If you’re visiting for the first time or for just a few days chances are there are so many things to see and do in Vegas that you wouldn’t dream of leaving town to find something else. If, on the other hand, you’re a regular visitor or in Vegas for a longer stay then you might be looking for something to break up the routine of gaming, eating, drinking and shows. I’m afraid you’re going to be a little disappointed.
As I explained in Driving to Vegas, Vegas is really in the middle of nowhere. Unless you like to visit vast areas of desert you need to travel a reasonable distance away from the city to find something of interest. The following list comprises my suggestions when it comes to excursions within sensible reach of the City:
- The Grand Canyon
- The Hoover Dam
- Lake Mead
- Death Valley
- Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon
- Monument Valley
- Area 51
- Las Vegas Motor Speedway
- Hot Air Ballooning
The Grand Canyon is undoubtedly number one on the visitor’s list as evidenced by the number of companies who offer trips and the sheer number of different options available. You can go by car, bus, light aeroplane or helicopter. Whichever mode of transport you choose there are full day trips, part day trips, multiple day trips with or without ‘local’ Indian guides, boat rides, hiking and viewing platforms in almost every combination. Just do an internet search and it will return many pages of options. As you walk The Strip salesmen will try to entice you on the trip that their company offers. You can also book trips at the concierge desk in your hotel.
I’ve done the canyon three times: by plane, helicopter and by car on a road trip. The plane trip was from a local Vegas airfield in a very small plane. It landed at the Canyon airstrip, we descended down into the Canyon by helicopter. One of my friends was sick such was the turbulence caused by the thermals in the very hot weather. The Canyon was marvellous but small plane is not the way to get there.
The car/bus/Hummer option takes a good while to get there (and back) and you should really only select this if your budget is very tight or you have a group member that will not fly. My own preference is the full helicopter tour from McCarron Airport. They’ll pick you up from your own hotel in a limo. You fly to the Canyon in the helicopter – the trip there is very interesting in itself – then through the canyon before returning to Vegas. The pilot usually gives you a mini tour among the city high rises before you return to the airport. Different options include boat trips along the river (the water is amazingly cool even in the height of Summer), ‘local’ Indian guides, food stops etc. There’s a new multi-million Dollar observation platform; The Skywalk, with a transparent floor that reaches out into the Canyon (not for the faint hearted).
Obviously this option isn’t cheap – you’re looking at prices starting in the $400s per person for a day trip but the first time you see the Canyon is a magical event and it’s important, I think, to see it the best way. Tip: if the pilot asks you how high you are, the answer is you’re a lot higher than you think!
Hoover (Boulder) Dam
The other excursion you are most likely to take is to the Hoover Dam. I took this photograph myself during a light aircraft flight. If you’re lucky you’ll have overflown the Dam on your approach into Las Vegas when you arrived. The weather’s usually clear and a friendly Virgin or BA pilot will give you a heads up when the Dam comes into sight.
When it comes to your visit you pretty much have to get there by road. This is one of those times where renting a car and driving yourself is a viable option, particularly if you’re a group or family of three or four. There are many organised bus tours but they really just provide you with the transport to get you there, almost everything else they offer you can buy yourself when you arrive.
I last visited on a road trip into Arizona. The Dam is, at most, a one hour drive. There’s not much to see on the way (that’s the nature of Nevada – not the most interesting or picturesque state in the USA) but there are a couple of casinos – mostly aimed at passing truckers – that are worth a quick visit because they provide a real contrast to the big Strip casino hotels.
You’ll need to pay to park when you get there. There really is no free parking. The trip doesn’t however need to cost you anything else. You can walk atop the dam with vistas in both directions and great photo opportunities, particularly if you’re not too squeamish to lean over just a little! Note the water level. Above it you’ll see a different colour to the rock showing how high the water used to be. Lake Mead supplies water not just to Vegas but also to a lot of Southern California. My, does it need to rain in the Rockies for the Colorado River to fill up the Lake again. In fact Lake Mead sank to a record low in June 2015. Here’s a subsequent post on the subject.
I said you didn’t have to pay more than your parking fee to enjoy your visit. If however you do want to see more than the views or the art deco lavatories there are optional tours you can take for a fee. You can visit the power plant deep below and there’s a visitor centre. I wouldn’t aim to spend much more than an hour or so at the Dam so really this is a half day tour unless you combine it with something else. Note that if you pass over into Arizona you must put your watches forward an hour.
Until recently you could drive over the Dam and from Nevada into Arizona. This is no longer allowed, primarily for security reasons and because they opened a new bridge just to the South where the US 93 passes over the river. This rather means you can’t see very much as you pass through whereas you used to have a great view from the car without paying to stop. The upside is that it no longer adds hours to your journey as the Dam was a major bottleneck. There’s a mountain bike tour if you’re adventurous and fitter than I am!
Lake Mead is not just the largest reservoir in the USA (when full) but it’s a National Recreation Area. If boating, fishing, hiking and the like are your idea of a day out during a spell in Vegas then this is almost certainly the place to visit.
As you probably won’t have your own boat in tow you can pay to take a cruise, including a dinner cruise or even at ATV tour of the Area. You can do pretty much any version of water boarding (presumably not the CIA kind) or skiing for a fee. This is a good combo to pair with your Hoover Dam visit if you’re so inclined.
Death Valley, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks
Death Valley lies almost due West of Vegas. Take the US 95 then turn left at Amargosa valley. It should take you about two hours and a half to get there. Expect it to be dry and hot. Fill us with gas (petrol) and take water. This is a good venue for a car rental trip. At certain times of the year you’ll be amazed by the Superbloom. Heading off in the opposite direction, North East up the I 15 you can also visit Southern Utah. Zion National Park is a similar distance away and is truly magnificent. Altogether different from the aridity of Death Valley you can find all you need to know to plan a trip at the official National Park Service website. The Mount Carmel tunnel was at one time the longest of its kind.
For the slightly more adventurous you could also pay a visit to Bryce Canyon National Park. This is a little further away from Vegas requiring a drive of nearly four hours. This however can be breathtaking and is different again from Zion with many unusual rock formations and viewpoints. I have many friends who live and work in Vegas who visit Zion and Bryce for weekends and vacations time and time again, they are that good. Bryce Canyon is probably a bit ambitious for a day trip but how about a two day trip combining both with an overnight stay?
Of course you don’t have to rent a car to visit these wonderful National Parks. Companies like Viatour offer small group tours for a reasonable fee just as they do to Death Valley. Spending 15 hours on a coach is not personally my idea of a good time – I would rather drive – but it is a great way of seeing a lot on a budget.
While we’re on the subject of National Parks, one of the daddies of them all is surely Monument Valley. Lying on the Arizona / Utah border on Route 163 between Kayenta and Mexican Hat, this iconic landscape has been the backdrop for so many John Ford Westerns, other movies and TV shows. This isn’t a short drive and needs to form part of a longer road trip or, consider this, you can take a three day or even a seven day trip from Vegas combining Zion, Bryce, Monument Valley and even the Grand Canyon – truly hard core!
A new resource has recently been made available to help you choose where to visit – Find Your Park.
One more trip that’s close to my heart. Now you can pay to go on an organised day excursion but once upon a time, when I first went about twelve years ago, there was no such excursion. What about visiting that famous place that doesn’t officially exist – Area 51? Put it into Google Maps as a destination and you won’t get quite what you’re looking for. Search instead for Rachel, Nevada; a one horse town if ever there was, population 54.
There’s been so much written about Area 51 we could discuss it all day. My favourite book is by Annie Jacobsen; ‘Area 51’, ISBN 978-1-4091-3686-6 and I would recommend it to you. Of course you can’t visit Area 51 itself or you’d be shot when you attempted entry but you can get close to the perimeter. Yes, that’s me in the photograph standing next to the sign that says that photography is prohibited and that the use of deadly force is authorised!
What you can’t see is an SUV with blacked out windows that sits day and night on the ridge to the right of the track watching for idiots like me to take a step too far.
So how do you get to the perimeter of a secret site that doesn’t exist? You take the ‘Extraterrestrial Highway’ of course. The ET Highway is is a 92-mile portion of State Route 375, which runs between Hiko and Warm Springs. It’s well signposted. You reach it by taking the I 15 North then turning left onto the US 93 at Love’s travel stop. When you reach Crystal Springs you turn left again.
A friend and I rented a car and drove from Vegas. It takes about two and a quarter hours in all. We didn’t heed advice to fill up with gas before leaving the Interstate. It was unbelievably hot and we had the aircon turned right up. The fuel indicator dropped and dropped as we ploughed on through the desert. There is nothing there. The needle eventually showed empty and still all we could see was desert. We started to panic and even turned the a/c off to save fuel. We approached the top of an incline and the engine started to splutter. What were we going to do? We just made it over the top and the engine cut out.
All we could do was cruise down the other side. To our enormous relief we saw buildings approaching. We freewheeled into the hamlet of Alamo and straight onto the forecourt of a gas station. I, for one, will never take such a route again without a full tank of petrol. If you take this journey I can only suggest you fill up at Love’s when you leave the I 15.
There is only one focal point in Rachel; the The Little A’Le’Inn, a bar and restaurant that survives on its connections with Area 51 and its reputed alien visitors. Here you can have a drink and a meal and buy all manner of Area 51 and alien related souvenirs. If you take this trip you must visit the bar. When I last visited there were also a couple of beds you could rent for the night. I stocked up with inflatable aliens, alien coffee mugs and so on. The owners were very friendly and helpful.
Obviously there is no signpost to the base. It’s not however hard to find the necessary directions online. Some way South of Rachel as you leave it, not long before the 90 degree left hand bend in the road, you’ll come to Mail Box Road on your right. You turn down there and continue until you reach the ‘Crescent Reservoir’ five way intersection. You take the exit that’s slightly right of straight ahead and follow that track until you come to what amounts to a T junction. Turn right onto Groom Lake Road (another dirt track) and follow it to the base perimeter sign.
There used to be a mail box visible from the road, owned by the local farmer Steve Medlin, that would tell you which track to take. Originally it was painted black, then white but eventually it was removed altogether due to repeated vandalism by UFO seekers. I took this photograph of it before it was removed.
The journey is a good number of miles on what are no more than dirt tracks and it’s hard not to think you’re lost. There are cattle and other animals roaming loose. You may encounter some heavy vehicles. Whether all this is worth it as a distraction from your visit to Vegas is likely to depend on how much you buy into the myths and legends surrounding Area 51 and its aliens.
Some people say that nothing goes on anymore at Area 51. That is certainly untrue. After you left Highway 318 for Highway 375 and by the Extraterrestrial Highway sign there was a car park. Many of the cars parked there belong to Area 51 workers who are then taken daily into the base via Groom Lake Road on an unmarked white bus. McCarron Airport in Las Vegas is also the home to daily ‘Janet‘ flights to and from Area 51. See the Wikipedia link for more detail. If you’re at the airport at the right time you can see the Janet jumbos taking off and landing.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Nascar. That word alone is enough to make many Americans go weak at the knees. Consider attending the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and you have a sense of what it is. Las Vegas has it’s own circuit, way out in the desert near Nellis Air Force base.
Nascar itself usually takes place over a weekend in early March before it gets ridiculously hot in the desert. Even then there’s minimal cover and shade so be sensible with water, sun block and appropriate clothing. There are also other events during the year including drag racing and truck racing. Here’s the link to the LVMS website where you can find out more and buy tickets.
The circuit is used at other times for activities such as driving exotic cars. There are a number of suppliers that I know of including:
Prices seem to start from about $400 which doesn’t float my boat (or should that be start my engine) but then not everyone likes hours and hours of poker.
Hot Air Ballooning
If you’re not averse to getting up early, you’d like to see the sun rise over Vegas and you’re not scared of heights (I fail on all three counts) why not try a balloon ride? I presently know of only one provider so here’s their link. There are afternoon flights also for a limited time of the year. I haven’t done this and I’m not going to so I can’t say whether prices starting at $275 each are full of hot air or not.
There are many gun clubs and ranges in Vegas itself where you can shoot all manner of weapons to you heart’s content – see Excursions within Vegas, but one excursion out of town is so unusual that it merits a mention here – Bullets and Burgers! Click the link to find out more but basically they pick you up from your hotel, take you out into the desert and waste you, no, seriously, they teach you how then let you fire machine guns (though hopefully not at each other). It’s not a giveaway at $200 upwards but how often will you get to do this?
I’m sure you noticed the word skiing at the end of my list of Vegas excursions. No, I haven’t gone mad, you really can ski on snow within a one hour drive of Vegas – I’ve done it.
Mount Charleston lies almost due West of Vegas (you take US 95 North then turn left onto Route 157 and it takes you straight onto the mountain). Aspen it is not but there are bona fides ski runs to choose from, lifts and hiking trails. The mountain is snow-capped for more than half the year. You can see it from Vegas if you look in the right direction. You didn’t expect that did you?
Every now and then new attractions or parks open or some kind soul draws my attention to them. I’m going to add a link here when that happens: