There’s more to Las Vegas than casinos, restaurants, and nightclubs—lots more. I’ve been covering Sin City for more than a decade, and some of my favorite things in town are about as far as you can get from the blinking and ringing and thumping and hopping of the Las Vegas Strip. This “other side” of town revolves around thousands and thousands of acres of open space, most of which surrounds the metropolis on the outskirts of town. Some of the activities here include bicycling, hiking, horseback riding and paddling.
Because winter in the Las Vegas Valley is the coolest season of the year, the period between December and early March is a perfect time to get to the hinterlands and explore. When you go, here are four diversions you should consider.
Biking River Mountains Loop
There are bike trails, and then there is the 34-mile River Mountains Loop. The paved trail, which flanks the shores of Lake Mead for a while, opened in pieces between 2010 and 2012 and now is one of the most wonderful (and challenging) bike rides in the entire country. Bicycling it is a great way to spend a cool and cloudy day.
Most of the ride is flat—making it perfectly accessible for families with young kids. Still, two sections in particular are intensely hilly: One stretch just outside of Boulder City, and another near Henderson, which features three consecutive hills dubbed the “Three Sisters.” (You can rent bikes in either city.)
The undisputed highlight of the trail is actually an offshoot—a five-mile dirt spur inside the Lake Mead National Recreation Area that shoots through five separate railroad tunnels. The tunnels were dug by hand and date back to the early part of last century, when workers built the Hoover Dam. They were part of a railroad line that was built especially to get supplies (think turbines, generators, etc.) from Boulder City to the dam itself.
Hiking Mount Charleston
The tallest natural mountain in the Las Vegas Valley is Mount Charleston, which rises almost 12,000 feet from the valley floor. Technically the mountain resides inside Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, which, as a whole, comprises more than 50 glorious miles of trails.
What has struck me about hiking this area over the years is the diversity of ecosystems. There are craggy mountains capped with snow. There are pinion-juniper woodlands. There are canyons. Meadows, too.
My absolute favorite tromp in the area is the North Loop, a challenging 20-mile out-and-back that ascends from Highway 158 through dense forest (fir trees!), winds along canyon walls, and finally switchbacks through limestone and dolomite rock to the top of Charleston Peak. The last time I did this hike, it took me nearly 14 hours. The lesson: Leave plenty of time.
(If you’re not interested in—or too hungover to do—a hike that long, try the 10-mile out-and-back scramble to Griffith Peak off Forest Road 104. Along the way you’ll pass through spectacular meadows, as well as an extended thrush of bristlecone pines.)
Horseback riding in Red Rock
IMHO, the best view of the Las Vegas Strip is from the foothills of the Spring Mountains due west, and the best way to get up and into these foothills is by horseback, courtesy of Cowboy Trail Rides.
The guided rides start in a dirt lot just outside of Summerlin. After administering a brief safety lesson, guides lead you (and your horse) up into the mountains, pointing out flora and fauna along the way. All tours at the very minimum meander through desert until arriving at a scenic overlook, then turn around. More comprehensive options head farther back into the foothills, and include meals.
Viewfinder Tip: Riding horses in the desert can be dusty. Be sure not to wear your nicest clothes or they’ll get ruined.
Perhaps most important: No horseback riding experience is necessary. The animals spend these tours moving very slowly, which gives novice riders plenty of time to adjust.
Paddling Lake Las Vegas
Lake Las Vegas is a manmade waterway south and east of downtown Sin City. It is surrounded by mountains and golf courses (and, I guess, fancy hotels and homes). It also is a great place to take a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard for a spin.
The paddling out here is downright leisurely; except when there are significant winds, the lake is mostly glass-calm. Gliding on these waters provides an almost-surreal perspective on the surrounding desert; at times, the development at the lake’s shore seems to be nothing more than an oasis. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a fish; the lake has become one of the most popular fishing spots in the entire state.
In terms of renting watercraft for this type of activity, the best option is the Marina at Lake Las Vegas Resort. Here you can rent everything from kayaks and paddleboards to motorized boats.
You even can sign up for a guided boat tour in a gondola, with a gondolier. After all, it *is* Vegas.
What are your favorite ways to experience the outdoors when you visit a new city?