Written by Jim Bamboulis
The most I’ve ever won at a casino was $750. I was the Blue Heron Casino about an hour outside of Toronto. I dropped a couple of quarters into a random slot machine and realizing that I had just won the exact amount of my rent – which was due later that week – I hopped into my car and made a beeline for the exit. I didn’t let it ride and I wasn’t about to bet on beginners’ luck. Sure, the thrill of winning my rent was great but that’s where it ended. Gambling didn’t and it still doesn’t do it for me.
This is where I make that graceful segue into Vegas. On my first visit, I was mesmerized. The desert, the lights, the action, I was in high blood pressure heaven. On my first day, I realized two things: walking along the strip, the casinos seem close but are much further apart than you think and two, spending a day and night in Vegas was enough. To me, Vegas became a hub, home base to road-trip adventures outside of the city. Grand Canyon, Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead, and Hoover Dam get all the press and yes, they are huge must-sees for the first time visitor to southern Nevada.
But if you’re a repeat visitor to these parts and looking for more, there are other fantastic experiences to be had. These five road trips, adventures, may just be what you need to get your free spirit pumping hard in the desert air.
Spring Mountain Ranch State Park
Quite literally, Spring Mountain Ranch is 5 minutes from the often visited Red Rock Canyon. For some reason, people hear about Red Rock, go there and figure there’s nothing else further along the road. Don’t get me wrong, Red Rock is stunning. But, Spring Mountain Ranch is a state park loaded with beauty and incredible experiences without the massive crowds. Until now.
This place has a long, rich history. Archeological finds reveal that the area has been inhabited for at least 10,000 years. Springs in the mountains provided water for the early Native Americans and eventually white settlers. A working ranch, as well as a luxury retreat for several well-known owners including German actress Vera Krupp and Howard Hughes, visitors these days, can explore some of the oldest buildings in the state, including the 1860s blacksmith shop and Sandstone Cabin.
Hiking trails give you an incredible workout and views that are worth the sweat and effort. Make it a day trip and enjoy a picnic in the shade with tables and grills. Hours vary depending on the season. Stay on the trails and respect the surroundings.
Historic Railroad Hiking Trail
If you hike this trail, try doing it during cooler days. If you happen to do it during the summer, make sure you bring loads of water, shade, stamina, and patience. Heat and dehydration are no joke here. They’re serious talking points when considering hiking the Historic Railroad Trail so make sure you’re as prepared as possible.
Accessible from the Lake Mead Visitor Center or Hoover Dam parking garage, this 7 1/2 mile (12km) trail round-trip is unique in that not only does it travel along a former railroad route that linked Boulder City to the Hoover Dam between the 1930s and 1960s but it runs through five railway tunnels (ranging about 300 feet long and 25 feet wide) and gives you AMAZING panoramic views of Lake Mead.
Back in the day, bootleggers made and stored illegal spirits in this part of Nevada during the Great Depression. The hills were loaded with them. Bootleg Canyon got its name from those bootleggers and although the illegal spirits may be gone, your spirits will rise when you see this place. See what I did there?
Known internationally for its epic mountain-bike park, Bootleg Canyon has 36 miles of trails that make up some of the toughest terrain anywhere in the world. If you’re not into mountain biking, you can always hike the trails and get rewarded with incredible views of nearby Boulder City. For those a bit more adventurous, the canyon is also home to Flightlinez – ziplines that run 1.5 miles, reach 60 mph and give you views of Vegas which is only about 40 minutes away.
Cathedral Gorge State Park
Head north of Vegas, near the Nevada-Utah border and you’ll find one of the most beautiful, hidden gems in the state. Cathedral Gorge is spectacular. Thanks to millions of years of erosion, a lake bed of bentonite clay has been transformed into spires and slot canyons. Open year-round, you can camp, hike and even picnic here. And because it’s so remote, you might even find that you have all this incredible natural beauty for yourself.
Designated as one of Nevada’s first four state parks in 1935, I suggest you embark on the four-mile loop trail that connects you with the outer regions of the park. Hit the connector trail and treat yourself to a mouth-dropping, surreal scenic overlook.
Between Cathedral Gorge and Vegas, there’s one place that you shouldn’t overlook. Highway 375 may seem like just another long, endless desert road but this asphalt is considered to be Ground Zero for aliens and alien fanatics. State Route 375 is known as the Extraterrestrial Highway not only because it feels as if you’re driving across another planet but also because of its proximity to the famed Area 51 and the strange sightings that people have often reported coming from here.
Although the US government now acknowledges the existence of Area 51, the Area itself is still off-limits to the public. It’s just south of the highway – and trust me, you don’t even want to try to approach it. Guards are ready with guns loaded. And they won’t hesitate to use them, if you get too close. On the bright side, this entire area is alien-themed, including the Alien Research Center with alien-themed gifts, the ET Fresh Jerky shop (some of the BEST jerky I’ve EVER had), the Little A’Le’Inn a hotel/bar along 375 in Rachel, Nevada and of course the ET Highway Sign – a must-stop-for-a-pic-place!
I’ve been told that Vegas is great – for only about three, four days. Then it just gets too much and you gotta get the hell out of there. For me, two days are enough. Regardless, there’s something for everyone here. Next time you head to Vegas, consider renting a vehicle and hit the road. Who knows, maybe the bigger addiction, the bigger thrill will come from discovering, experiencing new places well outside Sin City.
Have map, will go.
Hey y’all. I’m Jim. That kid went on to spend 16 years in the broadcast media world before starting up Travel Mammal, a site dedicated to working with brands to promote travel, food and cultural experiences.
Travel Mammal isn’t about the selfie or checking things off a list. It’s about experiencing both the journey and the destination. To breathe, learn and really absorb what’s around you, in the moment and experiencing in a way that is both memorable and meaningful.
Happy travels, y’all.