When you think of the nature side of Las Vegas, desert, palm trees and empty rocky lots probably come to mind. But there is more beauty to the area than that.
Whether you’re willing to drive only half an hour or don’t mind driving for two, you’re that close to remarkable greenery, man-made wonders, unique hiking grounds, ski slopes and even lake activities. Didn’t know that? Most visitors don’t. I slowly discovered Vegas’ great outdoors during the past decade. And I love it.
1. Lake Mead: I grew up in Seattle, so it was normal for me to see lakes every day. My cousins and I also spent summers at my grandparent’s lakefront property to swim, kayak and enjoy the water all day. When I moved to the desert town almost 15 years ago, I was thirsting for a dip in a lake!
Lake Mead may not be a “natural” lake, but it’s fun to know that it’s one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. Lake Mead is about 1.5 million acres, twice the size of Rhode Island. I was hesitant to swim here my first time. After all, it’s not a real lake and there weren’t hundred year old pine trees surrounding it like I was used to seeing. But when it’s 110 degrees in July, this is by far one of the most refreshing experiences you’ll have in Vegas.
October is the perfect time to come out and kayak — the sun isn’t scorching and the cool breeze feels perfect. Some like to go fishing here, as well as jet ski.
Lake Mead is a fun escape from the city and it’s less an hour’s drive away. If you want to try something romantic and different, dinner cruises are available.
2. Lake Las Vegas: While not as vast as Lake Mead, Lake Las Vegas is a still a fun getaway from the Strip. Here you can relax on a romantic gondola trip, share a pontoon boat trip with your friends or work your legs out on one of the pedal boats. Take a break from your water excursions and sprawl out on the grassy hill, located right by the shore. Hiking and biking trips are also available. During the holiday season, visitors can enjoy ice skating on a platform on top of the lake.
3. Hoover Dam: A National Historic Landmark, Hoover Dam is the highest concrete dam in the Western Hemisphere, towering at more than 725 feet over the Colorado River. It generates 4 billion kilowatts of electricity a year, making it one of the country’s largest hydroelectric power facilities.
The bypass bridge (completed October 2010) offers views that were once only available by helicopter. The walkway on the bridge stands at an astounding 900 feet above the river. I still show off my Hoover Dam pictures I took one year ago. The dam is 35 miles south of Las Vegas, so traveling time is less than one hour. There are many tours available to take you through an in-depth look at the dam.
4. Mount Charleston: Only 35 miles northwest of Las Vegas (photo included on top), you can enjoy a cool mountain breeze and surrounding greenery.
During spring, summer and early autumn months, hiking here is absolutely beautiful. Featuring trees like juniper, mountain mahogany, Aspen and Ponderosa pine and animals like wild burros, birds, deer and desert tortoises, Mount Charleston feels a million miles away.
If you’re into snowboarding, skiing, sledding or even just making a snowman, Mount Charleston is extremely popular during the winter months.
5. Springs Preserve: If you want to stay closer to the Strip but want to enjoy the great outdoors, the Springs Preserve is only three miles away, about a 10-15 minute drive.
“The Springs Preserve offers an ideal location to enjoy recreational activities right here in the Las Vegas Valley,” said spokesperson Jim Johnson. “Guests can meander through the preserve’s trails and acres of native habitats and archaeological sites.”
One of the new activities offered at Springs Preserve is bike riding. Available on weekends and select holidays, guests can explore the trails every day from 10 a.m. to dusk.
Springs Preserve also offers gardening classes for those of you with a green thumb.
6. Red Rock Canyon: Just 15 miles west of Las Vegas, Red Rock Canyon offers desert beauty, towering red cliffs and abundant wildlife.
This amazing conservation area is also home to about 200 different mammals including burros, rabbits, coyotes, bighorn sheep, red tailed hawks, golden eagles, hummingbirds and even a few wild horses, bobcats and mountain lions.
The 13-mile scenic loop drive offers photo opportunities at various locations including Calico Hills’ sandstone, Indian roasting pits, Indian “handprints” and pictographs at Willow Springs.
Red Rock is open year-round and is a favorite among many tourists, sightseers, joggers, hikers and rock climbers. On certain trails, hikers can see waterfalls at Ice Box Canyon and Lost Creek. Visitors may also enjoy horseback riding tours.
The Red Rock Visitor Center features enlarged maps of the 19 different hiking trails, complete with highlights of each one. Or, choose from a variety of tours here.
7. Bonnie Springs: Nature, a zoo and an amusing cowboy skit – what more can you ask for? Also, it’s not every day you get to pet a sheep or see a flock of peacocks.
Located about 30-40 minutes from the Strip, this outdoor attraction once served as a stopping point for travelers heading to California. The entertaining cowboys perform free acts inside the saloon, along with a mock trial and showdown outside by the picnic area. Buildings include an old jailhouse, a shooting gallery and a wax museum. I took my niece here a couple of months ago and we really felt like we were living in the 1800s.
Once you’re done checking out the old cowboy town, don’t forget to check out the animals. Stand amongst a group of peacocks and ducks, or spend time with the friendly goats and deer in the petting zoo area. These guys will actually follow or walk beside you.
8. Spring Mountain Ranch: While you’re at Bonnie Springs, head to Spring Mountain Ranch, which is only a 5-7 minute drive away.
Located within the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Spring Mountain Range State Park offers gorgeous views of the beautiful mountains. You’ll also enjoy unique hiking grounds. During the summer, Spring Mountain Ranch offers flashlight hikes at night.
Lake Harriet is home to ducks and endangered fish. If you’re traveling with your pup, this is also a great place to walk your dog. Spring Mountain Ranch also offers a massive picnic area.
Into plays? Spring Mountain Ranch holds outdoor productions during the spring and summer months. I saw Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” here a couple of years ago. It was a delight to have a picnic on the grass while reciting the play word-for-word.
9. Valley of Fire: Located 50 miles north of Las Vegas, Valley of Fire offers breathtaking views of the Southwest and some of the oldest natural rock formations known to mankind. Considered Nevada’s oldest state park and covering almost 36,000 acres, Valley of Fire gets its name for its bright red sandstone.
This park is also a popular location for movie shoots, including “Transformers.”
Valley of Fire is more than just a group of beautiful red rock formations. It’s also an amazing place to enjoy a variety of recreational activities. For those who want to sit back and relax, taking a tour is also an option.
10. Zion National Park: Featuring beautiful hiking trails, colorful sandstone and cliffs standing 3,000 feet tall, it’s hard to imagine one of the most beautiful parks in the world is only two and a half hours away from Vegas.
While you might have to wake up and drive out early to experience this, we promise it’s worth it. You’ll see remarkable carvings and the largest sandstone walls in the world. You can also opt to take an off-road tour if you don’t feel like driving.