People are surprised to hear that there’s more to do in the Las Vegas area than gambling and night life. Granted, you might want to see one or two of the casino architecture attractions, but for a view of a striking landscape, try going just outside the city – into the desert. There are enough natural areas in the valley to explore for a full week. After all the illusions in the city, you’ll be ready for something genuine. And you won’t have to deal with the crowds, the traffic, the construction and the pollution.
The big question from visitors is usually, “But what IS there in the desert to see?” The desert is actually full of life; it’s just that you have to look a little harder for it. Think of it as an archaeological excavation. You have to look closely and dig a little. And speaking of archaeology, the desert southwest is rich with ancient artifacts – petroglyphs, evidence of habitation, and plants that were used by native peoples.
Start out your desert trek with a visit to Red Rock Canyon, just west of town. This is a National Conservation Area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The entry fee is $5.00 per vehicle, but an America the Beautiful pass ($80.00 annually) will get you into this and any other federal parks and recreation areas. The area is named for the giant red rock formations. There are actually several little canyons to be explored. The canyons are cool (one is called Icebox Canyon) and a real treat in the summertime. This is also a favorite place for rock climbers due to the sheered cliffs and the fantastic view of the desert. You can see for miles and really get a feel for the wide openness of the west. If you’re fortunate, you’ll get to see some wildlife, too. But a warning: it is not recommended to hike this area alone. Rock scrambling can result in an accident before you even realize it, and help is not within earshot.
An hour’s drive north of the city, Mount Charleston offers an unlikely escape. The Spring Mountains Recreation Area sits above and out of range of the city. Here you can pretend you are somewhere else! Forests of Joshua trees give way to a high-elevation ecosystem, with pines, junipers, and yes, snow. The Lee Canyon Ski Resort provides recreation both winter and summer. The best summer attraction is a temperature difference from the city of ten to twenty degrees. There are many good hiking trails on the mountain, with plenty of places to stop and picnic. Mountain biking is also a popular activity, with outfitters taking you up the hill in a bus. In the winter, you can actually go skiing on the mountain in the morning and return to the city to swim or play tennis in the afternoon. There is no user fee for visiting the area at this time.
Craving water? A few miles to the south of town is an oasis in the desert, Lake Mead. This man-made lake is a result of the Hoover Dam and the Colorado River. It’s a good place for water sports – jetskiiing, boating, and fishing. There’s a chance you might see some desert bighorn sheep a short distance back from the lake. This is a National Recreation Area, administered by the National Park Service, and entrance fees are $5.00 per vehicle per day.
The Valley of Fire is located about twenty miles north from Lake Mead, and is full of desert treasures. This is one of the best areas to view wildflowers in the spring. Depending on whether or not there was a good winter rain, the color can amaze you. Best viewing time is in March and into April before it gets too hot. The rock formations in the Valley of Fire are so unique that the producers of Star Trek found this a perfect site for filming many scenes. The undulating, colorful sandstone metamorphizes before your eyes as you hike or drive through. It comprises a large area and is difficult to cover in one day. The rock formations were a favorite site for Native American petroglyphs. There are quite a few to see and they really give you a sense of your place in time. Valley of Fire is a state park and the user fee is $6.00.
A day trip into the desert can open your eyes and open your mind. It’s important not to let the sense of awe numb your common sense – remember to be safe when you venture out. Tell someone where you’re going, don’t go alone if you can help it, dress for cover, and take two to three times the water you think you’re going to need. The Mojave Desert is quite unlike any other place you’ve been!