Wandering the West
It’s not my kind of place, but it seems like I wind up in Las Vegas once or twice a year for work, a family visit, or a stopover on the way to SoCal. With no inherited gene for gambling and even less interest in over-the-top Vegas shows, it’s not my idea of a getaway. I do like going to the Strip to people watch and ogle at the weird architecture, but after about two hours I’m into sensory overload and need someplace quiet, scenic and above all, natural.
It turns out there are a few good options. I was at the snow-sports trade show there a while ago and was directed out Charleston Boulevard for an event at Red Rock Canyon. Within a half hour of the strip there’s a 197,000-acre natural area set aside as the Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, with rock formations surrounded by open Mojave Desert lands. There’s a 13-mile scenic drive, good road biking, and plenty of desert to get out and walk in. It’s a great contrast to the chaos of the strip. Nearby you can stop at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, an old working ranch and luxury getaway for Hollywood celebs from the Rat Pack and earlier eras. Its last private owner was Howard Hughes before he went totally nuts and locked himself into the top floor of the Desert Inn.
For a similar outdoors experience, head northeast on I-15 like you’re St. George bound, exit 55 miles later at Exit 75 and you’ll be at Valley of Fire State Park. Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, it’s full of red-rock formations, Mojave scenery and some Anasazi petroglyphs thrown in for good measure. Valley of Fire’s don’t-miss attraction is the 11-mile round trip from the visitor’s center to the White Domes sand dunes frozen into strange shapes 150 million years ago.
For something more familiar, head north from the Strip. Thirty-five miles later you’ll be back in stunning alpine scenery and think you’re days removed from Vegas. This side trip takes you to 12,000-foot Mount Charleston in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. You drive through a Joshua tree forest and start reading signs warning of snow tires and sketchy driving conditions. It doesn’t seem possible, but minutes later you’re smelling ponderosa pines and in a cool green forest of real trees, not those Joshuas down below. There’s even a ski resort up there, owned by Park City’s POWDR Corporation. For now, Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort is an old throwback mom-and-pop kind of place with two chairs set amid alpine grandeur that seems out of place just up the road from the Bellagio and the Stratosphere Tower. POWDR has filed a master development plan aimed at upgrading the place to modern standards and expanding it. In milder weather there are 180 campsites and 150 picnic sites on Mt. Charleston and you can’t get a less Vegas like experience than that.
The classic get-out-of-town Vegas side trip is to nearby Hoover Dam. Regardless of how you feel about dams plugging up free-flowing rivers, Hoover Dam is a stunning thing to see. At 726 feet high and 600 feet thick at its base, it is a huge plug stopping the Colorado River in Black Canyon. The dam was championed by Herbert Hoover and built in the Depression when thousands poured into this remote place and went to work. Art Deco sculptures decorate the dam works and there’s a visitor’s center with films and displays explaining just how the thing got built. You can also take tours of the dam, but plan ahead for that, as visitor numbers are limited. This is not the place to go to get away from the craziness of Vegas as 7 million day trippers come from there every year.
Of course, when you plug up a river like the Colorado, you get a pretty big reservoir, and Lake Mead is the biggest manmade lake on earth. It, too, makes a good escape from the Strip and you can get to its shoreline thirty miles to the east.
I suppose nobody on earth goes to Las Vegas for an outdoor experience, but there are enough quick getaways where you can ease the headache of a losing streak or a hangover.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Park City to Las Vegas: 426 miles
Insider tip: Winter temps are all over the map from daytime highs around freezing to 75 degrees on a good day.
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Park City Mountain Resort owner Vail Resorts in early June submitted a letter to the Park City Planning Commission in support of a Provo developer’s blueprints for a major project at the resort.