Sure, you’re here to see the bright lights, fantastic shows, eat some incredible meals, lounge by the pool, people watch and maybe try your luck on the tables. But there are three easy day trips from Vegas that you should really add to your itinerary, when you’re ready to explore beyond The Strip.
Flying into Harry Reid International Airport is the obvious choice for any trip to Vegas. However, easy access to Interstates 15 and 40, which connect Sin City with Los Angeles, Flagstaff, Phoenix, and Zion National Park, means there are plenty of options if you are driving cross country or embarking on a national park road trip through the Southwest.
The Harry Reid International Airport (LAS), formerly named the McCarran International Airport, is spitting distance from the Strip – well, let’s call it four miles – making this one of the easiest airport commutes you might ever have. The airport serves 140 destinations worldwide and flights are often reasonably priced. There are plenty of car rental options at the airport, however, lines can be long. Some travelers prefer to take a taxi straight to their hotel and then rent a car.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is the second-busiest airport in the United States, serving over 150 destinations worldwide. Car rental should be booked ahead; public transportation in LA leaves much to be desired. Roughly 290 miles southwest of Las Vegas, Los Angeles is not an ideal launch pad, but it’s the closest big city, and you can tie in side trips to Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks. The drive can take as little as 4.5 hours, though rush-hour gridlock in LA can make it significantly longer.
Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) is a bit farther than LA, but not by much. This is another busy airport, with thousands of flights arriving and departing daily. Expect the drive to take from 4.5 to 5 hours.
All visitors to Grand Canyon West must pay the Legacy Fee charged by the Hualapai Nation, which includes the shuttle bus to various viewpoints. Walking on the Glass SkyWalk is an additional cost over the Legacy Fee.
Entrance fees apply to enter the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, unless you have a national parks pass, in which case it’s free.
Visitors to the Hoover Dam are charged admission fees for tours of the visitor center, the power plant and dam run by the Bureau of Reclamation.
Casino attractions, like the Strat Tower, generally charge a fee, though some of them, such as the Bellagio Fountains and the Mirage Volcano, are free.
With 150,000 hotel rooms spread out over 350 hotels – 14 of which are on the “world’s biggest” list – your primary challenge here will be deciding where to stay. The casinos on the Strip are popular with first-timers, if only for the over-the-top experience and convenience of it all. Watch for seasonal discounted prices but remember to count on having to pay a resort fee, in addition to the hotel room. Depending on what time of year you’re in town, and whether or not any major conferences are taking place, living like a high roller might only cost you $150. Or, it might be closer to $700. Timing is everything.
If the casinos don’t appeal, private villas, boutique hotels, furnished apartments, and vacation homes are all worth looking into. One thing to be aware of is that many hotels still have a few designated smoking floors, so be sure to indicate that you want a smoke-free room when booking – unless, of course, you’re a smoker.
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Las Vegas has been designed to be completely divorced from reality (it’s true – there are neither windows nor clocks in the casinos), but the outside world still has its seasons, and in southern Nevada the temperatures can be extreme. The best time of year is spring (April and May) and fall (October and November), when outdoor temperatures are generally pleasant.
Winter sees the most visitors, particularly over the holidays and for New Year’s Eve. Summer is unquestionably the low season (June to September), as daytime temps regularly soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and it’s too hot to even go to the pool, let alone walk the Strip. One good thing to remember is that regardless of the season, it’s best to avoid weekends if possible.
Most visitors will want to spend at least two days and two nights here. On day one, drive to the Hoover Dam, aiming to arrive around 9am. After a tour of the dam, continue on to Grand Canyon West, with a possible stop in Arizona’s Joshua Tree Forest along the way. After oohing and aahing as you step out over the void on the SkyWalk, head back to Vegas, with a final stop along the way in the Ethel M Chocolate Factory. Alternatively, you can choose to break this up into two days, which will leave you more time at each destination.
On day two, head west out of town on Blue Diamond Road, stopping first at Spring Mountain Ranch, the one-time home of Howard Hughes, followed by a drive along the 13-mile Red Rock Canyon scenic loop, where hiking possibilities await. On the way back, don’t miss the Premium Outlet Mall, if you feel like mixing some retail into your Vegas experience.
Back in the city, the opportunities for distraction are plentiful, from the Fremont Street Experience and the Mob Museum downtown to the excesses of the Strip, where a smorgasbord of good food and fun await.
Las Vegas averages 40 million visitors per year, and you should expect it to be busy no matter what time of year you’re there. That said, if you want to avoid the worst of the crowds, there are a few tips to consider.
The busiest times of year are around New Years, and in spring and fall when the weather is nicest. Where possible, avoid weekends, especially holiday weekends, and be sure to check the calendar for major conferences, trade shows, major sporting events (not necessarily held in Vegas), and festivals, and try to schedule your trip to avoid these as well.
Summer is the off-season, and a good time to score incredible hotel deals. However, remember that the outdoor temps generally soar above 100 degrees, so your options for outdoor exploration will be limited.
And you’ll want to try to visit sights like Hoover Dam and Red Rock Canyon outside of peak hours (10am to 2pm) to avoid peak visitation and traffic congestion.
Seven miles of pyramids, dancing fountains, Venetian canals, Eiffel Towers and more, the Strip pulls out all the stops when it comes to vying for your attention. Most casinos have something to offer besides gambling and food, whether it be amusement rides, an aquarium, a recreated far-off city, or some other have-to-see-it-to-believe-it spectacle – not to mention the first-class people watching, of course. Distances can be deceiving on the Strip – in total, it’s roughly 4.5 miles from one end to the other, which is much too far to walk. The monorail stops at a number of key casinos, and is within walking distance of many others.
North of the Strip is downtown – where it all began, and where a host of old school casinos, like the Golden Nugget, still stand. In addition to their vintage allure, these casinos also offer lower table minimums, meaning you can get in on the action for less cash. The top attraction here is the Fremont Street experience, a five-block-long outdoor pedestrian mall, topped with ziplines and an overhead light and sound show, which draws in the crowds each and every evening. Nearby attractions include the Mob Museum, the Neon Museum, and the Downtown Container Park, an outdoor mall created entirely from shipping containers.
This iconic Depression-era feat of engineering requires half a day to fully appreciate. Once you pass through the security checkpoint, park in the lot and walk atop the 726-foot wall (660 feet thick at the base) to fully appreciate the structure’s massive size. Different tours introduce the power plant, the dam, and visitor center, and booking online is recommended. The Bypass Bridge spanning the Colorado River south of the dam is another engineering highlight not to be missed. While you’ll be driving across it if you continue on to the Grand Canyon West, we highly recommend checking out the pedestrian section for awesome views of the dam and the river canyon below. Behind the dam is Lake Mead, officially the largest reservoir in the United States, but which today holds only 25% of its full capacity due to the extended drought affecting the American Southwest in addition to the increasing population in the region.
Beloved by locals, tourists, desert tortoises, and, most of all, rock climbers, Red Rock Canyon is the natural antidote to Vegas’s neon lights. A thirteen-mile scenic drive wends its way beneath multi-hued sandstone walls and ancient petroglyphs, with plenty of scenic pullouts and hiking trails to keep you active. On the way here, you’ll pass the historic Springs Preserve, a collection of botanical gardens, interactive museum exhibits, and walking trails, and the Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, the one-time home to the rich and famous.
While it’s not the complete Grand Canyon experience, considering it’s only two hours and change each way from Sin City (compared with nearly 10 hours return to Grand Canyon South Rim), this is certainly a day trip worth considering. The big draw is the SkyWalk (a 75-foot glass platform that’s four thousand feet above the canyon floor), though you’ll want to check out other sights like Guano Point for more stunning panoramas. If you’ve just won it big at the blackjack tables, thrilling add-ons like helicopter tours and whitewater rafting on the Colorado will add to the experience. Grand Canyon West is run by the Hualapai Nation, and you’ll need to purchase an admission ticket that includes the shuttle to various viewpoints, interpretive displays and village, as well as the art gallery. The SkyWalk is an additional, optional extra.
So much more than showgirls and Elvis impersonators, no trip to Vegas is complete without entertainment of one form or another. The most famous and longest-running acts belong to the big names like Cirque du Soleil, David Copperfield, Penn and Teller, the Blue Man group, while headliners from Sting and Katy Perry to John Legend and America’s Got Talent! all drop in for extended concerts.
Unique to the Mojave Desert, these surreal, spiky yucca “trees” are a sight to behold. And if you’re intrigued by their photogenic nature, you’ll definitely want to stop at the Arizona Joshua Tree Forest, roughly sixteen miles west of the Grand Canyon West, which is home to the largest collection of Joshua trees in the world. Spanish explorers called them izote de desierto (desert dagger); the name Joshua tree didn’t come till later, when Mormon settlers were reminded of Biblical prophet reaching up his hands to God. One of the earliest documented encounters with Joshua trees was through the giant ground sloths of the ice age (over 13,000 years ago), who were crucial in helping propagate their seeds.
One of the most popular hikes in Red Rock Canyon, Calico Tanks starts from the Sandstone Quarry trailhead, one of the first stops on the scenic loop. The quarry once shipped off massive sandstone blocks to San Francisco for building facades, but never turned a profit. After passing a few abandoned blocks along the trail, and an agave roasting pit once used by the Paiute, you’ll get to clamber over some cool sandstone formations before eventually reaching a secret water pocket – the “tank” at the trail’s end. Take a moment to enjoy the view back to Vegas before returning the way you came. In total, the hike is 2.3 miles round-trip, with an elevation gain of 400 feet.
It’s hard to believe that there is a trail called “Ice Box” in the middle of the desert. Exploring a box canyon (that is, a canyon with no exit), it should come as no surprise that the ice box rarely sees the sun, and air flowing down into the canyon helps keep it cool – relatively speaking – year round. Spring wildflowers lining the approach trail make this a particularly popular choice in April. Some scrambling is required after you enter the canyon, though you can turn around at any point. The total distance is 2.6 miles round-trip, with an elevation gain of about 500 feet.
This short 0.8-mile walk follows a self-guided interpretative trail through the Mojave Desert, with a seasonal waterfall (December to April) and several petroglyphs along the way. To get the most out of the experience, pick up a workbook from the visitors center for the kids – or yourself! – to fill out. The cliffs above the trail are a good place to spot desert bighorn sheep. The trail begins at the Lost Creek Trailhead.
The Keystone Thrust is Red Rock Canyon’s most important geological formation, and evidence of the collisions that took place some 65 million years ago between the Pacific and North American continental plates. When continental plates collide, one thing that might happen is that one side slips beneath the other. This hike takes visitors through the fault area, where you’ll be able to spot the older – and deeper – limestone layers of one plate on top of the younger sandstone formations. Further west, you can see the more dramatic result of the collision between these two plates: the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This hike is 2.2 miles round-trip, with 380 feet of elevation gain.
For a more challenging and less crowded excursion, consider the Las Vegas Overlook Trail. This 6.5-mile hike climbs up a heady 1,300 feet of elevation gain – do not attempt this trail on a hot day. When conditions are right, however, an awesome reward awaits: views of Las Vegas, plunked down in all its weirdness in the middle of the desert.
The Overlook Trail begins at the Fossil Canyon trailhead, and is actually outside of the Red Rock Canyon park boundaries, on the east side of the Blue Diamond Road. Because conditions can be challenging – it’s not a suggested activity on the tour, but if conditions are cool and friendly and you enjoy that level of effort, it’s is an activity worth considering.
Grand Canyon West doesn’t offer a ton of hiking choices, but the popular Highpoint Hike, a one-mile loop to Guano Point, is worth it for the awesome panoramas and photo opportunities of the canyon. If you’re wondering about the name, it comes from an old mining operation located in the Bat Cave (sorry Batman fans – it’s not that Bat Cave) about 2,500 feet below the rim. In 1957, it was estimated that cave held 100,000 tons of bat guano, which was once a popular source of agricultural fertilizer, and the US Guano Corporation built an elaborate 7,500-foot tramway to extract the resource. However, by 1960 the company had already gone bankrupt due to having wildly overestimated the amount of guano in the cave.
Las Vegas may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think family vacation, but there’s enough here to keep kids’ curiosity piqued and shrieking with joy.
There’s a little bit of everything at the Springs Preserve, from playgrounds and mini train rides to air-conditioned museum galleries, movie theaters, and live animal exhibits. Curious about the wetland oasis that gave Las Vegas its name? Always wanted to see a desert tortoise or Gila monster on the move? Brave enough to stare down a desert flash flood? Ready to step back into the boomtown days of the miners? There’s plenty of engaging and educational activities here, making this a top pick for kids and parents alike.
Pick up a junior park ranger activity book, keep an eye out for wild burros, visit the desert tortoises near the visitor center, and have fun clambering over the sandstone rock formations at this popular destination just outside the city.
Three floors of play-filled exhibits, ranging from science to art and the environment to engineering, the Discovery Museum is a can’t miss day for young kids up through the age of twelve.
Who doesn’t like chocolate? This free self-guided tour of the chocolate factory is a must-see for families. Stand in awe of giant vats holding 30,000 gallons of liquid chocolate, and watch as conveyer belts transport an array of different creations to the next stop in the production line. Of course, no visit would be complete without taste-testing the finished products and a visit to the gift shop. Opened by Forrest Mars Sr. (of the Mars candy empire) as a retirement project, his other major passion, gardening, is also on view in the four-acre cactus garden.
Time-travel back to the days of pinball wizardry at this unique spot, which claims to be the world’s largest collection of pinball machines. All of the games are available to play (25¢ each), allowing visitors the chance to test their reflexes against tables and designs that date all the way back to 1957.
Plenty of evening shows are family friendly, from the Renaissance themed Tournament of Kings at Excalibur (Cornish hen included) to hip-hop phenoms Jabbawockeez and gravity-defying acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère performance. Or perhaps pet comedy or a magic is more up your alley? With a little bit of research, you’ll be sure to find a show that is.
The ultimate low-budget experience is simply watching people stroll the Strip: Las Vegas offers an intriguing look at folks from all walks of life – and indeed, from all over the world – doing things they wouldn’t be caught dead doing at home. For the more cynically minded folks out there, it’s hard not to feel that you’re observing a modern-day repeat of the decline of the Roman Empire. But, hey, if it’s the end of an era, why not have some fun? Combine it with a free show – the Bellagio fountains and conservatory, the Mirage volcano, the fire-spewing praying mantis at the Container Park, a midday circus show at Circus Circus, take a selfie at St Mark’s Square or the Eiffel Tower… to quote Maximus’s most famous line: Are you not entertained?
Although first impressions of Nevada might be that it’s not only an ecological desert, but a cultural one as well, the museum pickings are actually pretty good. Downtown Las Vegas is home to the Neon Museum, which is dedicated to the city’s most iconic art form: the neon sign. The Neon Boneyard is particularly impressive come sunset. Down the street is the Mob Museum, which is housed in the neoclassical city Post Office and Courthouse (opened 1933). This was where Nevada’s Kefauver Hearings took place in 1950, amid a federal investigation into organized crime. Another stop that might send a chill down your spine is the National Atomic Testing Museum. Back in the day, the Nevada Test Site was a mere 65 miles from Sin City – it’s said tourists could see and feel the blasts from many of the 928 nuclear tests conducted here.
You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy getting a thrill – and Las Vegas has plenty of them. If you’re squeamish about having the floor drop out from beneath you, start with the High-Roller Observation Wheel, which, at 550 feet tall, is the world’s second highest. If you’re looking for a lot more excitement, the STRAT has you covered. The SkyJump, Big Shot, X-Scream and Insanity are all extreme experiences over 800 hundred feet above the ground. We get nervous just reading the descriptions. Somewhere in between are the casino roller coasters (like the Big Apple) and ziplines, such as the one that connects the two towers of the Rio Hotel.
With some 100,000 weddings per year, the title “marriage capital of the world” is an apt one. But even if you’re already hitched, you can still get in on the fun by renewing your vows at an iconic locale like the Little Neon Chapel, or even splurging for a drive-through wedding – the ultimate nuptial convenience! Many venues arrange themed packages, including Elvis, Mob, and Ghost Town ceremonies.
Whether its penny slots or high-stakes poker, you can be sure to find a gambling experience that suits your budget. Once evening comes, it can feel like one big party, with free drinks and cries of joy or despair erupting from craps tables across the city, but remember the golden rule – you might get lucky here or there, but eventually, the house always wins.
Layers: Indoor and outdoor temperatures can vary considerably. Having a light sweater is a good idea if full-blast air conditioning makes you shiver. When touring the sights outside the city, remember that the weather in the desert can be extreme (windy, dry, and hotter or colder than expected) so, again, dressing in layers is the key to staying comfortable.
Fancy Duds: During the day, Vegas is uber casual – perhaps too casual. But once the sun sets, it’s time to dress up, regardless of whether you’re going to a show, a fancy dinner, or hitting the blackjack tables.
Footwear: Surprisingly, visiting Las Vegas can involve a lot of walking. Distances can be deceptive, and even parking garages can be a bit of a hike from the main attractions. So save the high heels and dress shoes for dinner, and plan on wearing your most comfortable walking shoes during the day. If you’re at all outdoorsy, a good pair of trail runners or lightweight hiking boots are an excellent choice for exploring the desert landscapes of Red Rock Canyon and Grand Canyon West.
Swimwear: If your hotel has a pool, don’t forget to bring a swimsuit and sandals.
Sun Protection: This essential includes a broad-brimmed hat, sunblock, and sunglasses.
Water Bottles: Always bring water. And make sure you drink it! No matter what time of year you visit, dehydration is always a risk – even if you’re not doing much physical activity. In summer, it’s recommended that you drink a gallon a day.
Daypack: A comfortable pack makes all the difference. In addition to carrying an extra layer, water, and headlamp, it’s a good idea to throw a few snacks in there as well.
Hiking Poles: Light-weight hiking poles are like having a third leg. They help maintain balance and can get you into a rhythm while walking.
Headlamp: You never know when a hike is going to take longer than planned – we always throw a lightweight headlamp in our daypack just in case.
Ear Plugs: Vegas is all about the 24-7 lifestyle. If you want to ensure a good night’s sleep, a pair of earplugs can come in handy.
Portable Phone Charger and Cable: If you’re taking pictures with your phone, running out of batteries may result in missed opportunities.
Plastic Bag: We always carry a plastic bag when we hike, so we can do our part and help keep the trails and waterways clean. If you see some trash along the way, pick it up, drop it in the bag. When you get back to the trailhead, simply drop your bag in the recycling or trash bin and voila! You’ve helped keep the parks beautiful for everyone who visits.