Neon to Nature
Take a beyond-the-glow day trip from Las Vegas.
Let’s be real: Las Vegas has so much to do it could be your annual destination and you’d still never see it all. We have no argument with that, but sometimes you might find yourself itching for something a little less neon and a little more natural. Luckily, you can have it all with this three-part road trip that will have you exploring world-famous Hoover Dam, outdoor playgrounds like Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire, exciting attractions, and charming towns—and still get you back in time for your dinner reservation.
Red Rockin’ Loop
60 to 110 miles
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (Red Rock for short) sits just 17 miles from The Strip but is truly a world of its own. Craggy ribbons of multihued sandstone rise and fall and beg to be explored and photographed. Pack the snacks and book it to the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center to view a live desert tortoise habitat and get hiking tips from rangers.
After the dramatic beauty of Red Rock, a quick drive will transport you to Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, a verdant oasis full of hikes, historic buildings, and unique ranger programs. The lush landscape with its six babbling springs is perfect for families looking to picnic or couples looking for the vacation yoga class.
Less than an hour from Spring Mountain, Goodsprings is a frozen-in-time (like 1904 time) town that was one of the most bountiful mining districts in southern Nevada. After a historic walking tour, it’s time for the real history to begin. Head to the famous Pioneer Saloon—built in 1913—and belly up to the bar for a killer drink, fantastic meal, and a story or two, like how those bullet holes got in the wall and which Hollywood royalty left cigar burns in the bar. It all happened here, so if you find yourself wondering if it’s worth the drive, the answer is a resounding heck yeah!
Fire & Water Loop
120 to 175 miles
The scenic route along Lake Mead’s edge to Nevada’s first state park is arguably as beautiful as the park itself, and that’s saying something. Valley of Fire State Park’s bright red, Aztec sandstone dates to the Jurassic era and features petroglyphs that are some 2,500 years old. Hike, wander, spot desert bighorn sheep, and take all the pictures your camera can hold—just don’t forget lots of water and sunscreen. Make sure to recreate responsibly (see pg. 102 for tips) and leave the park as you found it.
After that spectacular experience, hit the road and head to Mesquite. This adorable border town is home to art, culture, great restaurants, and hotels, plus nine golf courses—all set against a stunning Virgin River Valley backdrop. It’s also the gateway to the next stop on the loop, Gold Butte National Monument. This area is perfect for anyone looking for Valley of Fire-type landscape without the crowds, but make no mistake; this stop requires a big sense of adventure. More than 300,000 remote acres offer landscapes galore, incredible petroglyph panels, and critical habitat for a variety of wildlife, but there are no services in Gold Butte and cell service is spotty at best, so make sure you’re well outfitted. It’s a bit of a haul, but oh, the bragging rights you’ll have are so worth it.
Heading back to Las Vegas, make sure to stop in Moapa Valley and discover more about the Ancestral Puebloan culture at Lost City Museum. Tools, pottery, and other artifacts—recovered from the on-site excavation pit—offer a glimpse of what life was like in the region. After, reward yourself for a trip well taken with a milkshake at The Inside Scoop.
Colorado River Corridor
70 to 250 miles
Our third leg is heavy on the fun, with a healthy hit of history. Hoover Dam is still a modern marvel even at 88 years old, and the tour is one of the best in the country. Afterward, test your camera’s panorama mode from the 886-foot-tall, 1,905-foot-long viewing bridge—the longest of its kind in North America. After you’ve had enough dam fun, explore Boulder City, the quiet, Art Deco-obsessed town that housed the dam workers. You’ll find fascinating and funky museums, cute shops, outdoor activities, and amazing eats. Boulder City has swanky, retro-chic, and everything in-between for lodging options if you can’t get your fill in just one day.
When you are ready, head toward Laughlin with a stop in the ghost town of Nelson and take the very cool tour of Techatticup Mine. Resume the journey to Laughlin, Nevada’s riverfront resort town. Stay along the river walk in one of the many amenity-packed resort-casinos, take a water taxi across the Colorado River to Arizona (just to say you did) then come back to where the party is always happening. Our southernmost state park—Big Bend of the Colorado—awaits (see pg. 58 for more), as do warm temps all year long. Float, splash, fish, and boat until your heart’s content, then grab a delicious dinner with a river view.