family back to nature with sleigh rides in the winter and wagon rides in the summer. Even when it's sweltering in the valley, you'll find moderate 70° F weather at Mt. Charleston. For those weary of the almost monochromatic desert around Vegas, Mt. Charleston is a welcome change, where you will find dense stands of aspen, foxtail and white pine. There's hiking for all levels, from a thirty-minute walk to waterfalls to a difficult nine-mile climb to the 12,000-foot peak. Gone is the stale smoky air of the casinos, the endless chiming of slot machines and the stream of neon lights. Instead, you'll gaze at wildflowers in grassy meadows, smell the sweet aroma of ponderosa pines and hear the subtle rippling of streams.

–Jeanine Barone of J The Travel Authority

Photo credit: Flickr/http2007

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