An Insider’s Guide to the Las Vegas Outdoor Scene

World-class climbing in Red Rock Canyon, just a half-hour from Las Vegas
World-class climbing in Red Rock Canyon, just a half-hour from Las Vegas Matthew McCullough
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Mention that you’re headed to Las Vegas and your friends probably won’t picture you climbing mountains, exploring canyons, and camping under the stars. Let’s face it: Las Vegas is typically associated with a slightly different kind wildlife. And while it’s true that the 4.2 miles of debauchery known as The Strip allow for endless opportunities to drink yardstick-long margaritas, spend an entire paycheck on slots, and crawl out of a nightclub at 6am, if you look beyond the neon lights you’ll find a desert wonderland that offers plenty of hiking, climbing, kayaking, camping, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, solitude.

Whether you’re dedicating a huge chunk of your southwest road trip to the Mojave Desert or you just want to mix up your Vegas vacation by getting out of the casino for the day and burning off some of those buffet calories, there are plenty of adventures that are less than an hour away from Las Vegas Boulevard. No guest list required.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Backpacking in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. 
    Krista Diamond
Backpacking in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Krista Diamond

World class rock climbing that’s just a half hour drive away from Caesars Palace? No, you’re not dreaming. You’re in Red Rock Canyon. The area gets its name from towering sandstone and limestone cliffs, most of which are made up of Aztec sandstone, a harder—and more climber-friendly—rock. The most popular part of the area is the Scenic Loop, a one-way, 13 mile drive which takes about 45 minutes to go through, but opportunities for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and stopping to remind yourself that yes, all of this natural beauty is really in Las Vegas exist all along State Route 159.

Elevations fluctuate between 3,000 and more than 6,000 feet depending on where you are in Red Rock Canyon, and despite the infamous Las Vegas summer heat, year-round adventures abound, though the best seasons to visit are the fall and spring. On cooler days, set out for a cross country trek like the White Rock/La Madre Springs Loop. When temperatures warm up, a hike through Ice Box Canyon can provide shade and seasonal waterfalls. For a fun scramble with great views of the city, summit Turtlehead Peak. And of course, if you want to rock climb, you can take advantage of more than 2,000 routes. Whether you’re into sport climbing, trad climbing, or bouldering, you can expect epic views from any angle.

Spring Mountain Ranch State Park

A desert oasis in Spring Mountain Ranch State Park.
A desert oasis in Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. Matt Deavenport

Often overlooked in favor of the aforementioned Scenic Loop, Spring Mountain Ranch State Park is an actual oasis in the desert. If Las Vegas has you missing green grass that isn’t astroturf and water that isn’t the fountains in front of the Bellagio, make the 45 minute drive from The Strip and spend some time at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park.

Not only is it typically 10-15 degrees cooler than the rest of the Las Vegas Valley, but it’s also home to six springs and high desert plants like Joshua trees and yucca, along with a large herd of wild burros. Most of the hikes in this area are pretty easy compared to nearby Red Rock Canyon, but a stroll to Lake Harriet is a great way to stretch your legs and enjoy the reflection of the mountains in the water. Be sure to look for ducks, crawfish and endangered pupfish.

Tours are available of the ranch itself, which was once owned by Howard Hughes, but if you’re looking for a real treat, keep an eye on the park’s social media accounts and be the first to learn about summer night hikes, free outdoor yoga classes, and no-fee days.

Valley of Fire State Park

Ribbon-like roads in Nevada's oldest state park.
Ribbon-like roads in Nevada's oldest state park. Don Graham

As far as place names go, it doesn’t get much more glorious-sounding than Valley of Fire State Park. Fortunately, the destination itself measures up quite nicely. Clocking in at just under an hour’s drive from The Strip, Valley of Fire is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park. It’s made up of red sandstone that’s formed from ancient sand dunes, and it offers an experience that feels so remote you’ll forget how close you are to all of those Vegas bars.

Thanks to the popularity of Red Rock Canyon, Valley of Fire is rarely crowded and always beautiful. While this paradise of swirling red and white rocks certainly makes for an awesome day trip from Las Vegas, to get the full experience, stay overnight at one of two first come/first serve campgrounds and take in a night sky that rivals the lights of the city.

Valley of Fire is known for its great visitor center, but it’s also known for outdoor explorations that’ll take you to petroglyphs, a rock that’s shaped like an elephant, stone cabins from the 1930’s, and much more. To get a taste of what the park is all about, start with Silica Dome, a scramble that offers a huge payoff for minimal effort. From the top, you’ll see sweeping desert views that’ll make you want to extend your trip and hike even farther.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Hiking in the Lake Mean National Recreation Area near Rufus Cove.
Hiking in the Lake Mean National Recreation Area near Rufus Cove. marcwings

Forget battling Los Angeles traffic to get to the ocean from Las Vegas. The Lake Mead National Recreation Area has beautiful beaches and is just a half an hour away from The Strip. This huge area comprises Lake Mead itself and the smaller Lake Mohave and spills over the Arizona border. The water itself is a dazzling blue color situated amongst black lava rock. It’s a striking contrast that never fails to impress whether in person or via Instagram feed.

Formed by the Hoover Dam along the Colorado River, Lake Mead has 15 campgrounds, six marinas and every kind of outdoor activity you could ever want. If you’re looking to swim, head to Boulder Beach for water that’s always the perfect temperature. If you want to kayak, head to Willow Beach Marina on the lower Colorado River and explore the Black Canyon. Paddle two miles upstream and experience the extraordinary and appropriately named Emerald Cave.

During cooler months, make the six mile round trip hike to Arizona Hot Spring and settle in for a long soak. Even a trip to the nearby town of Boulder City (one of only two cities in Nevada that prohibits gambling) is scenic, as you’re almost guaranteed to see bighorn sheep at Hemenway Park.

Mt. Charleston Wilderness

Taking in the views from Mt. Charleston.
Taking in the views from Mt. Charleston. nicola

Locally known as simply Mt. Charleston, this is the place to be during a brutally hot Mojave Desert summer. It may be just an hour away from The Strip, but the Mt. Charleston Wilderness is another world. This high altitude spot is located within the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area and is home to more than 40 miles of challenging trails. In addition to enjoying cooler temperatures and fresh mountain air, you can also spot wild horses, mule deer, and a 3,000 year old bristlecone pine called the Raintree.

Visitors often complain about the lack of established campgrounds (the existing four always fill up), but there’s actually plenty of room for everyone thanks to dispersed camping. As long as you’re away from a picnic area or trailhead, you’re good to pitch a tent just about anywhere. Just don’t plan on building a fire as these are often prohibited.

If you’re interested in standing on top of the most prominent peak in Nevada, climb 11,916 Charleston Peak by way of either the South Loop Trail or the North Loop Trail. Both routes are tough but are well worth the effort, and there’s no shortage of other summits in the area if you’re in a peakbagging mood. Fletcher Peak and Griffith Peak make for great day hikes, the latter of which can be climbed as an offshoot of Mt. Charleston’s South Loop Trail if you’re feeling ambitious. And don’t think the Mt. Charleston Wilderness is only a good time in the summer. If you’re visiting in the winter months, enjoy a day on the slopes at Lee Canyon and tell your friends that yes, you went skiing in Las Vegas.

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