Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

Splendid day trips you can take from Las Vegas

By admin Jun1,2024

I have a new system for beating the casinos in Las Vegas: I don’t spend a penny on the slots, the tables or the sports books. Instead, I bet heavily on red and green.

Red rocks and green waters, that is. Hiking and kayaking.

I tested the system on a series of day trips last month. Though I slept three nights in a hotel on the Strip, I headed out of town every day.

First: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Later, Valley of Fire State Park and the Colorado River’s Black Canyon, where the waters of Emerald Cave eerily glow. Then a night of minor league baseball.

None of these adventures took me more than 60 miles from the Strip (a.k.a. Las Vegas Boulevard). Yet the psychological distance seemed enormous. Maybe it’s no surprise that many climbers and other outdoorsy types have moved to Las Vegas for the access it gives them to rocks, mountains and such.

You know that semi-vacant look on so many slot machine players’ faces? You don’t see that so much on the trail or the river, even when the path is uphill or the paddling is against the wind. And it’s tough to find a poker face in the Las Vegas Ballpark when management is staging an Elvis karaoke competition between innings.

Here’s a rundown.

People bicycle on a road toward red rock hills, with larger hills in the distance

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is near the Las Vegas suburb of Summerlin, about 15 miles from the Strip.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Red Rock Canyon

Driving distance from the Strip: About 30 minutes from the Stratosphere tower.

What makes it great: You’ll have no trouble finding the scenery at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Solitude might take a little longer, because the canyon is immensely popular and only an 18- to 22-mile drive from the Strip, depending on your route. Once there, you can hike, bike or drive a 13-mile loop through a landscape of stacked and tumbled boulders, some fiery red, some chalky white, many so strangely striated that you may suspect they’ve been scrubbed with steel wool.

Striated rocks and red rock cliffsides at Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area.

Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area near Summerlin offers hiking and biking opportunities.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Many of the formations are Jurassic sand dunes that have been hardened to sandstone by time. You can drive between or hike on 16 trails threaded through the rocks, junipers and some Joshua trees too.

For drivers and cyclists, it’s a one-way route, with a speed limit of 35 mph, on a wonderfully smooth two-lane blacktop. For hikers, the trails range from 800 feet to 14 miles, easy to difficult, and there are more just beyond the loop.

If you go: Once you start driving the loop, you’ll almost immediately want to pull over because the scenery is so arresting. Don’t. It’s illegal. And the first parking lot, Calico Hills, comes up soon, followed by about 10 more in 13 miles. Most have restrooms.

I made my visit just before sunset. Early morning would be good too — you get dramatic light and avoid the worst of the heat.

In cooler months (Oct. 1 through May 31), you’ll need to book a timed reservation to drive through between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. In summer, you don’t need a timed reservation, but you’ll still need to pay $20 per car (unless you have a national parks pass).

Black Canyon and Emerald Cave

Groups of kayakers in emerald-green water, surrounded by rocky cliffs.

The Emerald Cave has become a favorite of Instagrammers.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Driving distance from the Strip: About an hour and 15 minutes.

What makes it great: What if you flooded a red rock canyon and set multitudes of Nevadans and visitors loose on assorted watercraft? Lake Mead National Recreation Area, a 38-mile drive east of Vegas, is the lively answer to that question.

Most of the action is on the lake itself, which was created in 1936 by the construction of Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam) along the Colorado River. But about 15 miles downriver from the dam, you’ll find Willow Beach and the Black Canyon Water Trail, a great place to kayak.

After a 60-mile drive southeast from the Strip, I was floating with a tour group in gentle waters (no rapids here) at the foot of 1,500-foot cliffs.

“Let’s go to Arizona,” our guide said — which simply meant paddling from one side of the river to the other.

I had signed on with Blazin’ Paddles, one of several kayak tour companies that paddle out of Willow Beach Marina on the Arizona side. The marina is about 15 miles downriver from the dam. Because it’s part of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, entrance is $25 per car.

There were dozens of kayakers in groups ahead of me, in part because paddling in a shady canyon is a pretty good way to spend a 95-degree day, in part because Instagram has made Emerald Cave a star.

The cave, a 2-mile paddle from Willow Beach, is only about the size of a two-bedroom apartment. But the way its waters glow green makes for great pictures. It’s the centerpiece of most half-day tours, and guides say they’ve fit as many as 23 kayaks in there at a time.

A person in an inflatable watercraft sprays water toward the camera

You can explore the Colorado River in an inflatable watercraft.

People stand in a river that winds through small islands with trees and tall red-rock hills

Kayak tours from Willow Beach explore the Colorado River. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Mountain buttes rise above kayaks floating in the Colorado River

Mountain buttes rise above kayaks floating in the Colorado River’s Black Canyon, just below Hoover Dam.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

If your excursion is like mine, you’ll run into a traffic jam outside the cave and the wait will be about 45 minutes. Sometimes it’s over an hour, guides say.

But remember, you’ll be in a kayak beneath tall cliffs, keeping an eye out for desert bighorn sheep, possibly engaging in splash skirmishes with fellow paddlers. Life could be worse. And once you’re in the cave, the sight is memorable. If you’ve ever taken a rowboat into the Blue Grotto on the Italian isle of Capri, this cave’s interior will give you déja vù in another hue.

For the record, we wedged 17 kayaks and a canoe into the cave. And on the way back to the marina, we spotted a bald eagle.

Four miles of kayaking, with a cave in the middle and a stop to hop out for a view, is just about perfect for a three-hour excursion. I paid $110. (With shuttle bus service from the Strip, it’s $149.)

If you go: The best time for Emerald Cave photos is said to be midday, when I was there. But if you get there early or late, you’ll have less company.

There’s a store at Willow Beach Marina that sells snacks, sunblock, hats, water shoes, dry bags and boating and fishing supplies; open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in summer. There’s also a restaurant, Black Canyon Grill, open daily for lunch in summer; open Fridays to Sundays for most of March, April, May, September and October; and closed November to February.

You can also take a quick, free look at Hoover Dam (22 miles from Willow Beach) by parking in a free lot on the Arizona side of the river (parking is $10 on the Nevada side) and walking across the dam. Entry to the Visitor Center exhibits and observation deck is $10. There are also guided dam tours available, first come, first served. Boulder City, 6.5 miles from the dam, has several restaurants and antique shops.

Valley of Fire State Park

People appear tiny as they walk among reddish-orange boulders and dunes

Valley of Fire State Park is about 45 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Driving distance from the Strip: About 55 minutes.

What makes it great: Even after I saw Red Rock Canyon, I didn’t fully understand how easily outback Nevada can pass for outback Utah. The Valley of Fire — about 55 miles northeast of the Strip — educated me further.

It also lured me into a few furnace-hot gullies and showed me miles of red sandstone, gray limestone, slot canyons and crazy-shaped boulders, all scattered on a desert floor that long ago was an ocean floor. Some boulders are decorated with petroglyphs older than all of our leading presidential candidates put together.

More specifically, because I read some signs, I can tell you that the petroglyphs are more than 2,000 years old, and also that a petroglyph is cut into stone; a pictograph is painted on stone.

Petroglyphs of a hand within a kite shape next to a spiral at Valley of Fire State Park.

Petroglyphs at Valley of Fire State Park.

People hike on red rocks at Valley of Fire State Park

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Valley of Fire, Nevada’s first state park, has one through road, two campgrounds and several rock-climbing spots. But keep this place’s name in mind. It gets so hot (up to 120 degrees) that from May 15 to Sept. 30 this year, rangers have closed all trails longer than 1 mile.

Sticking within that limit, I wandered among the Beehives rock formations near the park’s western entrance and climbed the stairs to Atlatl Rock (where an ancient inscribed hand seems to be giving the finger to all who pass). I also walked the 0.7-mile Mouse’s Tank Trail and 1-mile Rainbow Vista trail, but it was close to 100 degrees, and the sandy path may give you that swimming-in-syrup sensation.

If you go: Park entrance is $10 per vehicle ($15 for out-of-state vehicles). The rangers’ 1-mile limit means that until October, nobody can hike the Fire Wave, Seven Wonders Loop or the White Domes Loop.

Still, it’s a thrill to follow White Domes Road north from the visitor center as it twists and squeezes between boulders.

The Moapa Valley town of Overton, 9 miles north of the park’s eastern entrance, is home to the Lost City Museum, created in the 1930s to showcase Native artifacts that long predate the creation of Lake Mead. On Overton’s Main Street, the Inside Scoop cafe has ice cream and makes a topnotch $8 tuna salad sandwich.

Aviators baseball in Las Vegas Ballpark

Las Vegas Ballpark, home to the minor-league Las Vegas Aviators.

Las Vegas Ballpark, home to the minor-league Las Vegas Aviators, is in the Vegas suburb of Summerlin, about 12 miles west of the Strip.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Driving distance from the Strip: About 25 minutes.

What makes it great: Strictly speaking, the Las Vegas Ballpark isn’t a full day trip, but this may be the most family-friendly of these excursions, so it needs to be here.

The ballpark, home to the AAA Aviators baseball team, stands in the Vegas suburb of Summerlin, about 15 miles from the Strip. You could spend all day in a casino and still make 7 p.m. game time. (Or you could head for the ballpark after exploring Red Rock Canyon, which is practically next door.)

Whenever you arrive, your blood pressure is likely to ease once you step in. It’s a gorgeous ballpark, completed in 2019 with a capacity of just 10,000, so it feels intimate. You can spread a blanket on the grassy berm overlooking right field, and there’s a good chance a local 15-year-old will be singing the national anthem.

But there’s also a bright, high-resolution scoreboard, a swimming pool beyond center field (yes, that costs extra) and food options that include tri-tip sandwiches and avocado chicken burritos.

A worker squirt salsa on a burrito-in-the-making at Las Vegas Ballpark

Food options include burritos and tri-tip at Las Vegas Ballpark.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

You can count on silly games between innings (including a cardboard airplane-throwing contest), brand ambassadors handing out merch and kids scrambling for foul balls. Beers start at $10, hot dogs at $6.50. (And there are cocktails, because Las Vegas.)

On the night I came, attendance was 5,042 people and 99 dogs (because it was bring-your-dog night).

Unless you’re a devotee of the El Paso Chihuahuas, Salt Lake Bees or Reno Aces, you won’t recognize any of these hopeful young players. But that will hardly matter — especially if (as I witnessed) the center fielder makes a leaping grab to save a 9-7 win for the home team.

If you go: Tickets start at $14 (for a spot on the berm in right field), but if you buy online in advance, the middleman fees will push that to about $20.

Las Vegas, a Dodgers farm team from 2001-08, is now a farm team for the Oakland Athletics. It’s a tad awkward that the Athletics have announced that they’ll be moving to Las Vegas in a few years. But for now, the Aviators are here and you can be too.

There are no slot machines in the ballpark and no sports betting area. In fact, the only casino with a prominent ad posted is nearby Red Rock Resort.

You can check the schedule to see when the Aviators are playing at home. The season runs through Sept. 22, and the AAA national championship game will be in the ballpark on Sept. 28.

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