Las Vegas doesn’t need an introduction, but using Vegas as a launchpad for an endless array of nature adventures is not normally the first thing mentioned in a guide book. Due to Vegas’ desire to bring in tourists, an adventurer can benefit from cheaper airfare, rental cars and plush hotels as a starting point to plentiful adventures within a 1-5 hour radius. Deserts, canyons and vibrant red rock areas are all within a few hours drive.
We’ve now used Vegas as a launch pad a few times, and rather than 1 cohesive trip, here are a few of our itineraries, followed by a “best-of” write-up.
Option 1: 7-8 days
Fly to Vegas; stay the night. Drive to and explore Joshua Tree National Park for 2 days/ nights. Drive to and explore San Diego for 2 days/ nights. Drive to and explore wider Phoenix area for 2 days/ nights. Return to Vegas, by way of Sedona, AZ. Explore local state parks.
Option 2: 8 days
Fly to Las Vegas. Drive to and explore Joshua Tree National Park (2 days/ nights). Drive to and explore Death Valley/ Parhump, NV (2 days/ nights). Drive to and explore Zion National Park (2 days/ nights). Return to Las Vegas; depart.
Option 3: 10 Days
Fly to Las Vegas. Drive to and explore Joshua Tree National Park (2 days/ nights). Drive to and explore Death Valley (1 day/ night). Drive to and explore Zion National Park (2 days/ nights). Drive to and explore Bryce National Park; drive to and stay in Page, AZ. Explore Antelope Canyon. Drive to Grand Canyon, explore. Stay the night in Flagstaff. Return to Las Vegas.
Day-trips from Las Vegas – 2 hours of less
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area – Nestled on the edge of Las Vegas’ suburbs, a brief 20 minute drive from the strip, RRC could easily eat up a day. A 13 mile one-way loop encircles the desert valley floor, surrounded by mountains. In our visits we’ve done a good bit of hiking, with a favorite being the Ice Box Canyon Trail, complete with some minor rock climbing and ending with a rushing waterfall. The Calico Tanks Trails, which leads to the massive red rock area, is short but impressive. Trail stems from the visitor center provide a nice introduction to the Mojave Desert landscape and require little effort.
Over the course of two visits we’ve spent about 10 hours hiking and would gladly revisit as its proximity makes it one of the most accessible, impressive hiking areas we know of.
Valley of Fire State Park– Overton, NV
More than any other state park we have been to, VoF begs the question “why am I not a National Park?” Located a mere hour from downtown Las Vegas, VoF provides a day of gorgeous hikes amongst red rock formations with a cobalt-blue sky backdrop. Though outrageously hot in the summer, winter/ spring visits are a breeze.
The Fire Wave trail permits access to some of the most unique formations we’ve hiked on – smaller rock domes striated with a variance of colors ranging from white to pink to red. Though the rocks can be slick the hike is well worth it. If memory serves, we combined this trail with the White Domes hike, which worked as a perfect precursor to the brilliantly colored rocks.
Rainbow Vista was another memorable hike which led to a panoramic overview of the park. Coupled with the Mouse’s Tank we we able to combine a bird’s eye view with a visit to the floor of the park, including a tight stroll through a slot canyon.
We still have more to see here. Though the park is not enormous, we’ve only had a chance to do some of the big hits; it’s a certainty we will revisit if back in the area.
2-3 Hours from Las Vegas
Just over the two-hour cusp are two of the great treasures of the National Park system, Death Valley and Zion. Neither work as a day-trip as each is so expansive you would cheat yourself with spending anything less than a full day at either. Though located in opposite directions, with Vegas in between, each is worth the visit.
One of the lowest and hottest places in the United States also happens to be one of the most beautiful. Nestled between mountain ranges, DVNP is a minimalist landscape accented by enormous sand dunes, colorful rock formations, and drought-scarred desert floors. It is important to note that a drive through the park is a several hour time commitment, though there are plenty of highlights worth visiting in even a day’s time.
If entering from the south entrance, the first and probably most unique stop is at Bad Water Basin. The lowest point in North America has a 1 mile hike on the parched desert floor. Pictures don’t really do justice – but this is the must-visit area of the park.
Just a short bit further down the road is the Devil’s Golf Course. Though you could be fooled into thinking it’s not worth the stop after Bad Water, the landscape here is both marred and scarred by the rare influx of water and the persistent drought conditions. We’ve never seen land like this elsewhere – so ugly it’s beautiful.
A bit north of the Devil’s Golf Course is the Artist’s Palette Drive. Rainbow tinted hills, reminiscent of a less vivid Painted Desert, surround the winding road as you make your way along the one-way route. It is worth the extra time.
Due north a good bit are the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes. I don’t have many words to describe the chance to hike 100 foot dunes in the middle of the desert besides neat! Though a bit out of the way from some of the other highlights, they can easily be included in a day’s visit.
Sunrise at Zabriskie Point is probably the most beautiful sight at the park. Multi-colored, gold tinted badlands catch the first light of the sun in a remarkable fashion. Though beautiful at any time of the day, a jump-start on the day rewards the early birds with a quite a treat. A brief but uphill hike provides the best views.
A few additional notes on DVNP. It goes without saying this place is hot, and as there are not many places to stop near the extensive park, you should come loaded with water, snacks and fuel. Though only 2 hours from Vegas, it is in the middle of nowhere.
Camping, particularly in the spring, is a very worthwhile experience. While you will want to make sure you are prepared with necessary items, camping is one way to guarantee you can see Zabriskie Point at sunrise.
Finally, Parhump, NV makes for a neat place to stay a night as well. Though small, it has plenty of character. The route to DVNP’s north entrance from Parhump also lends itself to a short excursion to the ghost town of Rhyolite. Though the visit will be short, it’s a chance to see the tattered remains of an old boom town.
Zion National Park
2.5 hours northeast of Las Vegas is one of the most immersive national parks we’ve been to, Zion National Park. ZNP is simply loaded with activities and interesting hikes. The park is based in the floor of the canyon, though several trails can lead hikers to the higher altitudes of the canyon rim.
Unlike most other parks, Zion requires the use of an inner-park shuttle to move visitors from one trail head to another, if you are not walking (no cars are allowed past the visitor center). The shuttle system is efficient and quick, though the busses do get packed in during peak hours.
2 of my most memorable hiking experiences have been at Zion. First was The Narrows. The Narrows is located at the termination of the road within Zion. The start is simply a hike within the canyon walls, but before long, hikers find themselves waste to neck-deep in water, and this is what makes the hike so amazing. The hike, which can be exhausting, is simply one of the best nature experiences we have ever had. A walking stick is recommended (if you arrive early enough, many hikers from the day before will have left theirs as they completed the hike), as are shoes and clothes that will get soaked. Footing can be a struggle as well – moving slowly is your best bet, and with the views of the canyon above this won’t be hard to do.
The second memorable hike was Angel’s Landing. With a 1,500 foot ascent, the last 100 feet (which I did not complete) of which require hikers to hang on to chains bolted to the slick rock, this is not for the faint of heart or those who fear heights. I completed about 90% of the hike, and the bird’s eye view of the park from (near) the top was astounding. That said, it was incredibly scary, and being the klutz that I am, I quickly turned around on the crowded path, once I was required to grab hold of the chains.
Though those hikes were in a league of their own, there are no less than a dozen other, less intense, hikes well worth the views – and more comparable to hikes we generally do. Among the best were The Watchman Trail and the Upper and Lower Emerald Pools Trails. Though each require moderate ascents, they really give a great sense of what Zion is all about.
In our 2 visits to the park we’ve done about a dozen hikes – and we’d be happy to do them all again (sans Angel’s Landing). We absolutely plan on return trips to Zion.
A few additional notes: The drive to Zion is best taken during daylight. The border area between Nevada and Utah includes highway hairpins through canyons and it is quite a white-knuckle experience. Similarly, the last 30 minutes before reaching Springdale is intense as well.
Springdale is the base for Zion, and lodging is reasonably limited and pricey. For summer trips, make sure you book early. Springdale has an assortment of stores and restaurants – you can stock up on items if necessary.
3-4 Hours from Las Vegas
This is simply my own opinion, though one shared by everyone – JTNP is one of the very best National Parks in the system. Desolate, beautiful, still, and sparsely populated, my multiple visits always leave me never wanting to leave. Just short of 4 hours from Las Vegas, JT is about the atmosphere more than anything else.
Twisted trees, almost cartoonish looking, are the namesake and primary draw. Plenty of flat trails allow hikers to snake through the groves of trees, peppering the desert floor. If you’ve come to JTNP, it is well worth the time to see them both during the day and after sunset, illuminated by the moon – it’s simply an otherworldly experience.
Though the joshua trees may be the main draw, it is also worth the extra effort to see the Cholla Cactus Garden. It’s off the main road and requires some extra drive time, but the small cacti are quite a sight.
JTNP does not require more than a full day to really get a great taste of the park – it’s large but hardly overwhelming. The nearby towns of Joshua Tree and 29 Palms have plenty of lodging and restaurants, as well as places to stock up after the deserted desert drive from Vegas.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Perhaps it was because of our timing, seeing it at the tail end of a trip, but Bryce was a bit underwhelming for us. Though an unpopular opinion, we found it pleasant, but less immersive than many of the other National Parks we’ve been too. While there are plenty of hiking opportunities, once we caught a glimpse of the impressive hoodoos from above, we felt we had seen it all. I know it is an unfair assessment, and we’d gladly visit again, but the magnetic pull we feel from other parks doesn’t exist for Bryce. Bryce is about 4 hours from Vegas.
5 Hours plus
Grand Canyon National Park
There is not much to say about the Grand Canyon – words nor pictures can do it justice. Everyone should see it once in their lives. A little over 4 hours from Vegas exists what is probably the most stunning nature sight we have seen. Even naysayers’ (“it’s just a hole in the ground”) jaws will drop once standing on the canyon’s rim.
A few tips about visiting. The lodge fills fast, and there are not many places to stay nearby. Flagstaff, AZ, which is 1.5 hours away, makes for a great home base, though a night drive can be intimidating. Flagstaff also has plenty of nearby sights worth visiting, including Walnut Canyon, Sedona, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, and Meteor Crater Natural Landmark.
Similar to Bryce, Grand Canyon is less immersive than most other parks. This should not dissuade from a visit, but unless you have a desire for a multi-day hike to the canyon floor and back up, hiking options are limited. A one-day visit, stopping at as many lookouts as possible, and staying to see sunset bring out all of the canyon’s colors, is perfect trip to GCNP in our opinion.
Antelope Canyon is probably the most famous slot canyon in the American southwest. Slot canyons are simply small, tight canyons which can generally be traversed by foot. Antelope, due to the way its tight walls let in limited bursts of sunlight, is well-known for the way light plays along is beautifully colored walls. Having a Mars-like vibe, it’s another once in a lifetime experience.
To access Antelope Canyon, you must make reservations for a group with one of the two companies that offer transport to the canyon in Page, AZ, due to the canyon being located on Navajo land. This is definitely worth the time, money, and patience.