Much has been made of the fact that the city of Las Vegas is a wacky alternate universe plonked down in the middle of some of the most unforgiving desert terrain in the world. This is true, and to make the most of this strange phenomenon, make Las Vegas your glamorous base for an incredible hiking vacation. There are dozens of incredible hikes around the many conservation areas, state parks, moonscapes, and mesas that surround the city. Throw in unparalleled views, petroglyphs, thermal pools, and even a mountain that can make you wonder if you’ve traded the Mojave for the Swiss Alps, and you’ll be wondering which is the real alternate universe. Here are some of the best hikes within short drives of the Las Vegas Strip.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Nearly 200,000 acres and 30 miles of incredible hiking trails rock climbing up the stunning faces of red Aztec sandstone cliffs make Nevada’s first National Conservation Area—only 17 miles west of the Strip—hugely popular with Vegas visitors. Get your bearings at the Visitor Center just inside the entrance, pick up a trail map, and then drive the 13-mile, one-way scenic loop from which all the hikes start (there’s only one road, so you can’t get lost).
One easy hike that’s great for kids is Lost Creek, toward the back of the loop, and takes you through cultural sites that include pictographs, petroglyphs, and an ancient agave roasting pit. If you’re up for a longer hike, take the two-mile trek to Keystone Thrust, a jagged series of limestone rock layers formed by a geologic fault an estimated 65 million years ago, and is one of the most important geological features of Red Rock.
Bonus: Red Rock Canyon works with the Las Vegas Astronomical Society on “Astronomy in the Park” group events, and “Astronomy Hikes” with a naturalist from the Red Rock Canyon Interpretive association throughout the year. Calendars are released up to two months in advance; call to sign up for future tours.
Valley of Fire State Park
It takes just over an hour from the Strip to reach Valley of Fire. Only 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas via I-15, its 40,000 acres of blazing red and Technicolor sandstone formations are as wild as Nature gets, and the park is also filled with ancient petrified trees and 3,000-year-old petroglyphs made by the prehistoric Basket Maker people and the Anasazi. It’s open year-round, but the best time to hike it is between October and April (daily summer highs can reach 120 Fahrenheit).
Fall is a perfect time to hike to the psychedelic Fire Wave, a moderately easy but exposed trail that follows small stone piles along slickrock and might make you wonder if you are on Mars. You’ll discover wild formations like Elephant Rock, an arch formation that resembles an elephant, and The Beehives, sandstone formations in the shape of giant hives. Rangers do regular, free, themed guided hikes (you’ll want to check the website for upcoming tours or call the visitor center).
Bonus: Ranger-led programs include walks for kids to identify nocturnal wildlife tracks and petrified log hikes. Planned events appear on the Valley of Fire website one month in advance.
Most Vegas visitors will know Boulder City, 45 minutes south of the Strip, for its major human-made attraction—the Hoover Dam. But extend your visit past the dam and find the beautiful nature, including a lot of geothermal activity, that surrounds it.
One of the most famous trails in this region is the Historic Railroad trail, a railroad tunnel walk that takes you through five caverns carved for the railway used to carry equipment for the construction of the Hoover Dam. Now designated a National Recreation Trail, it follows the southern edge of Lake Mead, and from here, you can see panoramic views of the lake, Boulder Basin, and the famous mountain plateau of Fortification Hill.
Adventurous and expert hikers will want to make their way to Gold Strike Hot Springs (take 93 South through Boulder City and make the first right at Exit 2), which starts just outside Boulder City, descends 600 feet into Gold Strike Canyon, and requires eight 20-foot rope climbs before you reach the hot waterfalls and heated grottos.
Seeing Hoover Dam is crucial to understanding this moment in American history when human imagination and engineering reached new heights. The Hoover Dam is one of the most recognizable and iconic humanmade structures in the world. This 726-foot-high concrete arch-gravity dam was completed in 1935 and planned to provide hydroelectric power in Nevada, Arizona, and California. Most tours follow a guide through the interior and exterior of the highest concrete dam in the western hemisphere, which stands a daunting 700-plus feet above the Colorado River. Or if you’d like to hike down to see it from below, sign up for the seven-hour tour run by Evolution Expeditions, which picks you up at your hotel and starts with a descent down the original road that was excavated from the canyon walls to create the dam. You’ll then kayak from the base of the Hoover Dam down the Colorado River and through the Black Canyon, stopping inside a “sauna cave” in a geothermal hot spring pool, exploring Emerald Cave, and then through the Colorado River Valley.
Jean Dry Lake Bed
More for those who like a gentle stroll than a serious hike, you can walk to a fabulous work of art just off the highway. Artist Ugo Rondinone’s large-scale public work “Seven Magic Mountains” appears like seven Day-Glo ice cream cones, 10 miles south of the Strip in the Jean Dry Lake Bed. The massive, 30-foot-high neon-painted limestone totems cut an incredible picture against the desert’s desolation. The piece, which took several years to plan in this area, will sit in the desert only through the end of 2021, after which the desert will be returned to its previous condition.
The journey up Mount Charleston is fun all the time, but it’s at its most dramatic in the summer. Drive just 35 miles northwest of Las Vegas to an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet, passing through several distinct climate zones and past the cacti into juniper, aspen, and Ponderosa pines. If you love a little soft adventure, check out Mary Jane Falls, a hike featuring a waterfall and cave that only takes an hour. Big Falls, meanwhile, has a dramatic,100-foot waterfall. After your adventure, hang out on the deck at Mount Charleston Lodge (at 7,700 feet) for a hot chocolate or a cocktail.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
Ash Meadows, only 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas—with its 23,000 acres of blue-green streams and pools—is a strange and beautiful desert oasis better suited to those who love a stroll through nature than those who are dying for a strenuous hike. It’s famous for its rare and tiny pupfish—only one of 24 resident creatures that are not found anywhere else in the world. You might see birds like the desert Phainopeplam. The Crystal Springs Boardwalk hike holds some of the best sights. Just follow the main trail, an elevated boardwalk that passes by uniquely Caribbean-blue pools.
If you're a devoted hiker and have even half a day, you'll love Frenchman Mountain, the highest peak in the range along the eastern border of the Las Vegas Valley. You can climb two peaks here: a northern false summit (3,942 feet) and a southern true summit (4,052 feet) separated by a saddle. It takes only 20 minutes to get here from the Strip. Once you've reached the peak, you'll get some excellent views of the city to the west, and the Lake Mead region to your east. Just avoid it during the height of the summer.
Near the Hoover Dam and the Black Mountains in Lake Mead, you’ll find an ancient mesa formed of dark basalt from an extinct volcano. It’s a moderately strenuous, four-mile round-trip hike that takes you through the Mojave Desert through creosote bush, snakeweed, white bursage, and brittlebush, up a band of basalt, and to the top of a dramatic mesa. You’ll see incredible views of the western half of Lake Mead, the Muddy Mountains, the Spring Mountains, and the Virgin Mountains to the Northwest.
Sloan Canyon Conservation Area
For those who love petroglyphs, Sloan Canyon, which is just 20 minutes south of the Las Vegas Strip, is a goldmine. There are roughly 300 distinct rock art panels here, and BLM archaeologists have cataloged up to 1,700 different design styles in this area alone. You’ll start at Trail 100 on a wash that turns into a canyon and scramble up some smooth slabs to get to the main petroglyph gallery. The Petroglyph Canyon Area is part of a larger Sloan Volcanic area formed of four 13-million-year-old extinct volcanos, so you’ll see volcanic domes among the hike’s spectacular sights. Come in the spring months, and you’ll see lots of wildflowers in bloom, including white desert primrose, Mojave yucca, desert trumpet, and many more.