3 of our favorite day trips from Las Vegas

Dec 14, 2019

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A popular Las Vegas marketing slogan has successfully become a part of Sin City’s identifying lexicon and culture: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

The image the phrase conjures is part illusion, part perception and part reality. But, what do you do if what was going to happen in Vegas already happened, and now you’re looking for something different? Where do you go when you need more than the spinning reels of the slots, the dealer hitting 21 from a 16, the endless buffets and the nonstop movement on the Strip?

Fortunately, there’s so much more to Vegas than just casinos and expensive concerts. For travelers who’ve already seen the main attractions, here are three of our favorite Las Vegas day trips.

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Mount Charleston

Distance from the Strip: One hour by car.

For a dramatic and, for most Las Vegas visitors, totally unexpected escape from the bright city lights, get in your rental car and head up to Mount Charleston. It’s visible from some Las Vegas hotels and is part of the Spring Mountains, behind which the sun sets each day. It doesn’t look overly inviting or welcoming from Las Vegas Boulevard because the eastern front of the range appears mostly barren and dry. But that distant and somewhat hostile impression plays a big part in the surprise that awaits the unsuspecting first-time visitor.

In about an hour, you can transport yourself from the heat and action of the Strip to a cool, relaxed outdoor playground. It’s a clear contrast between Nevada’s two worlds. One is manmade, the other natural. One sits on the valley floor, the other tops out at 11,900 feet. One has imported palm trees, the other has tall ponderosa pines and aspens that glow gold in the fall.

As you drive up toward Mount Charleston, the temperature drops and the valley haze clears. For travelers who find Las Vegas a bit overwhelming, you’ll love the fresh, crisp air here. The towering glass-and-steel hotels become cabins made of rough-hewn logs and in an instant, your blood pressure will drop. You’re only 50 miles from Vegas, but it feels like a thousand.

Desert View Overlook

During the drive to Mount Charleston, be sure to stop at the Desert View Overlook. There, you’ll find a short and well-maintained path that leads to an expansive and panoramic vista of the Mojave Desert below. A series of informative panels provide information about what you’re viewing and the historical relevance that applies.

Part of what you’ll see includes the Nevada Test Site, the scene of almost 1,000 detonations from the 1950s to the 1990s. About 100 of these that were atmospheric tests that resulted in the “mushroom cloud” that could be seen from Las Vegas.

Mount Charleston Lodge

Be sure to fit the Mount Charleston Lodge and Restaurant into your day trip, as it’s a quintessential mountain experience.

The very popular restaurant has a rustic A-frame design with full windows on three sides that allow guests to enjoy the view while perusing the large menu. A large porch wraps around the exterior to allow for outdoor dining, and a central fireplace adds to the coziness. You will also likely find authentic Native American jewelry and goods crafted by local artisans for sale.

Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort

Farther up the road, at the end of Lee Canyon, is the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort.

Yes, a real outdoor ski area! Sure, it’s small, but there’s enough terrain and snow to provide for a great winter getaway. The area historically receives about 200 inches of snow each season, with temperatures about 30 to 40 degrees lower than those found down in the valley. At other times of the year, it’s a beautiful backdrop for a picnic.

A few years ago, we skied at the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort, and I wouldn’t hesitate to include it into another Vegas winter stay.

Valley of Fire State Park

Distance from the Strip: One hour by car

A second destination outside Las Vegas that we always look forward to visiting is the Valley of Fire State Park. It’s about an hour away from the city, and you can find the Valley of Fire by taking I-15 N to Exit 75. The Valley of Fire is named for the color of the 150-million-year-old Aztec Red sandstone that comprises a lot of the park. Of course, we’ve also been there with the temperatures were approaching 120 degrees, so maybe the heat also has something to do with the name.

Visitor Center

A $10 per car entrance fee is required, and a stop at the visitor center is suggested. There you’ll find a comprehensive study of the park and learn about how it was created. Also, there are restrooms and a small store selling snacks and souvenirs. Make sure you leave the visitor center with a map, a plan and water. Lots of water. It’s very dry and has a very high ultraviolet and heat index.

Related: 10 things no one tells you about Las Vegas

Valley of Fire State Park can be thoroughly enjoyed from the car using the excellent Scenic Loop Road that turns and curves its way through the rock formations. But, you’ll be best served by at least an occasional stop at the many parking areas that provide access to some of the most distinct features.

Some of the highlights include the Petroglyph Canyon that leads to Mouse’s Tank. Here, rock etchings created by inhabitants from 2,500 years ago are visible on the sides of this short canyon. The canyon floor is covered with a loose, fine and deep sand that will easily make its way into your shoes and boots as a memento of your visit.

Rainbow Vista

Another easy stop is Rainbow Vista, a colorful, panoramic landscape that seems to change hue with the movement of the sun. One of our favorites is the one-mile, round-trip hike to the Fire Wave. A relatively flat and easy trek leads you to undulating sandstone formations enhanced by swirling ribbons of contrasting color.

It is a small but very dynamic area you’ll be glad to see — especially if you need a break from all the neon in Las Vegas. Just remember, there’s little to no shade on this walk, and the heat can certainly be a risk.

White Domes Trail

White Domes is a crowd favorite. The mile-and-a-half-long trail leads you down past remnants of an old movie set and through a short but impressive slot canyon before looping back toward the parking area. The landscape is peppered with towering rock formations that look especially resplendent against the darker colors of the nearby desert rocks.

Related: The best national and state parks to visit with kids in the Southwest

Atlatl Rock

Don’t miss the petroglyph panel known as Atlatl Rock. You climb about four stories of metal stairs to access a close up look of the carvings that are highlighted by images of the Atlatl — an ancient hunting weapon.

The Valley of Fire offers history and hills ablaze. There are petroglyphs and petrified logs; arches and ancient art; balanced rocks and bighorn sheep. Among the waves of red rock and snaking roads, you’ll find the Valley of Fire is a destination on its own, but also a reprieve if you just need to get out of town.

Antelope Canyon

Distance from the Strip: 4.5 hours

Antelope Canyon is one of the best places we’ve ever been, so rather than recommend a day trip here, we actually insist you visit. These wonders are a full day commitment from Las Vegas, as they lie 275 miles away in Page, Arizona. In fact, you may want to spend the night in Page before making your way back to Vegas, but it can be done in a day if you’re short on time.

What you’ll find at Antelope Canyon are two slot canyons that will deliver a physical and visual experience unlike anything else on Earth.

The Upper and the Lower canyons are located on land of the Navajo Nation, and can only be toured with authorized guides. Reservations can be made online and do sell out. Both canyons deliver stunning plays of light on sandstone sculpted by rushing water from infrequent but powerful desert storms. The Upper is on ground level, and the Lower makes its way through a narrow and winding passageway about 50 feet below ground.

There’s no pattern to these natural works of art, just a rhythm of wild and unscripted motion. The walls rise and fall like waves, curl and curve into themselves. There are dynamic photo opportunities all throughout the canyons as the walls gather and distribute the light from above in a multihued light show. The Antelope Canyons are a mecca for the greatest of artists and for the iPhone photographer alike.

Individually purchased adult tour prices will range from about $50 for the Lower Canyon to $60 for the Upper. The fees for children are $10 less. Special tours are available at a higher fee that allow extra time in the canyons, emphasize photography or allow access during “peak” times. Multiple tour companies make day trips to Antelope Canyon with 6 a.m. departures. Basic transportation costs about $65 from Vegas if you aren’t driving, and full tours start around $200.

Bottom line

We love Las Vegas. We love it for what it is, but have discovered so much more nearby that can broaden and enhance the experience. All you need to do is save time for a day trip (or a few) to see the city’s beautiful natural surroundings. Safe travels!

Featured image by Csondy / Getty Images

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