Las Vegas is a brand of excitement. While many have covered stories and adventures on the wild side (the cliche “what happened in Vegas…”), the desert city has an abundance of natural wonders that visitors may not want to miss. Situated in a basin on the floor of the Mojave Desert and surrounding mountain ranges, much of the landscape in Las Vegas is rocky and arid with desert vegetation and wildlife. One of the world’s greatest wonders, while it’s in Arizona, is a popular Vegas outskirt adventure as it’s only a 2-hour drive away from the city – the Grand Canyon Skywalk. While it would be enough to just stay within the Strip, here is a list of other incredible things to see and do outside Las Vegas.
Let’s talk a little bit about the “Strip”. Las Vegas’s vibrant casino scene started off Downtown along Fremont Sreet. It was later that the international hotel brands began the expansion along Las Vegas Boulevard, starting from the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign that was built in 1959, 7.2 kilometers south of Fremont Street. Since then, this sign, in the intersection of Russell Road ad Sahara Avenue, marks the starting point of the Strip, with Mandalay Bay, The Strip’s southernmost resort. The Strip stretches a distance of 6.8 kilometers and it’s usually the centerpiece of Las Vegas, with about 30 hotels and casinos on both sides of the Boulevard, each of them has a unique signature. Moving on, let’s explore the best places in the outskirt of the city.
Of course, one free thing to do in Vegas is to get a photo taken at the sign. Recently installed crosswalks and an expanded parking lot in the middle of the road now make it a lot easier to visit without getting hit by a car.
A Helicopter Tour is not exactly something to do outside the Strip, but it is “above” the Strip and I totally recommend the experience. I did a helicopter flight in Grand Canyon National Park once, and here, I chose the Strip flight at night.
To take the tour, we drove off from our hotel, the Palazzo at the Venetian Resort, in the evening – we headed to Maverick Helicopters, which is just a few hundred meters south of the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. The travel company offers a wide range of packages with flights from 15 minutes to 4.5 hours, covering the city of Las Vegas to as far as the Grand Canyon. Our flight was short but I enjoyed the breathtaking panoramic view over the Las Vegas Strip and the lively commentary from the pilot through our headset.
The view was completely different as I took the flight, passengers can see each hotel from above, from the laser beam at the Luxor to the dazzling Stratosphere Tower. Check out the following for more information about helicopter packages!
The Strat Hotel, Casino and SkyPod
Moving from the south end of the Strip to the North, we explored the Strat Hotel and the surroundings. The Strat Hotel is, in fact, located on Las Vegas Boulevard; That’s why the hotel is also assumed as one of the hotels and casinos of the Strip, yet the Strat Hotel is technically in the north of the Strip.
Anyway, the exact location doesn’t matter much to the tourists :). One of the most eye-catching structures of the hotel is the observation tower (SkyPod), which is the tallest in the United States, and the second-tallest in the Western Hemisphere. Standing at 350.2-meters tall, the tower is only shorter than the CN Tower in Toronto (which is 553-meters in height).
Besides, the top of the tower is a vertical theme park, there are three thrill rides uniquely installed at the top of the tower and it’s hard to imagine being tossed or thrown around in such a tight space – check out the Big Shot, a vertical shooter then goes up 160 feet in the air at 45 miles per hours in only a few seconds; the Insanity, a spinner that is on the edge of the tower at more than 900 feet high, where passengers will be spin in the open air at the speeds of three Gs … while propelled downward at a 70-degree angle! and I am almost screaming at my desk to this point, as I am writing about the thrill of the X-scream, a roller coaster that teeter-totters over the edge of the SkyPod from the top. Passengers are dangled weightlessly above Las Vegas, and you cannot imagine how exhilarating it was to see the view of the Las Vegas Strip on the ride.
This is also one of the few places in the world that feature such thrill rides on such height!
Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas
Fremont Street is the downtown of Las Vegas, it is also the old Las Vegas. The strip has a great reputation in Vegas, yes Fremont Street has not lost too much of its glitter and it still shines as one of the most famous streets in the Las Vegas Valley. The street is in the heart of the downtown casino corridor and to me, the neon lights and signs retained the Vegas old-school charm, they took me back to decades ago and I could almost see how the city got started.
Many casinos are still in business on Fremont Street like Binion’s Horseshoe, Eldorado Club, Fremont Hotel and Casino, Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, Golden Nugget, Four Queens, the Mint, and the Pioneer Club.
Today, tens of thousands of tourists still come to this area and take a step back and experience the retro-side of the casino scene. Just watching all the tourists wander down Fremont Street is some free entertainment in itself. But there’s also the Viva Vision LED light show that takes place under the 1,500-feet-long canopy throughout the night, plus local bands that are playing on one of three stages at any given moment. That’s not to mention the bigger acts that play for free in the summer. There is under the canopy a zipline for the active goers.
For years, the street is featured in numerous Hollywood blockbusters and TV shows, like Viva Las Vegas by Elvis Persley(1964), the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever (1971); to 2019, the street is where The Weeknd’s music video was shot, like “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights”.
On our way to the Grand Canyon, we passed the Hoover Dam. Hoover Dam plays an important role in Las Vegas’ livelihood because it has been the main water source of the city since its completion in 1935. Located in a desert, there was a pressing need to have a reliable and stable water supply to cope with the development of the city. Not only does the dam reserve fresh water in Lake Mead, a man-made reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam project, but also performs flood control, provides irrigation, and produces hydroelectric power.
The Dam’s construction began in 1931 and was completed in merely four years. It costs over one hundred lives during the construction. Originally it was called the Boulder Dam, and was renamed after President Herbert Hoover in 1947. It’s hard to imagine lives in Las Vegas without the Dam today.
The dam connects with the Grand Canyon West, making it a popular stopover en route to one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. However, the architectural wonder deserves its own glory – take a walk along the Bypass Bridge walkway and be stunned by the impressive 726 feet high curving cement façade. If you want to learn more about the dam, take a guided tour or visit the Hoover Dam Museum at the Boulder Dam Hotel, or if you want to go outdoors, go on a boat trip, kayaking, fishing, or hike in Lake Mead.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
The drinking water that is stopped by the Hoover Dam forms the giant Lake Mead, a reservoir with a length of 180 kilometers and a deepest depth of 162 meters. Given its incredible size and scale, there are a number of outdoor activities available to tourists: they can swim, boat, hike, cycle, camp, and fish at America’s first and largest national recreation area.
The lake offers pristine blue waters, and it’s a year-round playground spread across 1.5 million acres of mountains, canyons, valleys, and so many more natural sceneries. The easiest activity for all ages is to explore the area on a leisure hike. Head to the visitor center and get more information about these trails, viewpoints, and attraction spots.
Around the lake, Hemenway Harbor is a dock with boats for rent, and you can hire a boat for either just a few hours or even a day. Take the cruise and go all the way to the front of Hoover Dam and you will be impressed by the magnificent view. If you are not stopping by the lake for an entire day, stop by some of the viewpoints on your way to Grand Canyon West.
Grand Canyon (West)
The Grand Canyon is – although many people think it is – NOT the biggest canyon in the world, sure it is the most famous. Besides, the red rock formation of the canyon only makes the natural wonder so much more dramatic and one-of-a-kind.
If you want to have the full experience of the majesty and grandeur of the Grand Canyon, I would strongly recommend you to go to the Grand Canyon National Park (a.k.a. the North Rim and the South Rim); and it might take a few days to visit other famous spots like the Oljato-Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, the Wave, and Horseshoe Bend.
Grand Canyon West is not within the Grand Canyon National Park, it is a privately-owned company operated by the Hualapai Tribe and requires the purchase of a tour package to enter. But don’t worry, the dramatic landscape of the Grand Canyon didn’t stop within the national park boundaries. Grand Canyon West consists of three scenic areas around the airstrip – the Hualapai Ranch, Grand Canyon Skywalk at Eagle Point, and Guano Point. Every entrance package includes parking at the terminal and shuttle bus transportation to the two scenic viewing areas, and the Hualapai Ranch. In addition to the admission, visitors could pay extra for add-ons such as professional photographs of their visit to the Skywalk, air tours, or meal plans.
The Hualapai Ranch is usually the first pitstop of the package tour. There are few huts and houses where tourists could pet the horses, interact with the “cowboys” or pay for horseback riding along the rim. Nothing too exciting there, except there are canyon-facing cabins for visitors to stay overnight, join the cowboys to make S’mores, and hear stories around an open fire.
Eagle Point is the highlight of the site. There I saw the Eagle Rock, named for its shape, and it is considered sacred by the Hualapai Indians. With its beautiful views of the canyon walls, this is “where the Heavens and Earth meet”.
The Grand Canyon Skywalk – a glass bridge 4,000 feet above the Grand Canyon floor is an attraction that opened in 2007. Some (especially the Hualapai Tribe) might think the horseshoe-shaped cantilever bridge is too commercial, and a disturbance of the sacred ground. Still, it became a talking point for the general public. However, personal cameras are not allowed on the Skywalk (huh! “safety issues”) and visitors need to pay for an add-on for professional photographs on the bridge – and I guess that’s where I decided to draw the line at paying an extra fee for walking on the bridge.
Another scenic point on the site offers breathtaking panoramic canyon views of the Grand Canyon and the azure Colorado River. There is a small Hualapai Market where the tribal members sell Native American jewelry and crafts.
All in all, the Grand Canyon West may be a little bit too commercial for travelers yet it is a convenient way to get a taste of the Grand Canyon and experience nature away from the neon lights of the Strip.
Spring Mountains National Recreation Area / Mount Charleston
You may be surprised to know that you can actually see snow in Las Vegas Valley – enough so that you can ski. I visited the Grand Canyon National Park in December and it was the first time that I saw Grand Canyon covered in a layer of ice.
Mount Charleston is a nearby mountain within Las Vegas Valley where temperatures are generally about 6 to 7 degrees Celsius lower than the Valley’s floor. In winter, the peak is cold enough to have enough snow for skiing. (The same goes for Flagstaff, a popular ski resort area in Arizona.) You will find a couple of ski resorts there if you would want to have a mini-ski excursion during your stay in Vegas, you are welcome to do so.
For those who might be there during summer, the Spring Mountains ecosystem is known for other reasons, too. You will find a number of creatures that aren’t usually seen in other parts of the country. The mountains are home to the oldest bristlecone pines in the area, among many other fascinating creatures. The Spring Mountains are also a great hiking and camping spot for active travelers to explore.
Seven Magic Mountains
This is a unique attraction, and honestly, a very photogenic spot. They are named “Magic Mountains”, and in fact, they are seven colorful rock installations located in the Mojave Desert, somewhere a 15-minute drive away south of the Strip.
The stack of giant rainbow-color rocks, presented like totems, rises from the drab and remote landscape, as part of Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s vision: a creative impression of human experience in the desert.
Each “mountain” is more than 10-meters tall and made of locally-sourced boulders. Personally, I like the mindful color combination of the rocks as you know they are carefully designed, even if they are in strongly contrasting colors. They can be viewed from the highway in a distance, yet be careful while you are walking to the towers, as it has no paved pedestrian walk leading to the mountains. To learn more about the exhibit, download a prerecorded audio tour on your phone.
Hurry! Seven Magic Mountains is so far… temporary!
“Seven Magic Mountains was produced by the Nevada Museum of Art and Art Production Fund. The exhibition opened May 11, 2016, and was originally scheduled to be on view for two years. Due to the incredible success of Seven Magic Mountains since its opening, artist Ugo Rondinone has expressed a strong desire to explore ways to keep the artwork on view at its current site. The Producers continue to work on an extension plan that would enable Seven Magic Mountains to remain on view for several years into the future. At the end of 2018, the Bureau of Land Management issued a three-year permit extension for the artwork, allowing the installation to remain on view through the end of 2021 – and further extended to May 2027” – https://sevenmagicmountains.com
Can you imagine there is a ghost town just an hour away from the bustling Las Vegas? Nipton has a population of 16 and it is not ordinary. The town is located less than 4 kilometers away from the Nevada border, and its major industries of mining and ranching were pulled out many years ago. What’s left in town are ruin-like buildings, but a tiny population to support the absolute necessities, keeping this town from being completely… dead. Nipton Trading Post is the only story in Nipton, and accommodations are actually available for non-residents (eh, to the ghost town fans!)
You know, these days everything has a market, and Nipton somehow managed to speak to a very niche group of the audience – that’s why the mayor intends to keep this place, given that it is located on the boundaries of the Mojave National Preserve, and who know it will once again come back to life as a pitstop for the desert goers? – in fact, the smart businessmen have already seen this as an opportunity and the town was recently purchased by American Green inc, a marijuana-focused technology, and growing company, with a plan to turn it into a “cannabis-friendly hospitality destination”. Seems the Wild Wild West and the Vegas are going to get even wilder.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
In Red Rock Canyon, 500 million years of history lie exposed in rock. The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is where we learned a lot more about the Mojave Desert. The rugged, scenic canyon lies within the Mojave Desert (North America’s smallest, driest desert), and it’s defined by its geology, elevation, and characteristic plants such as Joshua trees.
In the Mojave, mountain ranges are alternative with low, flat basins, giving a rhythm to the landscape, and providing living space for a wide variety of plants and animals. There is a scenic drive route with numerous trails for visitors to explore the natural wonders.
About 250 million years ago the earth was caught in a catastrophe virtually beyond comprehension. Exactly what brought the ancient world to an end is still widely debated, although extra-terrestrial impacts, intense volcanic eruptions, and drastic sea-level changes that caused oxygen levels to fall are possible explanations. Whatever its cause, this extinction radically changed the course of life on earth. Early fossils of reptiles, dinosaurs, and mammals were found in the red sandstone cliffs and grey limestone layers in the Red Rock Canyon. These discoveries provided clues and evidence of what the ancient world was like and helped scientists understand the evolution of life.
Today, the conservation area contains diverse flora and fauna and is home to a sanctuary of life. Plants in the desert have many survival strategies by growing in canyons, where it is cooler and wetter. Animals do well in holes. We looked closely at the rocks as we were driving through the scenic route, hoping to see some ground squirrels, Whiptail lizard, and the desert tortoise (and not step on Tarantula in between the cracks on the ground…)
It was fulfilling to learn how different kinds of rocks formed through millions of years of processing, and the views of the area were stunning and unique. Grab your boots, some water, and a few friends so you don’t get lost. Stick to mornings or late afternoons in the summer to avoid the worst of the desert heat.
Valley of Fire State Park
On our way to Zion in Utah, we went past another world-renowned location that’s worth stopping by.
Valley of Fire State Park is 46,000 acres of bright red Aztec sandstone outcrops nestled in gray and tan limestone. In fact, the area was formed from shifting sand dunes 150 million years ago. The park contains ancient, petrified trees and petroglyphs dating back more than 2,000 years.
Valley of Fire State Park was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1968, making it one of the oldest state parks in Nevada. Here, tourists take a geology and ecology lesson to learn about the magical history and the transformation of the place. The area opens all year round and there are many campsites, with shaded tables, grills, and water; and it preserves three stone cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. More, venture to the many trails, or check out the annual Atlatl Competition in which participants test their skills with replicas of ancient spears.
To travel a little bit further – Visit Utah’s Zion National Park, or even Bryce Canyon! The dramatic landscape and natural scenery are something I never get tired of. Check out: A Visitor’s Guide to Zion National Park That is Useful for You.