Just beyond the neon-lit, non-stop hustle of the city of Las Vegas lie some of the most breathtaking natural wonders the country has to offer. In fact, treasures await in every direction. Going west you can find the centuries-old sands of Death Valley. Drive north and view the multicolored peaks and spires of Zion. Or, for the mother of all photo ops, head east toward the Grand Canyon. How can you possibly decide which direction to go? This list will help you choose your path by narrowing down the options to a cool six: the absolute best day trips outside of Las Vegas, Nevada.
#1 The Grand Canyon
Well worth the drive from Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon is an experience that will humble you. Ten miles wide and 277 miles long, it’s a view that makes you ponder your place in the universe like few other sights can. Depending on what time you arrive, you’ll have an entirely different scene: bright white rock in the afternoon, or shades of red and umber at sunset. You could spend a day here easily (or a whole weekend).
The Grand Canyon isn’t just a thing to see, it’s also a thing to do. Take a hike up the trail to the lovely Havasu Falls and cool off. Visit the Kolb Studio, built in 1904 by a pair of photography pioneering brothers, or spot the condors on the South Rim. You’ll have a tiring day that’s worth the exhaustion, as the memories will eclipse the rest of your trip.
Location and Information: South Rim, 271 miles east of Las Vegas. North Rim, 255 miles east of Las Vegas. Visitor’s Center at Canyon View Information Plaza, Mather Point (520-638-7888). Admission is $20 per vehicle or $10 per pedestrian to enter the park.
Tips: The South Rim is a slightly longer drive, but it’s definitely an easier way to access the canyon. While there are plenty of eateries around the most public areas, if you’re planning a long hike, pick up some sandwiches and plenty of water.
#2 Hoover Dam and Lake Mead
The Hoover Dam is an impressive reminder of man’s battle with nature, and in this case at least, man emerged triumphant. Acres and acres of farms were flooded by the raging Colorado before the 700 foot high construction tamed the water. But it’s not just a marvel of engineering and architecture. The surrounding area is rife with opportunities for outdoor adventure, from the Colorado River below to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
River rafting trips down the Colorado are a chance to sit back and watch the scenery go by without killing your feet, and you’ll spot ancient petroglyphs along the way. You can also travel by water on one of Lake Mead’s cruises, or experience a closer view of the lake by swimming at nearby Boulder Beach. For an extra-exciting adventure, try scuba diving: you can see the factory where the dam’s concrete was mixed (now long underwater.)
Location and Information: For Hoover Dam, take US Hwy 95 S, past Boulder City (Visitor’s Center 702-597-5970). For Lake Mead take US 93 W. (Visitor’s Center 702-293-8906).
Tips: Be sure and stop at the dam’s Visitor’s Center. It’s the only way to tour the dam (for security reasons). Stock up on food before you leave to take advantage of the picnic opportunities around the lake.
#3 Red Rock Canyon
The most amazing thing about Red Rock Canyon, just 10 miles west of Vegas in the Mojave Desert, is that about 200 million years ago it was completely underwater. Though it’s now dry as dust, the water-sculpted rock makes for some of the most unusual natural features you’ll ever see, from the aptly-named Elephant Rock, to the naturally cool temperatures of Ice Box Canyon. Be sure and stop at Red Rock Overlook, where you can get a look at the entire canyon from its loveliest vantage point.
Location and Information: 17 miles west on Charleston Blvd. from Las Vegas. (Visitor’s Center 702-363-1921) Admission $5.
Tips: Stop at the Visitor’s Center for information on children’s programs and tours, including a free workbook to make the adventure even more educational. If you plan on camping or rock-climbing, a permit is required.
#4 Death Valley
The morbidly-named desert is one of those places you feel like you have to go, if only just to say you did. What will surprise you is that, for a place the Native Americans called “the land where the ground is on fire”, you just might actually have a good time. Take the necessary precautions for desert travel: carry lots of water, slather on the sunscreen, tell someone when you plan to be back, and stay on main roads and near public areas. If you’re prepared, then get ready to have a unique and worthwhile experience.
Visit Scotty’s Castle, a 2.4 million dollar home with a hodge-podge of architectural styles -an unusual find in the middle of the desert. You’ll also appreciate nearby Ubehebe’s Crater, one of the dozen volcanic craters in the Mojave, which is almost 3,000 years old. Be sure and take in the fantastic views as well, such as Zabriskie Point (made famous in the movie of the same name), which offers a stunning view of Golden Canyon.
Location and Information: NW on Hwy 95 to Beatty, then Hwy 374. Park rangers can be called for emergency assistance at 760-786-23319 (or dial 911).
Tips: October through April is cooler, so it’s a much safer and more comfortable time to visit. There are very few places to eat in the National Park, so plan ahead or stick to the area near Furnace Creek, where you can grab a bite at the Furnace Creek Inn.
#5 Zion National Park
The red and white peaks of water-sculpted Zion Canyon, with the Virgin River winding its way through, make this possibly the most beautiful destination in Utah. 160 miles from Las Vegas, it’s well-worth an overnight stay, as well as worth the drive. The drive itself is the main attraction, where you can gaze leisurely at the multi-hued rock formations and the lush shadiness of the cottonwood and ash groves along the way. Don’t miss the big red Tabernacle Dome or the Great White Throne. If you decide to sleep over, snag a room at the Zion Lodge, where you can take advantage of the gas log fireplaces and your own private porch.
Location and Information: Hwy 9, close to Springdale. (Visitor’s Center 435-772-3256)
Tips: From April to November, you’ll have to take a shuttle through the canyon, as you can’t drive through.
#6 Valley of Fire State Park
The highlight of this state park, 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas is decidedly Petroglyph Canyon. While you can see ancient carvings here and there in other parts of the area, here there is a huge concentration of them, making this the most popular destination in the park. The ancient Native American symbols are best viewed on a hike up the Petroglyph Canyon Trail: a comfortable half-mile walk which loops back where it started.
At the nearby Lost City Museum of Archaeology, you can also see an impressive collection of some of the large number of artifacts that have been unearthed here, including pottery and jewelry. The museum itself looks like a Pueblo dwelling. Valley of Fire Adventures can also pick you up at your hotel, drive you around the canyon in an open-air Jeep, and even provide lunch. (800-519-2243)
Location and Information: Hwy 15, NE on Exit 75 in Overton. Lost City Museum of Archaeology at 721 S Moapa Valley Blvd. (702-397-2193)
Tips: Temperatures can reach 112 degrees, so consider spring or fall for the most pleasant visit.
If you’re itching for even more day journeys from Las Vegas, there are still a lot of contenders. Visit a real western-style town in Oatman, or take a skiing excursion to Mt. Charleston. A real Native American casino awaits at Avi Resort, and if it’s more history you want, Cedar City and St. George will fit the bill. Wherever you choose your day trip from the city, you’ll have an experience to last a lifetime. Don’t worry: the pool will still be there when you get back.
Elizabeth Kelly is the pseudonym of a nationally published magazine writer with bylines in major newsstand magazines. Her work appears on some of the best travel and health sites on the web.