What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but you don’t have to. When you’re ready for a break from (over-)indulging in the non-stop action, there are several spectacular places that you can explore within driving distance of Las Vegas:
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Hoover Dam in Nevada
In the early 1920s, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover proposed a dam spanning the Colorado River on the Arizona-Nevada border. The project was to reduce flooding, provide usable water to the arid region, and pay for itself by producing hydro-electric power. But political wrangling prevented any progress for nearly a decade.
In November 1928, Hoover was elected President; in December, outgoing President Calvin Coolidge authorized the Dam. In October 1929, the Great Depression began; it worsened after President Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, which suppressed economic activity and spiked massive inflation.
Pre-construction on the Dam began in 1931, providing jobs for approximately 21,000 men, 96 of whom would be killed in accidents (officially). In 1932, Hoover lost re-election to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The dam was finished in 1936. The power and water that it provides spurred the growth of cities including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix.
Hoover Dam today is a major tourist attraction. You may walk through its historic tunnels, learn how the Dam generates power, and take in spectacular views of the Colorado River. I first visited years ago, when I was living in Newport Beach, on one of my early trips to Las Vegas, and I still remember feeling struck by the seeming incongruity of the grey concrete, set amid the colorful scenery, so close to the neon signs of the Strip.
Hoover Dam is a quick 40-50 minutes by car from Las Vegas.
Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada
Nevada’s first state park boasts slot canyons, scampering reptiles, and native petroglyphs. Geologists believe that shifting sand dunes created its Aztec sandstone formations; at sunset, they look like they’re ablaze, giving the Park its name. Anthropologists believe that Ancestral Puebloans inhabited the Valley during approximately 300 B.C. to 1150 A.D. Today you can still see the art they carved into the Valley’s rock. Several well-known movie scenes have been filmed in Valley of Fire, including the finale of Viva Las Vegas, the Mars parts of Total Recall, and the Planet Veridian III shots in Star Trek Generations. The Park’s Silica Dome formation is the (future) death and burial site of Captain James T. Kirk.
I spent a lovely morning hiking the non-strenuous White Domes trail at Valley of Fire on a side stop during my most recent visit to Las Vegas.
Valley of Fire lies roughly one hour by car from Las Vegas.
Home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, Zion National Park boasts stunning waterfalls, scampering wildlife, and a rainbow of desert colors: flaming orange sandstone, lush green trees, and the sparking blue Virgin River. Its stand-out feature is Zion Canyon, 15 miles long and half a mile deep, with walls of brownish red Navajo sandstone. Geologists believe that the Canyon was eroded by the Virgin River, a tributary of the Colorado. Anthropologists believe that small family groups from native tribes inhabited the area thousands of years ago. Mormons settled the region during the 19th century. Zion hosts hundreds of species of wildlife, including bats, lizards, and cougars. Its many trees include pine, aspen, and cottonwood.
The Park boasts several trails at different levels of challenge. On a side trip during my most recent visit to Las Vegas, I enjoyed a wonderful morning hiking the non-strenuous Emerald Pools trail, then spent the afternoon riding the Park’s shuttle to investigate other trailheads. I refueled in between with a yummy lunch at the Zion Lodge.
Depending on traffic, it can take 2 to 4 hours by car to reach Zion from Las Vegas.
One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon is massive, colorful, and unique. Geologists believe that it was carved by the Colorado River, 277 miles long and more than one mile deep. Anthropologists believe that Native American tribes have continuously inhabited the region for thousands of years. Spanish explorers discovered it in 1540.
The most popular — and spectacular — spot to visit the Grand Canyon is the South Rim. Part of the National Park, it offers several trails, as well as amenities like food venues and a shuttle, amid the colorful scenery. There are also tours, including by jeep and helicopter. Unfortunately, it’s also the furthest from Las Vegas.
Much closer to Las Vegas is the West Rim, which is located on the Hualapai Reservation. It offers hiking trails, adventure activities like zip-lining, and the Skywalk — a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that juts 70 feet from the Rim, allowing you a view straight down 4,000 feet to the bottom of the Canyon.
I first visited the Grand Canyon when I was in high school, on vacation with my family, and I still remember the sense of awe I felt at its enormous, colorful vibrancy.
Depending on which part of the Grand Canyon you choose to visit, it can take 2 to 5 hours by car to get there from Las Vegas.
Spanish settlers founded the City of Los Angeles in 1781. It became part of the United States in 1848, under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, after the Mexican-American War. Los Angeles is now the second-most populated city in the country. It is home to Hollywood, scores of museums, and near-perfect weather. I’ve been visiting every few years for decades and still have more to explore.
On a good day, it can take 4 to 5 hours by car to reach Los Angeles from Las Vegas.
There’s something special about the American west: It’s vast. It’s open. And it’s varied, from neon city lights to sandstone sparkling in the sun. I hope this post helps you enjoy all it has to offer.