When most people think of Las Vegas it is the bright lights and casinos that come to mind. For me, I think adventure. Hiking, rock climbing, exploring canyons, kayaking and getting lost in the snow. Yes, I said snow. From desert to high mountains, deep canyons to slick rock, within an hour of Sin City is a wonderland of outdoor destinations.
Getting there and getting around
Many outdoor meccas are hard to get to. Long flights and complicated ground routes just to get to your jumping off point. Not with the adventures in Nevada. There are relatively cheap flights to Las Vegas from all over the world. From my home in Canada, we get round trip tickets for $300US. If you shop around the discount sites or use credit card travel points you can get them for even less.
Once on the ground, car rental prices are among the lowest as well. It's not hard to find a car rental for $35US per day with unlimited mileage. On our last trip, we got a hybrid, so gas was very cheap as well.
So now that you are in Las Vegas and you've got wheels it's time to talk about where to stay. Since I am heading down for outdoor adventures, my crew and I camp. We bring our tents and sleeping bags which is part of the fun for us. Depending on where you are headed different camping options are open to you which I will cover when describing my favorite areas. Otherwise, as the tourist destination that it is, Las Vegas has hotels at all price points, budget hostels and there is always Airbnb. The last few years I have gone down, we have booked an Airbnb for the first night so we don't find a campsite in the dark.
For outdoor activity, the temperatures are generally good for everything but the summer. It's just too hot. The only place to go in the peak summer season is Mt. Charleston as it averages 30 degrees cooler than Las Vegas. If you live in a cold northern climate as I do, Las Vegas winter is like our fall so perfect outdoor adventure temperatures.
Red Rock Canyon
Overlooking the scenic road from a top the sandstone cliffs. (photo credit: Catharine Gerhard)
This is where gamblers on day trips and serious outdoors people mingle. Only 17 miles from downtown, Red Rock Canyon is a vast playground for hikers, site-seers and rock climbers. Epic sandstone mountains and canyons grab your attention in every direction. The park is split into two parts.
The northern section is accessed on the scenic road which is a 13-mile one-way loop. To use the scenic road there is a fee per vehicle but a year pass is only $30. Stop at the visitor center when you first enter to get maps and advice on what hikes you might like to do. You just drive along the road and stop at any pullout that grabs your attention. Each parking area has trails running from it off into the sandstone hills and canyons. Just a warning, the park closes at dark and has no camping.
With such easy access, it can be deceiving how rugged the terrain is. This is not the terrain for tennis shoes. Makes sure you have proper footwear and have packed the essentials for a desert hike. The hikes can be as easy or challenging as you like. There is literally something for everyone and it doesn't take long before you are away from the crowds.
Sculpted red sandstone makes you feel like you are walking on Mars ( Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard)
For rock climbers, the scenic road gives you easy access to dozens of crags with everything from easy toprope spots, hard sport climbs, and long trad routes. It's so easy to get to that locals come out after work for a few laps before dark.
For the rest of the canyons to the south, you just follow Route 159 and park at the pullouts Each is labeled for the canyon it accesses. There is no fee to hike or climb in these canyons but there also isn't rangers patroling them so be prepared. If the scenic road is an easy entry into desert canyons, the southern canyons are a step into a true adventure. Whether hiking or rock climbing, these canyons are bigger and more rugged. I think of it as the real wilderness in the park. Each of these approaches starts with a relatively easy, flat walk across the desert and as you enter the canyon the more rugged they get. As each canyon has a creek running so bring a water filter or water purification tablets so you can replenish your drinking water along the way.
If you are heading to Red Rock for rock climbing, make sure you get the guide book from Jerry Handren title Red Rock: A Climbers Guide. It has over 2000 climbs listed with grade, description, photos, and topos so you can find the right climb. Since there are climbs here over 2000 feet, you really want to know where you are going and how to get down.
For camping, there is the Red Rock Campground just off of Route 159 just before you get to the scenic road into Red Rock Canyon. Campsites start at $10 per nite and can be booked online at https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/250877. If you want free camping, head to Lovell Canyon Road off of Route 160. Once you are a mile up the road there are sites for the next 11 miles. This is about a 30-minute drive from the main areas of Red Rock Canyon.
High above the desert, pine forest and snow covered peaks allow you to escape the heat. ( Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard)
Known as the 'Island in the Sky', Mt. Charleston soars above the valley creating a unique alpine ecosystem compared to the desert conditions of the valley. Only 45 minutes from downtown, this wilderness area boasts high alpine treks, beautiful limestone rock climbing and stunning views in every direction. The peaks are covered with snow for much of the year, marking a stark contrast with the dry desert you've just driven up from. The road system makes an 'H' shape with each leg having a mix of trails, picnic areas, and campgrounds. The area gets so much snow that there is a ski resort on the Lee Canyon side of the mountain.
Route 157 has a couple of restaurants and inns along the way for a nice respite from the ruggedness of the mountain. If you want to treat yourself, book a cabin at Mt. Charleston Cabins which are located near the end of the road. The balconies give an epic view out over the valley. Be aware that many of the trailheads are near 8000 feet so you will find yourself getting out of breath much easier than down in the valley. If you decide to hike to the top of Mt. Charleston be prepared for an epic adventure as it tops out at 11,916 feet. A trip to the summit is between 15.5-21 miles depending on the route you take.
There are much shorter and easier hikes so don't be scared off due to the terrain. The hike up Mary Jane Falls is moderate in the effort but beautiful every step of the way. You will fill up your camera as there no end of the breathtaking views.
And if like me you are a rock climber, Mt. Charleston boasts some of the best limestone sport climbing in the United States. Routes are a mix of pockets, slabs and overhanging caves. Hundreds of routes abound, but it barely scratches the surface of the expansive rock on this mountain.
Besides the two pay campgrounds, you can find free camping in Micks Canyon off of Route 156
Valley of Fire
Valley of Fire Las Vegas
If you want to get lost in the ancient past, head out to explore Valley of Fire State Park. Located about an hour north-east of Las Vegas, it's easy to get to and near Lake Mead and Arrow Canyon. With petrified trees, fossils and ancient petroglyphs, this is like a place frozen in time. When walking among the slot canyons and red sandstone outcroppings you expect a dinosaur to come around the corner. The alien landscape was used in the movie Total Recall (the original with Arnie) as the set for Mars.
The trail to Atlatl Rock will give you a comfortable hike with epic views. This giant boulder perched atop a bluff is named for the ancient art painted on it. A staircase and viewing platform gives you easy access and a great view.
This is an area you can day trip to or book a campsite at one of the two campgrounds. With miles of trails and such a unique landscape, you will run out of daylight before you run out of places to explore.
Lake Mead Recreation Area
Lake Mead Recreation Area Las Vegas
Just east of Las Vegas is the town of Boulder, Nevada which is the jumping off point for Lake Mead Recreation Area. At 1.6 million acres this vast park has everything. Lakes and rivers for boating and fishing. Canyons for exploring, mountains for climbing and miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking. An outdoor enthusiast could spend their whole trip here.
Lake Mead was formed when the Hoover Dam was built on the Colorado River. Just as the river had many twists and turns so does the lake making fun exploration by kayak. Go for a swim or try your luck landing a fish. With the weather being so hot in the summer the water is a delight to dive into when the temperatures are over 100 Fahrenheit.
There are backcountry roads giving you opportunities to explore and camp with a 4-wheel drive. This lets you get further into the park beyond where the pavement ends. Plus there are miles of hiking and biking trails.
Arrow Canyon Las Vegas
While still close to Las Vegas, Arrow Canyon Wilderness area is the most remote feeling of the areas listed. Access is down a rough dirt road but the combination of canyon exploring and peak top views make for an exciting trek. There are slot canyons, fossils, and petroglyphs (both old and new). At 27,500 acres there is a lot to explore. The trails here are not well marked so navigation skills will be tested. This is not for the unskilled hiker but well worth the effort for the experienced desert trekker. There are even some challenging rock climbs in the swamp cave and other rock faces.