A lonely road leads to the brilliant rock formations in Valley of Fire State Park. (Photo: Frank Kovalchek/Flickr)
Here’s something not many people do when they visit Vegas in summer — go outside for extended periods of time. It seems like the world’s craziest idea, but there’s actually a lot going on beyond the city’s core. A bit of a leg stretch and a different kind of dazzle await in the recreational spots around Las Vegas.
How to get away: Rent a car at the airport. Many hotels have car-rental offices, making it easy to grab one for a day. Or let one of the city’s professional tour companies, such as Pink Jeep Tours, pick you up from your hotel.
Anytime you leave the civilized (read: air-conditioned) confines of Downtown or the Strip, be prepared for heat. Yes, it’s a dry heat… some of the world’s driest. Bring lots and lots of water, a hat, sunscreen, and good walking shoes, even if you don’t plan to spend much time outside your car.
Yes, these are real evergreen trees, just an hour outside Las Vegas on Mt. Charleston. (Photo: Terissa Meeks/Flickr)
From the High Roller observation wheel or the top of the Stratosphere tower, moody mountains rise in the distance. Ever wonder what’s out there? Las Vegas itself is set in a flat and arid valley, but the wild mountains cradling it are full of surprises.
One option for an escape: Mt. Charleston, an hour north of town. Locals love it, especially since its elevation (8,750 feet) guarantees temperatures about 20-30 degrees lower than those in the valley. At Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort (yes, a ski resort just outside Las Vegas!), summer activities range from hiking to mountain biking to disc golf, all against a backdrop of honest-to-goodness evergreen trees. Summer ski resort operations, including dining and the chairlift, are open on weekends and holidays from July 4-Sept. 1.
Mt. Charleston offers hiking on trails in the summer and snow in the winter. (Photo: Trail Sherpa/Flickr)
The 50 miles of surrounding hiking trails in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area’s 316,000 acres of public land are open all summer. Hikers above 10,000 feet (Mt. Charleston tops out at nearly 12,000) might even encounter the elusive bristlecone pine. The gnarled tree can live for 5,000 years or more, despite the exposed high-elevation conditions it favors. After a few days amid the man-made spectacle that is Vegas, you might have to remind yourself that the pine-scented trees are real.
Aside from lodging, the nearby Resort on Mt. Charleston offers food and supplies. Grab hiking maps from the general store and a boxed lunch from the on-site restaurant to combine the two in picnic form. The Mary Jane Falls Trail, a steep 3.5-mile round trip, is a local favorite, complete with a waterfall (more of a trickle in late summer) and a cave.
The desert surrounding the city has its own surprises (just keep in mind that it’s best to go in the morning or evening to avoid midday heat).
In its own way, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is just as famous as any of the attractions on the Strip. Halfway between Las Vegas and Mt. Charleston, this hilly area’s canyons lead hikers into canyons and along (usually) dry streambeds while climbers scale the multicolored stone walls above. During the summer, you might want to see much of it from your car via a 13-mile scenic drive punctuated by a few short hikes to viewpoints. Or plan to arrive early or late, when the sun and heat is less intense, and explore on bicycle. A handful of bike shops offer rentals, including Broken Spoke Bikes.
A climber ascends a route in Red Rock National Conservation Area. (Photo: Justin Johnsen/Flickr)
An hour northeast of Las Vegas, Valley of Fire State Park is one of the area’s biggest surprises. In striking contrast to the surrounding desert, which seems to go on forever, the park’s roads and trails lead from one strange red rock formation to another, with ever-changing vistas around every corner. Be prepared if you head out there, since water and amenities are scarce.
Other outdoorsy opportunities are even closer. The 180-acre Springs Preserve, 3.5 miles west of Downtown, combines edification (botanical garden, solar-powered house exhibit) with fun (miniature golf, playground).
The Cure for Heat: Water
Water, of course, is the antidote to heat, and you can head to Lake Mead for plenty of it. Sitting like a vast puddle surreally surrounded by treeless desert, the lake and surrounding National Recreation Area are surprisingly close. You can rent a boat, small or large, at one of the marinas. Or let someone else do the work for you. Lake Mead Cruises, for example, will take you on a paddleboat cruise all the way to Hoover Dam, at the lake’s southern end.
Lake Mead is a blue oasis amid miles of desert. (Photo: xiquinhosilva/Flickr)
For an entirely different kind of recreation, this July Cowabunga Bay, opens 15 minutes outside Las Vegas in Henderson. It has the largest wave pool in Nevada as well as rides like Zuma ZOOMa, a slide that drops 73 feet into a high-speed horizontal 360-degree loop.
Cowabunga Bay will be the Las Vegas area’s newest water park. (Photo: Courtesy Cowabunga Bay)
Humans aren’t the only ones seeking water. More than 300 species call Clark County Wetlands Park home. Yes, you read that right: wetlands, 10 miles east of the Strip. It’s open daily, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. In summer, arrive early for the best (and least scorching) bird watching.