En español | Great adventures await outdoor lovers in every direction from Las Vegas, and day-tripping is the way to go. With national treasures close by, such as Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and more, the gambling mecca is the perfect “base camp."
Unless you don't mind the heat — warmer months can bring daily highs well over 100 degrees — the trails mentioned below, except for the Black Canyon Water Trail, which can be enjoyed year-round, are best done from October through April.
The Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail (Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada and Arizona)
This trail is one of the top outdoor hiking destinations near Lake Mead because it's easy to get to and offers a mix of delights. On the practically flat, gravel former railbed, you'll get sweeping views of Boulder Basin in the Lake Mead NRA, walk through five historic railroad tunnels and, thanks to interpretive signs, learn some of the rich story of the building of Boulder Dam (now called Hoover Dam).
This railbed was constructed in the early 1930s to transport equipment and supplies to the dam site in Black Canyon on the Colorado River. The five tunnels, blasted through the volcanic cliffs, are all about 300 feet long and 25 feet wide, to accommodate the oversized construction equipment.
If you take the 4.3-mile round-trip route, you'll pass through all five tunnels. The hike can also be extended by following the trail all the way to Hoover Dam, which adds another 2.5 miles plus some elevation change.
Black Canyon National Water Trail (Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada and Arizona)
This trail is for paddling or floating, not hiking. The Black Canyon National Water Trail is a 30-mile section of the Colorado River that runs downstream from Hoover Dam to where the river meets Lake Mohave — with Nevada on the west side and Arizona on the east. Black Canyon offers surprises, including several hot springs, waterfalls, sandy beaches, coves, caves and an abundance of wildlife. Look for desert bighorn sheep, great blue herons, ospreys, peregrine falcons and bald eagles.
The water trail's most scenic section, the 11.7 miles between Hoover Dam and Willow Beach, Arizona, is best enjoyed by kayak or canoe, but motorized raft trips are fun, too. Rent a kayak from the Willow Beach Marina, and paddle upstream as far as you feel comfortable. For a full-day experience, sign up with an approved guide who will launch you directly below Hoover Dam, allowing a downstream float to Willow Beach, taking your time to stop at all the highlights. A list of approved guides can be found at nps.gov/lake.
Sloan Canyon Petroglyph Site (Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada)
This is one of the most significant rock art sites in southern Nevada, with about 1,700 petroglyphs on 300 panels. Petroglyphs are designs that were carved through the rock's dark patina, or “desert varnish,” exposing the light color beneath.
Experts speculate that some of the earliest petroglyphs here were made by Ancestral Puebloans more than 3,000 years ago, but some petroglyphs were added in more recent times, even after European cultures arrived.
A one-mile walk along a sand-and-gravel wash, with some occasional rock scrambling, will take you to the core rock art area. Bring binoculars so you can see some of the higher petroglyphs without disturbing the lower boulders.
Pine Creek Canyon (Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada)
Just driving Red Rock Canyon's 13-mile scenic drive will certainly pique your interest in further exploring the colorful Aztec sandstone. While each of the area's many canyon trails has its charms, the best all-around option is Pine Creek Canyon. Besides its seasonally flowing creek, it holds the remains of a homestead from the 1920s and dense vegetation, including old-growth ponderosa pines — rare for this elevation and a remnant from the last ice age. There are also opportunities to see wildlife and explore higher and deeper in the canyon.
In less than a mile, you'll reach the mouth of the canyon, where you'll then start the loop portion. This loop travels about one-half mile to the base of Mescalito, a towering monolith, then hooks back to join the main trail, making the round-trip about 2.5 miles. Once you're in the canyon proper, look for desert bighorn sheep and a multitude of feathered friends, such as Gambel's quail, white-throated swifts and cactus wrens.
Mouse's Tank (Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada)
Nevada's first state park, dedicated in 1935, Valley of Fire is also its largest, encompassing more than 35,000 acres. It's chock-full of vibrant orange and pink sandstone cliffs, arches and other formations, making even a drive through the park a breathtaking experience. The vivid colors are traces of oxidized iron. The fantastical sandstone formations are the result of millions of years of uplifting, faulting and erosion.
Mouse's Tank is a 0.6-mile round-trip hike where you can see petroglyphs and look into the tinaja (natural water tank) where, legend has it, a renegade Paiute Indian named Mouse evaded the law back in the 1890s. Since the tank is about eight feet deep, it held water longer than other area tinajas, making it a reliable water source in this very dry region. It's said that Mouse never surrendered but was killed by a posse in 1897.
As you walk along the trail, look for the tracks of kit foxes, black-tailed jackrabbits, chuckwallas, zebra-tailed lizards or maybe one of the 15 species of snakes living here, a few of which are venomous.
China Ranch Date Farm (Tecopa, California)
A family-run business since the 1970s, this farm has roots in the early 1900s. Stroll the date palm groves and check out one of six trails that leave from the ranch. For an easy walk, try the Creek Trail, just 200 yards long, under a canopy of water-loving vegetation such as screwbean mesquite, seep willow, Goodding's willow and Fremont cottonwood trees. You might see a crayfish or two in the creek and evidence of gray foxes, kit foxes, bobcats, coyotes and jackrabbits. To get a bird's-eye view of the entire ranch, follow the moderately strenuous Mesa Trail. This is a 2.5-mile round-trip with an elevation gain of 500 feet.
Don't leave before visiting the gift shop to sample the dates and date bread or to have one of the ranch's world-famous date shakes.
Corn Creek (Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada)
In the largest wildlife refuge outside of Alaska lies Corn Creek, a working ranch until 1939 and now home to a network of five easy trails, three of them ADA-accessible. These primarily interconnected loop trails, which total about a mile and a half, travel under the canopies of deciduous trees and past running streams. Along the way, you can visit a historic bridge built of railroad ties and peek through the windows of the refugium of the endangered Pahrump poolfish.
About 320 bird species have been seen at Corn Creek. Along the Birdsong Loop, look for desert mistletoe, a parasitic plant that thrives on mesquite trees. Here you might see the phainopepla, a crested black bird that favors the mistletoe's berries.
The Coyote Loop is highly vegetated, with mature cottonwood trees, cattails and other water-loving plants growing along the creek. You'll also see a grassy orchard with fruit and nut trees.
Kelso Dunes (Mojave National Preserve, California)
The 45-square-mile Kelso Dune Complex is the third-tallest dune formation in North America. The sands, which rise about 600 feet, appear to beckon visitors to climb. Views from the peak are rewarding, but be aware it's a tiring 3-mile round-trip hike. Just exploring the base of the dunes can be extremely satisfying, and of course anyone is welcome to be a kid again by rolling down the sand slopes.
These are “booming,” or “singing,” dunes. Which means that when the conditions are right and a small sand avalanche occurs, they make odd noises. Some people hear a low musical note or rumbling vibration; others describe a sound like a far-off airplane. Look for evidence of animal life in the sand. You might see the tracks of lizards, snakes, kit foxes, kangaroo rats, coyotes and desert tortoises.
Any visit should begin at the Kelso Depot, the former Union Pacific train station built in 1924 in the attractive Mission Revival style. The station served its original purpose until 1985, and is now the preserve's main visitors center. It's also a museum offering fascinating information on the railroad, the Chemehuevi and Mojave Indian tribes, and early mining and ranching in the eastern Mojave Desert.
Deborah Wall is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in both adventure travel and family excursions, and the author of travel books, including Base Camp Las Vegas: 101 Hikes in the Southwest.