By Renée LiButti
Las Vegas draws nearly 38 million visitors a year. Although most people come to live it up in the noisy casinos, tireless nightclubs and bustling malls, the nonstop party atmosphere can occasionally be too much. If you yearn to slow things down, there is somewhere you can soak in tranquility. Simply head to a less known, but no less picturesque place on the eastern edge of town – the Wetlands Park.
Located about 20 minutes from the Strip, this fascinating refuge is always worth a visit – whether you want to discover its wildlife and habitats or simply take in the serene landscape and enjoy a stroll near streams and ponds. Spanning 2,900 acres, it comprises the largest park system in Clark County and extends along both sides of the Las Vegas Wash.
A good place to start your sojourn is at the information center, which is housed in a temporary structure next to the parking lot and a playground for kids. You’ll be welcomed by friendly faces, like those of Louise Guay, a weekend supervisor who has worked here for the past six years, and her granddaughter Autumn Mastrodomenico. Filled with photographs, educational exhibits and an interactive kiosk, this is where you’ll learn about the Wetlands Park’s history and ecological riches, as well as get your bearings for a pleasant walk.
“I give everyone a map and suggest a route,” said Guay, while discussing the beautiful scenery that ranges from meadows to marshes. She often recommends a two-mile loop that passes by several ponds and heads toward a 500-foot-long bridge. “We have a couple of overlooks there. When the grass is cut down, you’ll often see turtles sunbathing on the rocks.”
The Wetlands Park is varied and dynamic. It’s divided into two key areas, the 210-acre Nature Preserve, which is a restored wetlands oasis dedicated to the wildlife, and the larger Duck Creek recreational area, where you can picnic, ride bicycles, go rollerblading and bring your dog. Visitors will spot a wide range of species throughout the park at all times of the year. Guay mentioned that coyotes are usually visible in the morning. Rabbits are frequently found along the wash at night. In addition to ducks and migratory waterfowl, bird watchers will have plenty of opportunities to observe road runners, several types of egrets and even the great blue heron.
“We saw quail in Duck Creek last week and they had babies. Ah, they were this big,” illustrated Guay, while holding her thumb and forefinger only an inch apart. “I couldn’t believe it. They were so cute.”
You’ll have the chance to view a mixture of vegetation as well. Not only do desert scrub, cacti and wildflowers grow throughout the Wetlands Park, but reeds, bulrushes and other lush greenery also make their home here. Plus, there are tamarisk trees, which Guay described as being “absolutely beautiful,” even though they are something of a nuisance.
“Tamarisk trees are very invasive. We’re trying to get rid of them, and the Nevada Division of Forestry helps us by digging them up. What they do is put salt in the ground as they suck up all our water,” explained Guay. “So when you go out walking and see white all over the place, that’s the salt they’re depositing.”
In the meantime, the tamarisk trees boast flowering canopies in colors of light pink, orchid and white. They provide shady spots to relax under while sitting by the ponds. And they give off a very pleasant aroma.
“The smell is so wonderful in there,” said Mastrodomenico of a dense tamarisk thicket by the lower pond. “It’s sweet, but also kind of bitter.”
Only a decade ago, you would have found polluted urban runoff in this now pristine area. Illegal dumping and off-road vehicles had severely damaged the wash as well. In the early ’90s, county planners began to lay the framework for the Wetlands Park. Large pieces of construction debris – from the city’s demolished buildings and imploded casinos – were placed in the wash to stabilize the sides and prevent erosion. Today, it’s been transformed into a scenic setting for the primary drainage channel to Lake Mead.
“What happens is 175 million gallons of water come here each day. A lot of that water is from your household – all the sewage and everything that goes down the drain,” said Guay. “When you walk out to the bridge, you’ll see a huge treatment plant. The water goes through that treatment plant and then it comes to us. We help purify it a little more with all the reeds before it goes to Lake Las Vegas and out to Lake Mead.”
Because the water is highly treated, or rather “reclaimed,” warnings are posted throughout the park to notify visitors that it’s not safe to touch or drink.
Due to the high temperatures of summer, Guay also cautions visitors to have “plenty of water, a hat and sunscreen” with them while they explore the trails. There is a danger of dehydration at this time of year, so it’s best to come during the early morning hours. Thankfully, fall is quickly approaching and that is the perfect time to visit the Wetlands Park.
In fact, beginning in September, guided walks will be offered at 9 a.m. on alternate Saturday mornings to introduce you to some of the park’s best experiences. The staff also conducts a variety of programs for school kids. When the new Nature Center, currently under construction, is unveiled next spring, Guay expects the activity at the Wetlands Park to increase dramatically.
“You may see bus tours come out here,” she said. “The Nature Center will have everything – a gift shop, a coffee shop, offices and classrooms. And there will be all sorts of things for kids to enjoy. They will just love it.”
“There’s even going to be robotic bugs powered by solar panels,” said Mastrodomenico gleefully.
The Wetlands Park is open daily from dawn to dusk, with the visitors’ center operating from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Admission is free. To get there simply follow Tropicana Avenue east. Shortly after you pass Boulder Highway, a sign will point out the turnoff to the main entrance on Wetlands Park Lane. For more information, call 702-455-7522.
[flagallery gid=69 name=”Gallery”]