If you’re looking for a great road trip route and map just read on, here is our great Las Vegas and surroundings Road Trip article, feel free to watch the Maine film, or scroll down to our suggested Road Trip Map & Route!
Steph and I are not big gamblers. Las Vegas has been a base for exploring for us on previous road trips, as a cheap place to fly into and stay it makes sense. Our last drop in was last summer for a couple of days, we used it to recover from weeks of camping; taking advantage of warm showers and a pool. However, while many people I know love Las Vegas trips, often talking about their visits as if they’d been to the Super Bowl, we’ve never quite understood it. I’m personally a little ambivalent, having experienced some crazy times there in my twenties, and been back over the years noticing more and more the sad, morbid side of the city.
We decided, based on its inexpensive nature and its proximity to so many natural outdoor features, that there must be more to a Las Vegas trip, potentially. So we booked a week in the city of lost wages and set out to see if you could fill seven days with activities that had no relation to gambling, here’s how we fared:
Botanicals & Museums
One of the first outings we made was an attempt to find the polar opposite environment to that which you find on the strip. We drove the quick fifteen minutes to the botanical gardens and museums at Springs Preserve.
This site is proclaimed to be the very reason that Las Vegas exists at all. The natural springs gave rise to little ecosystems, attracted people and eventually led to the town. The springs on this site are now dry, but the museums are tremendous. A treasure trove of information, artifacts and interactive features. In one section we stood in a room while a flash flood came through, genuinely unnerving us.
Outside, a cacti botanical garden gave us a nice walk and was again, very informative.
The biggest surprise was the cafeteria. What I thought would be a place to grab a quick coffee was in fact a wonderful bistro with a delicious menu, a view of the city and even a Jazz band playing!
We spent half the day in the museums alone, and really enjoyed the experience, day one was a success.
Tanya Creek Brewery
While out touring the area we called into one of the few decent breweries around the city. From what I’d read, Las Vegas has a sprinkling of craft beer establishments, but some are chains, one is actually a (fantastic) pizza place and many are on the strip and so tacky and overpriced.
Tanya Creek is the exception.
Situated in a little lot off the main road, you have to be looking hard to find it. Once you do, its worth your while. The rustic interior contains a few wooden tables, bright windows, a fun staff and a significant selection of beer. We stayed a while, for both the fun atmosphere and the drinks. If you’re a craft beer fan then this is the only place in the region you need to stop into. Don’t forget to bag yourself a growler.
One of the biggest reasons for our trip and a main feature on the week’s itinerary, Death Valley National Park finally drops to welcoming temperatures in the winter. National Parks are always a top draw in a trip. I’d traversed the valley almost a decade ago driving from Yellowstone down to San Diego, but being low on time I practically went straight through. Even if I’d had the time to explore, I wouldn’t have made it far from the car as it was August, and 120F / 48C outside. The one occasion I stepped out of my vehicle sweat began seeping from my pores and running down my skin in a matter of just a few uncomfortable seconds.
Death Valley holds the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth, thankfully the weather this week was a gentle 65F/18C, nice hiking weather. It also contains the lowest point of the nation, at 282ft below sea level, found on the salt plains. Such geography must mean that if the conditions are right, there’s good hiking to be had.
We set off from the city at around 6am, it will take you about two hours to drive from the strip to the park and then not much further to the visitors centre to get oriented. The park has three or four main regions to explore and we set off early to try to see as many as possible.
We began by driving about forty minutes north on Scotty’s Castle Road up to Fall Canyon. If you drive the ten minutes of off-road gravel track up to the canyon entrance, there’s a hiking trail which, after a few minutes of rolling dunes, takes you into a canyon and goes on for miles. In all honesty, this was the least interesting activity of our day, the canyon is big of course, but the hike is mostly on sliding gravel, unchanging in its appearance and generally unsatisfying. The one interesting feature was the total lack of sound. When we stopped to eat, we spent a while just sat, straining to hear something and failing. The erie sensation, emphasized by the total lack of other hikers, felt similar to being underground in a mine with all the lights out, a mix of mild panic and fascination.
After we returned, we headed to the small village of Stovepipe Wells to get dinner and recharge. It’s not much, but the gift store is extensive and the saloon does great food at fair prices. We refueled and headed to the nearby sand dunes.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are one of the park’s most unusual features. Sat in the middle of the valley, rise a few square miles of dunes that seem to have been dropped in by aliens. The other worldly aspect of the region hasn’t been lost on movie producers, who’ve used it in tons of hollywood blockbusters over the years, perhaps most prominently in Star Wars.
From here we headed south to the touristy but must see “Badwater Basin.” This is one of the few places that are so universally recognizable to people, whether they’ve been or not. Its the lowest point in the USA, its hot, and its very, very white. The most stunning aspect to me is its vast expansiveness. The ground sparkles for miles like crystal and once again, you begin to feel like you’ve left plant earth.
Our last stop was Zabriskie Point, which we would pass naturally as we drove out of the park. I’d wanted to see it at sunrise but we arrived too late, now, with a few minutes till dark we made a push to fit it in. We should’ve spent hours here.
The rock and sediment formations here are mind boggling in their size and construction. I’ve hiked all over the states and seldom seen anything like it. You can go off the main viewing areas and hike along the rocks and dunes for miles, but with just minutes of light left, we spent them taking in the epic scene.
Shows (Baz & Cirque)
We said before we flew in that we didn’t want to ignore the strip altogether, we just wanted to see if you could use it without gambling a penny. The casino’s have a seemingly endless repertoire of shows on offer. Using Tix4Tonight, we scoped some great deals. Buying online makes things easy, but if you go to a stand (there are multiple along the strip) then it’s even cheaper.
Our first was the music mash up ‘Baz’, a show based around a number of Baz Luhrmann films including Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, family friendly and some of the lead vocalists were tremendous.
We booked a Cirque Du Soleil called Zumanity, an adult version of their usual antics. You can’t go wrong with Cirque. This is the third show we’ve seen, and it didn’t disappoint, all the acrobatics and wow factors were on show, as were a few nipples!
Coffee & Food
Bimbling around has always been a love of ours. For those who aren’t aware of the term, it is “to walk or travel at a leisurely pace.” We did so up and down the strip, taking it in, judging and quipping at the various extreme visuals, then found our way to a great coffee experience. Inside the Wynn is a wonderful courtyard, backing onto a rainforest-like setting, complete with trees and stunning waterfall. I don’t think I could suggest a nicer place to relax on a walk.
Just a block off the strip is a craft beer and food pub called Gordon Biersch, found on Paradise Rd, near the junction with Flamingo Rd. It’s another place well worth visiting, with none of the tac found in the tourist zones, great beer selections and lovely food, for a nontouristy price.
In a wonderful area called Summerlin, where the locals go shopping, eat and bimble, you can find the fun and delicious ‘School House’. It’s another delicious little eatery, with a vast beer selection and superb food. See our food specific articles coming soon for more.
Fremont Experience / Container Park
Wow. That’s all I can say. We’d never been to this old part of Vegas before, the original Downtown, and we were excited to see why so many people are saying it’s beginning to rival the main strip again.
Near the main street is a little Las Vegas gem called the ‘Container Park’. Its sounds crazy, but here is a mini shopping area, made up of about 20 stores, all converted from shipping containers! Built up into three levels, it includes some boutiques, kids stores and a couple of epic little bars. We stopped for wine and beer at Bin702, ‘a classy wine bar with dive bar staff’. The place is just amazing, the way they have used the space is incredible, and what a funky experience!
A little buzzed, we walked the Fremont Experience and we were not prepared for it! The barrel vault canopy, a 90 ft high rooftop made of 12 million LED’s, runs for four blocks, or approximately 1,500 ft. Tourists zipline from one end to the other (see our film) and everywhere you look, music, nude dancers and flashing lights blow your mind.
We decided to do something we never do, and eat at an all out, obesity promoting diner, aptly named the ‘Heart Attack Grill’. We donned hospital gowns, and stuffed our faces with burgers while being threatened with a potential public spanking if we didn’t finish it all! It topped off a pretty surreal and fun afternoon.
Red Rock Canyon
I’ve left it to last, but this state park, about half an hour from the city was so good… we went twice.
The photos here will give you the best idea of why we loved it, but let’s give you the best two activities to hit up if you make a visit.
The main feature on the east side of the park is Calico Hills, which is essentially a crazy rock formation, which looks like lava bubbled up from the ground the night before, on a scale that can’t easily be imagined. The hiking trails here allow you to go off trail and scramble as much as you desire.
Most of the hiking trails that follow on this end of the park lead to various viewpoints of this region. Now, head to the west side, and you find Pine Creek. Honestly, it is so hard to describe how bizarre and striking this area is, not just in the context of the state park, but the whole state. In a few minutes you walk from stone and sand, into a desert oasis. Suddenly the monotony of ever present cacti gets enveloped by tall lush trees, shrubs and greenery which baffles belief. As you hike, you leave the road and enter a crazy canyon setting, which after an hour of scrambling over ever-growing rocks, terminates in a hair-raising scramble up to a still pool sat in an echoing chamber. It’s by far the coolest hike we found all week and is beautiful at every phase. If you are in Vegas, for any reason, visit Red Rocks Canyon. Even if you just drive the loop road you’ll be rewarded.
So did we manage it? Is it possible to go to sin city and have a great time without going where the masses go? Hell yes. We came back from Las Vegas feeling rejuvenated, refreshed and rewarded. We had a few days of hiking the (more diverse than you realize) desert hills, a nice bit of pool time, and got some cultural stops in. We learned a lot in the museums, and soaked up the botanical gardens, drank good beer and found nice restaurants.
Don’t throw away all your hard earned pennies, get out of the strip, there’s a lot to find and it’s closer than you might think. The region has some spectacular landscapes, make sure you check them out while you’re so close.
Rich & Steph