Day trips from Las Vegas

Las Vegas and beyond: the Strip is the perfect base for a day trip into nature

The unnatural wonders of the Strip are typically the star of a Las Vegas vacation, but to really understand the city, take a day trip to one of the natural wonders that surrounds it.

Andrea Bennett
June 15, 2023

When you’re standing in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip, it’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been here. In fact, as amazing as Vegas is, what you see today is a blip in a landscape whose natural riches date far beyond 200,000 years ago, when Ice Age mammals like saber tooth cats, Columbian mammoths, and ground sloths roamed this area for its abundant natural springs. Around 10,000 years ago, the Southern Paiute people lived here. The water went underground an estimated 8,000 years ago, and the Las Vegas Valley became the arid desert it is today. What we’re left with are mind-blowing natural wonders as close as 20 minutes away. Las Vegas is the perfect base camp for a day trip. Many of the great hikes and sights are within a couple of hours’ drive from your hotel room. You can be out hiking or boating and back in time for dinner in an internationally acclaimed restaurant, and to sleep off the day’s exertions in a luxurious suite. And the variety of terrains and experiences is immense; in fact, a 1950s tourism campaign advertised the fact that you could both ski and go boating on the same day. You’ll find a lot of outdoor sports fanatics in Las Vegas, appreciating our backyard.

Mount Charleston

It is astounding to many people that they can leave the heat of the Las Vegas Strip and be in an alpine village drinking hot chocolate by a fireplace in about an hour. When you drive from the desert up toward Charleston Peak, which is nearly 12,000 feet in elevation, you’ll be able to clearly see seven distinctly different ecozones. You’ll start in the creosote bush, graduate upward toward Joshua trees, pass a conifer zone of pinyon pine, and finally reach towering Ponderosa pines and white fir trees.

When Las Vegans want to experience a snowy winter, we’ll often find it here. There are more than 60 miles of trails around Mount Charleston, with some incredible hikes, or go just a few miles north and you’ll find the Lee Canyon Ski Resort. If you want to stay in Mount Charleston to eat, try the Canyon Restaurant at The Retreat on Charleston Peak, which serves elevated rustic favorites right at home on the mountain like bone-in pork chops and a classic BLT.

How to get there: You can drive from the Strip to US-95, then exit near Kyle Canyon to NV-157 W, which will take you straight to the mountain.

Valley of Fire

When people see pictures of the natural beauty that surrounds Las Vegas, they’re often looking at the Technicolor cliffs and of Valley of Fire State Park, which is the first state park in Nevada. Bright red sandstone formations are plopped on top of limestone mountains, and over thousands of years, wind erosion has created wild swirls of rock, bulbous formations, and canyons that do actually look like they’re on fire if you see them at the right time of day.

There’s a big variety of hikes to suit all activity levels, and you can see slot canyons that look like they were carved with a knife; 2,500-year-old petroglyphs from the Basket Maker culture and petrified ancient trees. There are no concessions in the park, but you’ll want to head out of it anyway, to Inside Scoop in Overton, which is just down the street from the Lost City Museum. It’s a down-home American place, serving favorites like burgers and chicken fried steak. But their specialty is, as the name indicates, their homemade ice cream.

How to get there: Valley of Fire is about an hour’s drive from the Strip. The easiest way to reach it is to travel north on I-15, which will take you to the park’s west side. If you’ve opted out of a car for your trip, there are lots of tour companies and outfitters that will pick you up right from your hotel. ATL Las Vegas picks up on the Strip, takes you on an ATV tour, and provides drinks and lunch. Sightseeing outfitter Adventure Photo Tours does this as well, and will take you to the Lost City Museum, built on the foundations of ancient Anasazi dwellings.

Lake Mead Recreation Area

You may have read about the receding water levels around Lake Mead, the first and largest National Recreation Area in the nation. It sits right on the Nevada-Arizona border and includes both Lake Mead and Lake Mohave, which connects to it. This is where local boaters have come for decades for a day of waterskiing on the lake. If you don’t have a boat and aren’t renting one, the hiking around the park is incredible.

There are hundreds of plant and animal species here, and you may see a desert tortoise (don’t touch: they’re endangered) or a Desert Bighorn Sheep. Take one of the popular hikes like the Historic Railroad Trail that goes through the tunnels that once served in the construction of Hoover Dam. Or go with an outfitter and kayak around the lake.

Boaters grab breakfast, lunch, or dinner at The Boat House, a laidback, floating restaurant and lounge in the Lake Mead Marina next to the Las Vegas Boat Harbor. Or head the few minutes back toward the Strip into Boulder City.

How to get there: I certified for SCUBA in Lake Mead many years ago, when the water was already murky and our most interesting finds were bed springs. But you can still see the relics from the making of the dam, like a giant cement mixing vat.

Red Rock National Conservation Area

Red Rock National Conservation Area is a locals’ favorite; in fact, it’s only 17 miles west of the Strip and those who live in the Summerlin area are just minutes from its trailheads. The blazing red Aztec sandstone cliffs are vast: there are 200,000 acres in this conservation area, and more than 30 mile of hiking trails, rock climbing, and mountain biking. In fact, the world’s most renowned free climber relocated here for this very reason. The hikes vary from easy walks to vertigo-inducing climbs on sheer rock faces, so there really is something for everyone. And if you’re just here for the scenery, that’s easy, too.

You’ve Seen the Stars, Now See the Other Stars

Red Rock Canyon teams up with the Las Vegas Astronomical Society to hold group events and astronomy hikes with a naturalist, and you can find the info and sign-ups on Red Rock’s site.

Stop at the Visitor Center to see their endangered desert tortoise habitat and info on the area, then drive the 13-mile loop that takes you right back to your starting point. Incredible dining is a stone’s throw away from the conservation area, in Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa, where you’ll find modern Greek restaurant Naxos and a new location of legendary Vegas Thai institution Lotus of Siam, as well as Blue Ribbon Sushi and Osteria Fiorella, by famed Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri.

How to get there: Public transportation doesn’t enter the conservation area, you can book a tour or private car service from the hotel. If you do have a car, set your GPS to Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center (3205 State Highway 159).

Hoover Dam

Even today, nearly a century after it was built, the Hoover Dam is still one of America’s Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders, as it was designated by the American Society of Civil Engineers. A day trip here isn’t just the opportunity to look into the chasm where the 726-foot-high concrete arch gravity dam in the Colorado River’s Black Canyon formed Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States. It’s also the opportunity to look into the history and purpose of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal projects of the 1930s.

You can sign up for a tour and follow a guide right into the interior of the dam to see its inner workings, impressive even by today’s standards. Relax at the end of the day at The Dillinger Food & Drinkery in Boulder City, which is housed in a former Bank of Nevada building and serves gourmet burgers inspired by favorite local gangsters.

How to get there: If you’re driving, take the I-215 east toward the airport, then connect to the I-11 and US 95 south. This will get you to Boulder City, a from there it’s only a 10 minute drive to the visitor’s center.

Death Valley

Three million of the hottest acres on earth, Death Valley is a stark, unforgiving moonscape. In it are areas with names like Badwater Basin, a salty cracked earth no man’s land and the second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, and Furnace Creek, which holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded. A day trip from Las Vegas to Death Valley, both in the Mojave Desert, will take you from a dramatic manmade playground to a desolate but beautiful terrain of salt flats, volcanic craters, sandstone cliffs, and wildly colorful strata.

You’ll need to choose your route wisely if you’re driving to see sights like the weird Amargosa Valley (home of the Alien Cathouse brothel and rivers of endangered pupfish), the rippling sands of the Mesquite Dunes, and the ghostly former mining town of Rhyolite. Lean into the Old West feel of this area by eating in places like The Last Kind Words Saloon in Furnace Creek or the no-frills Mexican restaurant El Valley in Amargosa.

How to get there: There are several routes you can drive to Death Valley from Las Vegas. The shortest is to take Highway 160 through Pahrump and Death Valley Junction (122 miles), then you can split off an take Highway 127 through Tecopa. This takes you over the Salsberry Pass and into the salt flats of Badwater Basin, as well as a field of halite salt called The Devil’s Golf Course. You can also take I-95 to Amargosa and then 373 to Death Valley Junction. You can stay on I-95 and visit Beatty, where you can take Highway 374 into Death Valley National Park. This will take you in to the Rhyolite ghost town and is a good way to get to the Mesquite Dunes.

Zion National Park

The pink and red cliffs of Zion National Park are one of Utah’s most recognizable landscapes. It’s a mecca for hiking and canyoneering, and although you may feel like you’ve seen it all in pictures, this park, with its 2,000-foot-deep canyon, holds many secrets. Its most famous hikes are Zion Narrows, which will take you through chasms and otherworldly slot canyons—some of the best in the world. You’ll also find hanging gardens and waterfalls in the unexpected Emerald Pools. It’s a popular day trip from Las Vegas because you can get from the neon lights of the Strip to the natural surrounds of Zion in about three hours.

If you’re planning on hiking the ambitious Narrows, which is a gorge with thousand-foot-high walls through which you’ll have to wade the Virgin River in some parts, you’ll need to stay overnight (and make a reservation a month in advance). The most popular is Angels Landing, which has chain-assisted climbs up rock faces, and a narrow and vertiginous ridge. But there are 113 hikes and walks of all different levels—all with spectacular scenery. There are perfect hikes for even the very young and the very old.

Break in the evening for a burger and one of the local beers from Zion Canyon Brewing Company at Zion Canyon Brew Pub, which is near the entrance to the park. The Spotted Dog Café at Flanigan’s Inn is another favorite, and serves local produce, hormone-free meats and sustainably harvested fish. One place you shouldn’t miss is the Springdale Candy Company, an old-timey candy store in the shadow of the cliffs that sells candy from all over the world, hand-dipped chocolates and homemade fudge.

How to get there: There are no public buses that travel from Las Vegas to Zion, but you can take the St. George Shuttle, which leaves from Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas, stops in St. George, and continues on to Springdale. There are many tour buses that leave from Las Vegas, and they’ll generally pick you up right at your hotel. The best way to go is to drive, since there’s nothing like experiencing that scenery at your own speed. The drive takes around three hours from Las Vegas on I-15, passing through Mesquite, Nevada and through the winding Virgin River Gorge to St. George Utah, then on to Zion.

About the author

Andrea BennettAndrea Bennett is the former editor-in-chief of Vegas magazine and group editor-in-chief of several city and custom magazines for Modern Luxury. She counts her years as an anonymous hotel critic for The New York Post as her very favorite. Among her years in New York City, Kuwait, Atlanta, and San Diego, she has moved to Las Vegas three times.