Here's how to make a longer vacation out of your investment in time and travel. Get away from the city. Visit some strikingly beautiful places to explore nature (as well as one man-made wonder of engineering). All are an hour or less away from the neon strip that most people think of when they think Vegas.
1. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Hop in a car (your own or a rental) and drive 19 miles west to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, where you will find 196,000 acres of stunning desert landscape and sandstone peaks that are a major draw for rock climbers
What you can do there: Hike. There are 30 miles of trails for novice and expert hiking. Stop at the visitor center on your way in for a map and advice from staff on which trails might be best. You can bike a 15-mile loop through the park; for a real workout there's an elevation change of 1,000 feet in the first four miles.
If you're short on time: Explore by car. The 13-mile one-way scenic drive circles through the center of the park. One impressive sight is the Keystone Thrust Fault, caused by a fracture in the earth's crust that pushed the gray carbonate rocks of an ancient ocean over the newer layers of tan and red sandstone.
Wildlife: You might spot bighorn sheep, gray foxes and burros, amid vegetation such as Joshua trees, yucca and black brush.
What you should know: Bring water (it's the desert, after all, even if it's about 10 degrees cooler than Vegas) and snacks. In a pinch you can buy water at the visitor center, but there is no food or drink available along the scenic drive.
2. Hoover Dam and Lake Mead
Hoover Dam is only about 45 minutes from the city, and an awe-inspiring feat of engineering: a 6.6 million-ton behemoth that manages to hold the mighty Colorado River at bay. And, thanks to the dam, we have Lake Mead. The Lake Mead National Recreation Area is a 1.5 million-acre national park (including 700 miles of lake shoreline) for kayaking, canoeing, hiking and countless foolproof photo ops.
What you can do at the dam: There are hour-long guided tours of the power plant and passages within the dam (or a half-hour tour of just the plant), for a look at the massive generators and pipes down below.
What you can do at and around Lake Mead: You can rent boats by the hour or day at the lake's Las Vegas Boat Harbor, or take a cruise on the Desert Princess, a Mississippi-style paddle wheeler, including a narrated tour up close to the dam. Hikers and bikers can check out the 3.7-mile Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail in Boulder City, built to haul supplies to the dam construction area. You'll wind your way through five tunnels and see some spectacular scenes of the lake and desert.
Next page: Nearby state park where you can see roadrunners, ravens, snakes and more. »