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The best side trips from Las Vegas
Ever eaten too much fast food and ended up craving cold water and salad? A few days in Las Vegas can have the same effect.
Vegas is exhilarating, overwhelming and wild, and there’s nowhere quite like it on earth. But when you can no longer tell day from night, it’s time to get out of the city and experience the great American West. Fortunately, Sin City’s backyard is home to some of the most awe-inspiring sights in the United States, natural and man-made. To kick things off, we’ve selected our three favourite Las Vegas side trips with advice on how to travel and what to do:
The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular excursions from Las Vegas, and there are almost as many activity options as there are people willing to take you there. This is a trip highlight for many Vegas visitors, so it pays to do a bit of research to make the most of your time.
If you’re not planning to make your own way there, you can reach the canyon by small plane (with raised wings for excellent viewing), helicopter or bus, though it’s also possible to go by Hummer (a rugged terrain vehicle) or even by boat or raft for part of the way.
One of the more recent attractions is the Skywalk, which opened in 2007 and is managed by the Hualapai Tribe. Located on the West Rim’s tribal lands, it’s a glass-bottomed cantilevered structure, which projects about 70 feet out over the canyon’s rim and allows you to gaze down 4,000 ft to the Colorado River below.
Strictly speaking, the West Rim is not exactly part of the Grand Canyon itself but is a tributary canyon that sits just outside of the National Park boundaries. However, it’s the closest rim to Las Vegas, and helicopters flying here are allowed to fly beneath the ground level of the rim, something they’re not allowed to do at the South Rim.
The South Rim, however, is considered by most to be the ‘real’ Grand Canyon; more accessible and more dramatic, with a wider range of activity options and visitor centres. From here you can take a guided coach tour, go for a one or two hour horse-ride, hike into the canyon or even get there on a mule though you’ll need to be seriously good at planning for this one, as trips get booked up to 13 months in advance.
There are far too many tour operators and trip combinations to mention, but check out Viatorfor an extensive range of Grand Canyon experiences departing from Las Vegas.
The Hoover Dam and Lake Mead
Straddling the border between Nevada and Arizona, the Hoover Dam was completed in 1936 and along with the Panama Canal and Brooklyn Bridge, is considered one of the engineering wonders of the world.
Lying 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead (the reservoir created by the dam’s construction) are often visited as part of a trip to the Grand Canyon, but there’s easily enough to see and do here to warrant a full day’s visit.
As with the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam can be reached by road or air, with tours by helicopter especially popular as they can fly at lower altitudes for a thrilling aerial view. At the dam itself, there are two options for getting more acquainted with the structure – the Powerplant Tour and the Dam Tour, both of which include admission to the visitor’s centre, with the longer Dam tour also allowing access to the internal tunnels and passageways of the dam.
Whichever tour you choose, there are some really fantastic photo opportunities. The powerplant balcony offers panoramic views over eight of the dam’s 17 gargantuan generators, and the visitor centre’s own observation deck looks out over Lake Mead and the Colorado river. You can also walk along the sidewalks on the top of the dam for gut-churning views of the dam face.
Lake Mead itself is a popular destination for river cruises, with various options available (brunch, midday, dinner) to take advantage of the special light which casts the surroundings into shades of peach, gold and russet depending on when you visit.
If you’re after something slightly less sedate, but equally as relaxing, then consider exploring Lake Mead’s many hidden coves by kayak or canoe. Kayak Las Vegas offers half-day trips for all skill levels.
Red Rock Canyon
For the more adventurous traveller, a trip to the dramatic red rock formations and sandstone peaks of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is a must. Only 17 miles west of Las Vegas, it’s an easily accessible side-trip, though you’ll feel like you’re a world away from the lights and chaos of the Strip (despite the canyon being clearly visible from many of the city’s high vantage points).
The canyon was granted National Conservation Area status in 1990, recognising the unique geology and wildlife of its surroundings, though it’s mainly the hiking, mountain biking and rock-climbing opportunities that draw the 1 million visitors who come here each year.
A good way to get your bearings is to drive (either in a hire car or as part of a tour) the 13-mile scenic drive, which provides spectacular views of the desert landscape. Along the way you’ll see wildflowers and fossilized sand dunes, and the brilliant colours of Calico Hills; a rugged sandstone formation popular with climbers. There are numerous picnic spots as well as the obligatory visitor centre, which houses a desert tortoise habitat.
Head out for a hike to really feel the spirit of the canyon. Trails for all fitness levels are on offer, starting with an easy 0.7 mile loop to the waterfall at Lost Creek through to much more strenuous treks such as the 11-mile Grand Circle Adventure. Remember to watch your footing on the loose rocks and keep a lookout for snakes! If you prefer a guided hike, check out local company Hike This!
The Valley of Fire State Park is another eerie desert landscape, often used as a location for film and TV productions. The Professionals, starring Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin was filmed here in 1966, and more recently Total Recall, Star Trek Generations and Transformers all used the otherworldly rock formations as a backdrop.
This is one of the world’s most scenic regions. If you have more time, and are prepared for a very early start then visits to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park over the border in Utah are also possible.
by Maxine Sheppard