Weekend Getaways: Leave the Casinos and Shows, Discover These Natural Wonders in Las Vegas

Take a short drive from the Strip to explore Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and Valley of Fire State Park.

Julanne Hohbach
Columbus Monthly
Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas

It’s easy to spend a long weekend (or even a week) in Las Vegas and not leave its glamorous hotels, restaurants, casinos and theaters. But to do so would deprive yourself of some of the area’s best attractions—created not by deep-pocketed developers, but by Mother Nature.

First up: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, a 196,000-acre paradise in the Mojave Desert. Though it’s just 24 miles northwest of McCarran International Airport, it feels a world away. The 13-mile, one-way scenic drive through the canyon offers stunning vistas and sandstone hills whose orange and red hues are so vivid, you’ll think it’s an Instagram filter. Pop by the visitors center to learn about the area and grab a trail map. Hiking paths of varying difficulty provide an opportunity for up-close exploration. Look for the Joshua trees native to the Mojave, and don’t miss the Petroglyph Wall trail, which features 800-plus-year-old rock art. Stay nearby at Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa, which offers well-appointed rooms with views of the park and the Las Vegas Strip, as well as gaming, dining and a robust activity lineup, including Red Rock tours.

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Sandy Point, the beginning of Lake Mead

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is a favorite of locals and visitors, and for good reason. The country’s first national recreation area spans 1.5 million acres in Nevada and Arizona and includes Lake Mead, Lake Mojave and breathtaking mountain scenery. Popular activities include sightseeing cruises, watersports, hiking and horseback riding. Or, just show up and take it all in. While you’re here, check out the iconic Hoover Dam. This 726.4-foot-tall man-made marvel offers scenic views, engineering lessons and a fun photo op on the Nevada-Arizona state line. Drop by nearby Boulder City for a quick bite, perhaps at the historic Boulder Dam Hotel, which once hosted A-list celebrities and royalty, or a unique outing on the water with Vegas Glass Kayaks.

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Mount Charleston, in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, supplies a rare spot of green space in the desert. You might even find snow at the top, as temperatures can drop 30 degrees or more from the base to the 11,916-foot peak. Find trails, a tribute to local Paiute tribes and the Silent Heroes of the Cold War Memorial, the country’s first such marker dedicated to the U.S.-Soviet conflict. Mount Charleston Lodge, at 7,717 feet up, offers a cozy spot to grab a meal.

Valley of Fire State Park in Overton, Nevada, is a worthwhile side trip on a long weekend, at a reasonable 61 miles from McCarran airport. Highlights of this 40,000-acre site include petrified trees, petroglyphs dating back 2,500 years and vivid sandstone formations and limestone mountains, whose appearance at sunset gave the park its name, according to local history.

Flights from Columbus to Las Vegas

Southwest, two daily; Spirit, one daily; both airlines fly to McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

When to Go to Las Vegas

Fall is a perfect time to visit. The summer heat is gone, and nights are cool but not so much as to warrant a heavy jacket. If you plan to spend time near the Strip, watch out for major events that fill hotels and boost prices.

This story is from the October 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.