The first word that comes to mind when thinking of Las Vegas is not “natural.” The city is celebrated as gaudy, flashy, ersatz, fake, a monument to excess.
Yet the Strip rose out of the desert, with an impressive natural world just a few miles away. If you have a car, you can go on your own. If you do not have a vehicle, want to go on an organized ‘expedition’ or go boating or camping, you might check out companies like Evolution Adventures or Lake Mead Mohave Adventures.
The closest must-see outdoor spot in Las Vegas is Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, named for its ‘red’ rock formations. A half-hour drive northwest from the strip will take you to Red Rock, on the edge of the city’s ever-expanding Sumerlin suburb.
Red Rock is operated by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Entry fees were $15 per car when we went. But if you have an annual or lifetime pass, you can enter for the $2 cost of an online reservation.
The area gets its name from the reddish tint created by iron oxide deposits. The rocks seem to change in intensity as your drive the park. The road around Red Rock is a 13-mile one-way scenic loop that starts and ends at Highway 160. If the temperature has soared above one hundred degrees, or your time is limited, you can still see one of the most glorious vistas in the West from the air-conditioned comfort of your car.
Nonetheless, the area is renowned for hiking, rock climbing, and the occasional bicyclist doing the loop. There are easily walkable trails around the area’s hills and canyons reached by parking pull-offs from the main road. And if you are lucky, you might see a pack of the wild burros who roam the area.
Another imposing natural destination is Mt. Charleston, about a half an hour from Las Vegas. The Spring Mountain National Recreation Area includes Mt. Charleston (11,918 feet), high enough to have snow much of the year. In the winter people often come up for sledding and other forms of snow play. Also in the same range is Mt. Potosi (8,000 feet) where Hollywood movie star Carole Lombard (wife of Clark Gable) died in a 1942 plane crash.
Mt. Charleston offers outdoor activities such as horseback riding, camping, and hiking. There is even a stroller-friendly loop around the visitor’s center. When we hiked up Mt. Charleston in July, the temperature dropped from 110 degrees at its base into the fifties at higher elevation, so you might want to pack a sweater.
A third outdoor area, Valley of Fire state park is about 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas and only about 6 miles from Lake Mead. The park is Nevada’s oldest, dedicated in 1935. The valley is known for its red sandstone and limestones, shales, and conglomerates rock formations, formed and shaped by millions of years of uplift and erosion. Relics of ancient trees and early man are seen throughout the park by areas of petrified wood and 3,000-year-old petroglyphs created by early Native Americans. Popular activities include camping, hiking, picnicking and photography. We saw a coyote standing by the road in broad daylight on our visit but did not take its picture.
When people think of water in Las Vegas, they think about the giant pools at casino hotels like Mirage, the fountains of Bellagio and the ice they put in their drinks. Kayaking may not be top of mind either. But many outfitters take travelers on expeditions to the nearby Colorado River, Lake Mead, and Lake Mohave areas, where they can boat, kayak, swim or simply cool off in the water.
Lake Mead got 7.5 million visitors in 2019, making it the sixth most visited park in the US National Park System. Although Lake Mead is experiencing historically low water levels, some boat ramps are open and outdoors trips are still being organized and run by companies like Evolution Adventures. The tours continue through Nevada’s boiling summer, with guides occasionally handing guests water guns to cool off.
Evolution Adventures, a kayak outfitter, offers half-day and full day trips to the area. Trips take guests on hikes to hot springs, kayaking through Emerald Cave, and exploring Lake Mead and Lake Mohave.
If you’re interested in bringing or renting a boat or camping by the lake, Lake Mead Mohave Adventures operates seven marina and camping/RV destinations inside the Lake Mead National Recreation area. It is a division of Guest Services, Inc., a national and state park concessionaire operating since 1917.
One of its offerings in the Lake Mead area is Hoover Dam Rafting Adventures. Guests can spend a day or half day cruising the Colorado River on motor-assisted inflatable rafts.
The company also operates camping and marina sites, like Cottonwood Cove Resort & Marina, an hour south of Las Vegas or an hour north of Laughlin. Cottonwood Cove is inside the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, along the 237-mile shoreline of Lake Mohave. Cottonwood Cove offers slip rentals for private boats and rentals of houseboat, powerboats (and jet-skis), canoes or kayaks. The area also offers fishing and hiking.
It can certainly be difficult to tear oneself away from the bright lights of the Strip. But Nevada has a lot to offer in the sunshine as well.