Desert Adventures: Las Vegas Beyond the Neon

November 7, 2016 / Las Vegas

Las Vegas receives some 40 million visitors a year, and most of those visitors cling to the four-mile corridor of Las Vegas Boulevard known as the Las Vegas Strip. But there is much more to Vegas than casinos, shopping, and throngs of tourists wandering between hotels and attractions along the Strip. In less than a 30-minute Uber ride from Caesars Palace, you can be in the middle of an endless chaparral surrounded by unearthly silence with only the stars or clouds as company, or step into the past in a classic Old West saloon.

Spectacular Nature Hikes

An easy exit from the frenzy of the Strip is the Blue Diamond-Bonnie Springs-Red Rock Canyon loop. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, 17 miles west of the Strip, is an alluring destination in itself for bicyclists, hikers, and nature oglers. As you head west on Charleston Boulevard (NV-159), it is impossible to miss the juts and swirls of behemoth sandstone outcroppings, once supposedly the terrain of the ocean floor. The Red Rock conservation area offers a spectacular one-way, 13-mile loop through the canyons with many great hiking trails connected to it. The route tends to bulk up on weekends so pick off days and off times to go—best visited in cooler months.

Blasts from the Past

A couple miles up the road from Red Rock Canyon, you’ll find Bonnie Springs Ranch. This plot of kitsch dates back to 1843 when it served as a wagon train stopover on the Old Spanish Trail. Today it is a cowboy-style saloon where customers must surrender their ties at the door. Kick back at the fire pit for a hit of whiskey, cool cocktail, or hot toddy and stay for supper: great burgers, ribs, and fries here. For those who want to get their cowboy on, head to the stables for guided rides on the range.

While you are in the area, stop by the former mining camp of Blue Diamond, now a settlement of fewer than 300 souls that seems forever mired in 1940. You’ll find a general store, a post office, a library, a few feral burros, quaint blocks of company housing, plenty of shade from cottonwood trees, and not much else. It’s a perfect slice of frozen history. Head east from there on NV-160 and you are back on the Strip in about 20 minutes.

Outlaw Saloons

Another fun desert getaway is the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings, on NV-161. It was the place to go in booming Goodsprings at the turn of the last century and hasn’t changed much. It has been the scene of plenty of interesting duals and is supposedly haunted by outlaw spirits. Try the ghost burger with whatever’s on tap. The bar is popular with bikers and often has live music supplied by the local talent. You can also head on to Sandy Valley, around 20 minutes west. The old gold mining settlement has a bar and café, a ranch, and a small cluster of residents doing things their way in the middle of nowhere.

Historical Artifacts

If you’re willing to go a little further for your day trip, a great destination from Las Vegas is Overton, gateway to Valley of Fire State Park, about 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas off I-15 north. The park offers a panoply of prehistoric outcroppings and preserved Anasazi history. The rock formations seem to breath fire in the desert sunsets, and the Lost City Museum in Overton should not be missed for history and context.