6 of our favorite road trips from Las Vegas
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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 up is part illusion and part reality. But if what was going to happen in Vegas has already happened, what can you do now? Or, as Vegas’ new marketing video implies, what if you need to find something new?
Fortunately, there’s so much more to Vegas than just casinos, expensive concerts and fancy meals. For travelers who’ve already seen the main attractions, or locals who are ready to spread their wings, here are six of our favorite road trips from Las Vegas.
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Driving time from Las Vegas: One hour
For a dramatic and 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 first-time visitor.
What to do: Mount Charleston is a relaxed, outdoor playground perfect for a variety of outdoor experiences such as hiking, camping, skiing, horseback riding or even just a scenic drive. It’s a clear contrast between Nevada’s two worlds: man-made and natural. The man-made sits on the valley floor, the natural 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.
If you find Las Vegas overwhelming, you’ll love the fresh, crisp air here. The towering glass-and-steel hotels are replaced by cabins made of rough-hewn logs and in an instant, your blood pressure drops. You’re only 50 miles from Vegas, but it feels like a thousand.
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 its history.
Part of what you’ll see includes the Nevada Test Site, the scene of almost 1,000 nuclear detonations from the 1950s to the 1990s. About 100 of these were atmospheric tests that resulted in mushroom clouds that could be seen from Las Vegas.
Farther up the road, at the end of Lee Canyon, is the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort.
Yes, there’s a real outdoor ski area within an easy drive from Las Vegas. 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 in the valley. At other times of the year, it’s a still 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.
Where to eat: Be sure to fit the Mount Charleston Lodge and Restaurant into your day trip; 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. An expansive 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.
Where to stay: The Mount Charleston log cabins start at around $125 per night. Of course, since Mount Charleson is only an hour from Las Vegas, you could also head back to Las Vegas in time for your dinner reservation on the Strip.
Valley of Fire State Park
Driving time from Las Vegas: One hour
A second easily reachable destination outside Las Vegas is the Valley of Fire State Park. It’s about an hour away from the city via 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. We’ve also been there with the temperatures approaching 120 degrees, so maybe the heat also has something to do with the name.
What to do: 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.
Valley of Fire State Park can be thoroughly enjoyed from the car using the excellent Scenic Loop Road that 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 distinctive features.
For instance, there’s 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, deep sand that will easily make its way into your shoes and boots.
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 dramatic 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 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.
Don’t miss the petroglyph panel known as Atlatl Rock. You climb about four stories of metal stairs to get 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 nice road trip from Las Vegas.
Where to stay: As with Mount Charleston, you could easily make a day trip from Las Vegas to the Valley of Fire State Park, but there are options if you want to spend the night. There is camping available within the state park. You can also choose among some budget hotels, such as the North Shore Inn at Lake Mead, about 12 miles away. But, if you want some luxury at the end of your day of hiking, you’ll probably want to head back to Vegas.
Related: Review of the Bellagio Las Vegas
Driving time from Las Vegas: 2.5 hours
What to do: The things to do in Death Valley are to absorb the unusual, value the uniqueness, respect the environment and simply survive. Death Valley is different, beautiful in its own way and extreme.
One of the high points, if the lowest elevation in the U.S. can ever be defined using the word high, is Badwater Basiin, 282 feet below with sea-level starkness. Heatwaves dance and mirages come to life here during the heat of the day. The distance itself becomes an optical illusion.
Artists Palette on Artists Drive is also worth investigating as the rolling hills are splotched with multi-colored hues much like an artist’s palette. The colors are usually best defined in the late afternoon light.
The road is one-way, well paved and narrow. And fun. It is a miniature roller coaster ride that you may want to take twice. It is at its best when you have the road to yourself.
Other popular and automobile-accessible locations for Vegas day-trippers are Zabriskie Point and Dante’s Peak. Dante’s sits about one mile above the valley floor and offers an expansive overlook of Badwater Basin and its surroundings. Zabriskie is likely the park’s most popular viewing spot and offers a nice vantage for sunrise and sunsets.
Golden Canyon is just off Badwater Road and allows visitors to get an intimate feel for Death Valley without going too far from your car’s air conditioning.
If time allows, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells is a good visit. The sand hills rise and flow, poetically delineated by the rippled ridges of the sand that are forever at the mercy of a thermal wind. This is another good locale for the photographer in you.
Stops at the Harmony Borax Worksite, the Park Information Center and at the Death Valley National Park sign are certain to be on most visitors’ agendas. If you spend the night in the park, the skies in Death Valley can get dynamically dark, providing a brilliant celestial show. During the day, Navy fighter jets race across those same skies.
Death Valley is best enjoyed when the temperature is an ally and not an enemy. Think October through April. Also, like most of the great and grand outdoors, optimum viewing is when the sun is lower in the sky and not directly overhead. We have been to Death Valley when the temperatures were 115+. It is doable … but the land’s ancestral natives did not call the area Tomesha (“Ground Afire”) without cause.
Where to stay: You can stay within Death Valley at Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel in one of 83 rooms that start around $150 per night. There are also campsites and RV hookups available — along with a general store, the Toll Road Restaurant and Badwater Saloon.
Other options can be found at the Oasis at Death Valley, the Ranch at Death Valley and the Inn at Death Valley, set along Highway 190 next to the National Park Service Visitor Center. Here you’ll find lush date palms, spring-fed pools and even golf.
Related: The US welcomes 3 new dark sky parks
Driving time from Las Vegas: 2.5 hours to the closest point, the Grand Canyon West Rim
What to do: The Grand Canyon lives up to its name. It is quite … grand. The more popular North and South Rims are also reachable by car from Vegas, but you’ll need to budget several additional hours in the car each direction, with the South Rim being the closer of those two. The West Rim is closer still, though each offers its own unique possibilities.
Should you decide to make an overnight road trip to the South Rim, you might consider a ride on the Grand Canyon Railway that begins in Williams, Arizona, and takes you on a two-hour (each way) nostalgic journey to the canyon. Several trains run daily, and there are multiple price ranges available. This is a very popular experience and one we highly recommend. While in Williams, you can enjoy another homage to the past while you cruise down part of the famous Route 66.
But, the West Rim, which is run by the Hualapai Indian Tribe, is a reasonable driving distance from Las Vegas and this is where you’ll find the Skywalk Glass Bridge that extends out over the edge of the canyon so you can look down 4,000 feet.
Where to stay: If you go to the West Rim, the Hualapai Ranch offers rustic cabins for rent. Along with your cabin stay, you also get access to an animatronic “Shootin’ Gallery” and free magic and gunfight shows. Horseback rides are available at the ranch starting at $40.
Another nearby option is the Grand Canyon Western Ranch, about 10 miles away. At this ranch, you’ll find pine cabins and glamping tents with prices that start around $200-$300 per night. In addition to the tents and cabins, you’ll find horseback rides, wagon rides and a gun range.
Driving time from Las Vegas: 4.5 hours
Antelope Canyon is one of the best places we’ve ever been. This is the longest of the road trips we’ve recommended from Las Vegas, but it’s also our favorite. It’s at least a full-day commitment from Las Vegas, 275 miles away in Page, Arizona. In fact, you’ll probably want to at least spend the night in Page before making your way back to Vegas.
What to do: 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 throughout the canyons as the walls gather and distribute the light from above in a multi-hued light show.
The Antelope Canyons are a mecca for the greatest of artists and for the iPhone photographer alike, so be sure to bring something to capture the moment.
Individually purchased adult tour prices will range from about $50 for the Lower Canyon to $60 for the Upper Canyon. The fees for children are $10 less. Special tours are available at a higher fee that allows extra time in the canyons, emphasize photography or allow access during “peak” times. During normal 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.
Of course, if you have your own car, you’re on your own schedule.
Where to stay: There are a number of budget-friendly properties in Page, about 10 miles from Antelope Canyon. If you want to use your hotel points or free-night certificates, you can pick from the Hyatt Place Page – Lake Powell (12,000 Hyatt points), Hampton Inn & Suites Page – Lake Powell (36,000 – 50,000 Hilton points) or Days Inn, Comfort Inn and Best Western-type properties.
Related: Fun road trips in Arizona
Zion National Park
Driving time from Las Vegas: Three hours
What to do: Zion is like a natural cathedral. It is that inspiring. Just the definitions and spiritual applications of the word Zion should give you a real hint as to the grandeur there.
Zion surrounds you, engulfs you and embraces you. And, before COVID-19 hit, it gave a lot of hugs as it was attracting about four million visitors each year. Zion’s main features, its most popular venues, are mostly accessed from a single road that parallels the Virgin River. Traffic in the park can be congested, so a huge fleet of shuttle buses are used to minimize traffic.
You can appreciate Zion from a distance and get a broad view of the wonders much like an image presented by a panoramic photo. But Zion is best experienced by zooming in on individual segments and becoming more of a participant than a spectator.
Hikes and explorations range from an easy, but rewarding, stroll on the Riverside Walk to an all-day strenuous trek through water to the see the famous Narrows. In between, there is the uncomplicated and straightforward trail to Weeping Rock, the moderately challenging path to the Emerald Pools and The Canyon Overlook and the formidable climb to the breathtaking Angel’s Landing.
As with most popular destinations, the best time to visit is the off-season when attendance is down. But since most travelers don’t always have that scheduling freedom, it is best to simply get out early in the day, ahead of the crowd.
As a personal aside, if time does not permit a true visit to Zion, the spectacular Highway 9 from Springdale to Mount Carmel Junction is worth the time, the effort and the National Park fee. The road bisects part of the park and offers scenery and sights that will have you looking for one of the many turnouts and overlooks to pull into for an even better view. The road has a series of long tunnels that cut through the core of the mountains and the drive through the tunnels and the vistas when you emerge are truly exhilarating. Utah State Highway 9, the Zion Park Scenic Byway, is a travel treasure. (Just watch out for deer crossings.)
Where to stay: Within Zion, your options are either camping in one of the three campgrounds or booking a stay at the Zion National Park Lodge, where rooms and cabins often start at $220+ per night and can book up well in advance. But there are points-friendly options in the area too.
SpringHill Suites by Marriott Springdale Zion National Park sits in the shadow of Zion, and is bookable for 40,000-60,000 Marriott points per night. (Or a free-night certificate available from the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant card when the room prices at 50,000 points per night or less). The Hampton Inn & Suites Springdale/Zion National Park prices around 50,000 Hilton Honors points per night and the La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham at Zion Park/Springdale is 30,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night.
We love Las Vegas. We love it for what it is and what it will be post-coronavirus pandemic, but if you are looking for a road trip out of Las Vegas, there’s plenty nearby that can broaden and enhance the experience. Safe travels!
Featured image by Csondy/Getty Images
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