Las Vegas is famous for its over-the-top man-made attractions, but nearby natural attractions offer plenty of awe-inspiring sights.

When I am in Las Vegas, I head to the west side of the valley to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The red rock formations of sandstone peaks and walls change colors with the time of day as the sun hits the canyons from different angles. I stop at the overlooks to view the spectacular scenery all around me. The peaceful surroundings are free of sound. This amazes me as the natural area is just beyond the housing developments of fast-growing Las Vegas.

A one-way 13-mile loop road makes Red Rock Canyon quite accessible for viewing the sites, enjoying a picnic in the desert shaded by a cottonwood tree, hike in the canyons or bike the loop road if not too hot. At least seven hiking trails varying in length and degree of difficulty are accessible from the scenic drive loop. One of the trails leads to some petroglyphs drawn on a canyon wall by early inhabitants of the area. Rock climbing is popular here but not for the faint of heart. ATVs are not allowed in Red Rock Canyon. Hiking in the backcountry off established trails is risky due to rattlesnakes and flash flooding if a thunderstorm pops up.

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Red Rock Canyon Visitor’s Center

Start at the visitor center once you enter the main gate. The visitor center offers fantastic insight into the area’s early inhabitants of different Native American cultures, wildlife, plants, and geology. Colorful Aztec Sandstone cliffs and rock formations comprise most of the landscape. Red Rocks is a protected area for the desert tortoise. Burros, rabbits and ground squirrels live here, and bighorn sheep are occasionally seen at higher elevations.

At the southern end of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. The ranch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and sits at a higher elevation near a spring-fed creek surrounded by grassy meadows. The higher elevation brings more plant and wildlife diversity. Hiking and picnicking are pleasant activities to be among the wildflowers, pinion pines, junipers, and Joshua trees. Historic buildings on the ranch include a cabin and bunkhouse, a blacksmith’s house, and the Wilson family cemetery. Owners of the ranch over the years include Chester Lauck of the comedy team, “Lum and Abner”, German actress Vera Krupp, and millionaire Howard Hughes.

Valley of Fire State Park

Another natural wonder of incredible beauty not far from Las Vegas is Valley of Fire State Park. It is Nevada’s oldest state park, located 50 miles northeast of the city, and is designated a National Natural Landmark. I think the Valley of Fire is the most breathtaking of all the natural outdoor wonders near Las Vegas.

The Valley of Fire is an amazing scene as you drive into the area and view what lies ahead. The park offers many hiking and picnicking areas. Most trails are only one mile long but steep inclines and downhills, filled with large rocks, ledges, and lots of sand make for challenging treks that give the sense of much longer hikes into the canyons. Bring good hiking shoes you won’t mind getting filled with sand. I was in search of more petroglyphs in this area as well.

Valley Of Fire State Park Visitor’s Center

The Visitors Center offers insight into more than 150 million years of history and the changing landscape of eroded sandstone and sand dunes. The rock formations are made of Aztec Sandstone, petrified rock, granite, and quartz.

The Valley of Fire was a popular location for shooting automobile commercials and commercial photography. Parts of famous movies were filmed here including, the racing scene in the 1963 Elvis Presley movie Viva Las Vegas. Also filmed here was The Professionals which starred Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, and Claudia Cardinale in 1966. A portion of a rock wall of a hacienda in one of the movie sets exists down a trail. The 1994 Star Trek Generations was filmed in the area as well.

A Geological Wonder You Must Visit

Driving back into the city, our trio stopped in downtown Las Vegas at Evil Pie, a famous spot for pizza slices with atypical toppings and a cold local beer. We were quite hungry and thirsty after our desert trek.

On your next visit to Las Vegas, take a day or at least a half day, and head out to the Valley of Fire State Park, a geological wonder, and a rewarding experience. Go early before temperatures heats up!

John Werner

As a 45 year veteran of the travel industry and the President of MAST Travel Network since 2002, John’s career has included 14 years as a travel agency owner. He has served in various capacities on the Board of the Midwest Chapter of ASTA including Treasurer and Vice President. John has also held several positions on the Board of Directors for MAST including Vice Chairman and Board Chairman during the years he owned Travel Group International, a MAST member during the 1990s.