Off the Strip: 10 spots to explore beyond Las Vegas
(CNN) — With dancing fountains, a thundering volcano, a pyramid-shaped flashlight and singing gondoliers, Las Vegas Boulevard could be the most happening street in the West.
“The Strip,” as it’s known worldwide, is the main drag through Sin City, the former truck stop which grew into one of the most popular cities in the country.
And while the majority of Las Vegas’ nearly 43 million tourists likely blew into town last year and never ventured off the Strip again, there still are jackpots to be won by exploring some of the region’s attractions farther afield.
For an alternative to the beeping slot machines, thumping nightclubs and bikini-clad card dealers on your next trip, consider stepping out to explore these 10 off-Strip destinations.
1. A mysterious ghost town
Visitors to Nipton can learn more about the small town at the Trading Post.
Nipton — population 16 — is no ordinary ghost town. Sure, its major industries of mining and ranching pulled out years ago. And, yes, the town is rife with ramshackle buildings from more vibrant times. But Mayor Jim Eslinger makes sure the former metropolis about two miles from the Nevada border and an hour’s drive from Las Vegas still buzzes with life.
Eslinger runs the Nipton Trading Post, the only store in town. He also oversees the Hotel Nipton and its eco-cabins, the only accommodations for non-residents. Eslinger goes so far as to consider himself the “keeper” of Nipton.
In all, this is a pretty important position, considering the town sits on the edge of the Mojave National Preserve, which makes the town a great place to stop before or after a jaunt in the desert.
Nipton Trading Post, 107355 Nipton Road, Nipton, CA 92364; +1 760 856-2335
Beyond the Strip: For an alternative to the Las Vegas Strip casinos and nightclubs, there are jackpots to be won at some of the region’s hotspots farther afield. The ghost town of Nipton, located just two miles from the Nevada border, is only an hour’s drive from Las Vegas.
2. Seven Magic Mountains
The seven rock towers that comprise the Seven Magic Mountains installation in the Mojave Desert — a quick 15 minutes south of Las Vegas — rise from the drab landscape like rainbow-colored totems. This was part of Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s vision — a creative impression of the human experience in the desert.
Each tower comprises locally sourced boulders, and each stands more than 30 feet tall. They are visible from the I-15 Interstate, but of course they’re much more impressive up close.
Getting there, however, can be tricky. Though the parking lot is paved, the trail from the lot to the towers is not. Interpretive signs dot the journey; there’s also a prerecorded audio tour available by cell phone. The exhibit runs through May 2018.
3. Spring Mountains National Recreation Area
It’s about 20 degrees cooler at Spring Mountains than on the Valley floor.
Snow? In the Las Vegas Valley? It happens regularly at the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area about an hour north of downtown.
Known colloquially as Mount Charleston, temperatures in the park usually run about 20 degrees cooler than on the Valley floor. In summer, this means it’s a great place to escape the 115-degree heat. In winter, it means the peaks get enough snow to support a ski resort.
The Spring Mountains ecosystem is famous for other reasons, too. It’s one of the only places in Nevada where you’ll find bristlecone pines, among the oldest life forms on Earth. A modern visitor center near the entrance to the park opened earlier this year and is a great place to stop for information before venturing on a hike.
4. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Biking, hiking and wildlife-watching are welcome at Red Rock.
Rock-climbing, mountain-biking, hiking, pictograph-hunting, botany-identifying, wildlife-watching and bouldering are among popular activities at Red Rock Canyon, an expansive Bureau of Land Management-owned parcel due west of Las Vegas, near Summerlin.
Visitors can access most trailheads off the 13-mile scenic driving loop, which meanders past an informative visitor center in the first few miles. A limited number of campsites are available too.
One outfitter — Cowboy Trail Rides — even offers half- and full-day horseback rides that start just outside the park and end up inside the park on a vista, looking east. Rides are for all ages. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see a big-eared jackrabbit or two on the way up.
5. Lake Las Vegas
Flanked by resorts and pricey homes (Celine Dion has one here), the 320-acre Lake Las Vegas, about 40 minutes southeast of the Strip, is a recreation hotspot, with local outfitters renting kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and rowboats to poke around the shoreline.
The lake also is a popular destination for golfers, as it’s surrounded by three different courses including Reflection Bay, which has been ranked as one of the top 100 courses in the world by Golf Magazine.
At the far western edge of the lake, near a tiny (and contrived) “village” named MonteLago, the Hilton Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa stretches across on a bridge with archways, a modern-day homage to the Ponte Vecchio in Italy. While the bridge comes off as a bit cheesy, there’s no denying its beauty.
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Lake Las Vegas, Henderson, NV; +1 866 322-3583
6. Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument
The past is present at this site, which in 2014 became a National Park Service site. Located 30 minutes northwest of Las Vegas, the area is teeming with fossils that date back all the way to the Ice Age — mammoths, lions and camels, to name a few.
Tule Springs has two other claims to fame: It was one of the first parks set aside to tell the story of Pleistocene paleontology, and it was the first site where scientists first applied radiocarbon dating in the United States.
Because it’s so new, Tule (pronounced too-lee) Springs doesn’t have any designated trails or facilities; instead the park service distributes maps that take visitors on walking tours.
As you roam the site, look out for volunteer docents from the nonprofit Protectors of Tule Springs. Four female members of this group — all over 70 years old — fought tirelessly for park designation until it happened.
7. Valley of Fire State Park
No, the landscape isn’t on fire at Nevada’s oldest state park about an hour northeast of the Vegas Strip. But after one glimpse of the ochre-red Aztec sandstone outcroppings that characterize the 40,000-square-foot area, there’s no surprise how the place got its name.
The rocks are only one of many attractions. Elsewhere in the circa-1935 open space you’ll find petrified trees and petroglyphs that some believe are around 2,000 years old, as well as some sandstone cabins dating back to the 1930s and the days of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Curiously, today the park also is home to an annual atlatl, or spear-throwing, competition every March. It’s one of the park’s busiest days of the year.
8. River Mountains Loop Trail
Regional trails don’t get more scenic than the 34-mile River Mountains Loop Trail. The paved trail skirts the River Mountains about 45 minutes southeast of the Strip, connecting Boulder City, Henderson and the wilderness between. It opened formally in 2012, the result of a public-private partnership more than 20 years in the making.
About one-third of the route winds through Lake Mead National Recreation Area, hugging the shores of the glimmering manmade lake and snaking around rumpled hillsides. Another highlight: A spur trail to the Hoover Dam that follows an old railroad right-of-way created to help build the dam itself.
Perhaps the most treacherous portion of the trail comes between Lake Las Vegas and Henderson — three successive hills, each taller and more challenging than the last. Locals call these rises the “Three Sisters.”
9. Hoover Dam
The bright lights of Vegas are powered by Hoover Dam.
It’s hard to imagine what Las Vegas would be like without the Hoover Dam. Nowadays, hydroelectric generators in the base of the dam provide all those casinos with power to run their slot machines.
Back in the 1930s, before Sin City was much more than a glorified truck stop, the Boulder Dam project (it was renamed in 1947) brought workers to the region by the thousands — quite literally putting Las Vegas on the map.
The dam, which sits about 30 minutes southeast of Las Vegas, spans the Black Canyon of the Colorado River and forms the southern terminus of Lake Mead. Technically, it’s what’s called an arch-gravity dam, meaning that it’s curved in such a way that water pressing on it makes it stronger.
The Bureau of Reclamation runs a variety of tours at the dam site, including one that brings visitors down into the power plant.
10. Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Technically, Lake Mead isn’t a lake at all — at 112 miles long and more than 530 feet deep, it’s the largest reservoir in the United States. Created out of the Colorado River by the Hoover Dam, the “lake” is about 45 minutes southeast of Sin City and provides drinking and irrigation water to residents of three states: Arizona, Nevada and California.
Of course it also provides an epic source of recreation. Sailing, jet skiing, boating, sportfishing — you name the water sport, and locals and visitors alike probably do it on Lake Mead. The recreation area consists of the lake and surrounding mountains, which means great hiking and biking too. In all, the park comprises 1.5 million acres of land and water.
Perhaps the most remarkable tidbit about Lake Mead is something park rangers like to mention on guided tours: Resorts on the Las Vegas Strip use about 4% of the lake’s water every year.