Going for the Green in Las Vegas

September 22, 2016 / Las Vegas

Las Vegas sits in the midst of the Mojave Desert, some 25,000 square miles of America’s driest terrain. Yet the city, named The Meadows in Spanish for its plethora of artesian wells greening the valley, might be considered an oasis.

Green in this gaming mecca can mean much more than the color of money or the felt hue of blackjack and craps tables. Here is a sampling of where to find nature in bloom in the Las Vegas Valley.

Spring Mountain Ranch

Some 20 minutes west of the Strip on NV-159 is an odd sight that might belong more in a 1950s western than a 520-acre plot of land outside of Las Vegas. Spring Mountain Ranch State Park is a homestead with a lot of history, but today serves as a shady getaway from the heat and din of the city and desert. Founded in the 1870s by wealthy ranchers, the place saw its share of fortunes and misfortunes through the last 140 years (disappearing family members, glamorous resort dreams that never launched, ownership by German movie star Vera Krupp of the Krup coffee-making fortune, ownership by Howard Hughes in an unsuccessful ploy to attract Jean Peters) to eventually be sold and operated by the state park system. Several historic structures remain, available for docent tours. But brooks, trails, green meadows, paths and a small lake remain as well.

An outdoor stage produces evening musicals under the stars in summer. Birdwatchers head there for the wildlife attracted to the shrub live oak, cottonwood and pines. Picnickers love the kept lawns. Admission and parking is $9 per car.

Las Vegas Springs Preserve

Right in the middle of Las Vegas, just west of Las Vegas Boulevard, find Las Vegas Springs Preserve, 180-acre park of meandering botanical gardens, walking trails, nature habitats and plenty of indoor and outdoor interpretive exhibits. This is the place to go in Las Vegas to get a sense of the area’s ecology and natural history, and also its approach to sustainability in a geography where water is becoming increasingly scarce. Admission: $18.95.

Mt. Charleston

Only 35 miles northwest of Las Vegas is an 11,918-foot mountaintop of cool climes, stands of white fir, bristlecone pines, ponderosa and pinyon-juniper woodlands. When temperatures hover in the 100s in Las Vegas, Mt. Charleston is a comfortable 80 degrees and beckons with scenic hiking trails that lead to waterfalls and views with no end. In winter, you can golf and swim in the city and head up the mountain to the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort at Lee Canyon for some time on the powder. A day trip to Mt. Charleston’s summit area will take about an hour from the city and land at the Mt. Charleston Lodge for the views and lunch and maybe a short hike from a variety of trailheads off the road. The lodge offers cabins for overnighters. Or opt for the Resort on Mt. Charleston, halfway up NV-157, for a full service resort with scenic desert panoramas.

Ethel M’s Cactus Garden

For the green that comes with thorns, Ethel M’s Candies offers a chocolate factory tour (temporarily closed for remodel) and free wanderings of its three-acre botanical cactus garden with some 350 species of desert foliage – the largest collection of drought-resistant plants in the U.S.

The M in this ownership stands for Mars as in the Mars Family fortune that created Mars Bars and many other branded sweets. In Nevada, candy concepts morphed into spirited sweets so the visit becomes a multipurpose stop and something that can be combined with a visit onward to Boulder City, a city of fewer than 20,000 people and seemingly moored in the early 1960s as one of two towns in Nevada where gambling is prohibited.

Boulder City

Driving through Boulder City, some 30 miles from Las Vegas and gateway to the Hoover Dam, one feels as if she should be riding in a pink Ford Thunderbird convertible with fins, and wearing thick red lipstick, winged white sunglasses, and a red nylon scarf to protect the beehive hairdo. This is a sleepy city of town greens where toddlers run and locals picnic. Googie-design neon motel and diner signs beckon along Main Street.

The city was founded in the 1930s to promote clean living for the dam builders (alcohol was outlawed until 1969). While most visitors do not stop here but continue to the dam some 15 minutes onward, an amble down Main Street, which has yet to gentrify with artsy boutiques or chain stores, allows for a quick trip into the past. The circa-1933 Boulder Dam Hotel remains much as it was, an out-of-place colonial-style property that has welcomed such guests as Betty Davis, the Cornelius Vanderbuilts, Will Rogers, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, Howard Hughes, even Pope Pius XII. A local history museum in the basement is free to wander and is also rumored to be haunted.

Down the street the Boulder City Theater is another unexpected relic of another age. Built in 1933 by Fox Theaters it was one of the few places of cooling and entertainment for many of the dam workers. Today, it is owned by Desi Arnaz, Jr., son of Lucille Ball, and continues to offer movies and entertainment to overheated locals and tourists.

Onward at the dam you won’t find much green, but will be reminded just how precious such places are in the vast Mojave.