Las Vegas, aka Sin City, is a Mecca for gamblers and vacationers alike. The city has become one of the top tourist destinations in the world. It is also one of the top three U.S. locations for conventions and business meetings. Since many of us have been there (oftentimes more than a few times), I’d like to look at Vegas from a different angle, one that highlights the “other things” one can do while visiting.
History of Las Vegas
Settleres came to Las Vegas only a hundred years ago, founded in 1905 and becoming incorporated as a city in 1911. Given the blazing summer heat and lack of water, it grew slowly until the 1930’s when the construction of Hoover Dam and the introduction of gambling casinos drew residents. After WWII larger casinos were built, drawing more people—especially in the winter. The “Strip” of casinos, hotels and clubs grew through the 50’s and 60’s. Meanwhile, the city grew from 24,000 in 1950 to 164,000 in 1980. Since then, the population exploded to 600,000 with the metropolitan area growing to 2 million. New casinos and resorts were built as well while Vegas transformed itself into a family destination.
Getting to Las Vegas
Since it is in the middle of the desert, Vegas is primarily reached by plane. Only the people of southern California and perhaps Pheonix are close enough to drive. The airport has grown exponentially since I first visited in 1984. Every major airline flies to Las Vegas, with one airline based there (Allegiant). You’ll have plenty of flight options for getting to Vegas.
Las Vegas is just plain hot in the summer. For those coming from cooler climates, the heat can be overwhelming. It is not uncommon for weeks in the summer to reach highs of 105-112. Be prepared to drink plenty of water and avoid the sun during the heat from the day. I once thought my sneakers were going to melt when I was there in August in the 90’s. And watch out for flight restrictions, as extreme heat can force airlines to reduce their loads due less lift in hot weather.
Getting Around while in Las Vegas
Vegas has the usual network of interstates and main roads for driving around. The Strip (aka Las Vegas Boulevard) has grown to 5 or more lanes each way, but traffic can still be daunting. I’d recommend parking centrally and walking around when you’re visiting the casinos. Though, try to avoid walking in the sun during the afternoon in the summer.
Casinos, Hotels and Casinos in Hotels
Vegas is known for its huge and varied casinos. Many of the casino and hotels have 4,000 or more rooms. The MGM, in particular, has over 6,800! These hotels get crowded on weekends, and for a modest gambler like me, finding a $5 table gets difficult to impossible.
Many of the casinos have some reasonable rates. They want visitors to stay there so they can gamble longer. Most have buffet specials, concerts, shows and other offerings to attract visitors too. Staying on the Strip is usually a little more expensive, but good deals can be found downtown or off the Strip.
What Else You Should See
The Hoover Dam is less than an hour’s drive southeast of Vegas (30 miles) and is well worth the visit. It was built in the early 1930’s and completed in 1936. The Hoover Dam remains one of the largest “gravity arch” dams in the world. I was there in 1988 and took a tour that took us down into the bowels of the dam to see the electrical generation area, which was fascinating. The tour was suspended for many years after 9/11, but has recently been allowed again. From Hoover Dam you can drive north along the shores of Lake Mead, a vast jewel of blue water (247 square miles) surrounded by hills, mountains, and desert.
Charleston Peak is a nearly 12,000-foot mountain less than an hour northwest of Vegas. The drive carries you up from Las Vegas valley (2030 feet above sea level) to a lodge around 7700 feet above sea level surrounded by tall Ponderosa Pines. In the winter there is usually snow in the area (there’s ski area nearby), which is a wonderful contrast when visiting Vegas.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is less than 2 hours west of Vegas. If you want to see amazing scenery and mountain vistas, head there for a day-trip. The geology of the area is due to folds in the earth’s crust, with mountains rising to over 11,000 feet just west of Death Valley. I visited in June just last year and it was 119 degrees in the valley. In any case, be aware the heat during the summer in the valley is probably unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. Nonetheless, the scenery and views are well worth a visit no matter what time of year you’re there.
Las Vegas is effectively in the middle of a desert. However, within a few hour’s drive, you can find some of the most amazing scenic wonders at several national parks. Drive to the northeast on I-15 and you can get to the following parks in 3-5 hours:
Zion National Park
Just into southern Utah, you can head east past St. George and you’ll soon see the incredible sandstone cliffs of Zion National Park. The geology of the area is primarily layers of different colored sandstone from almost white tan to dark red. The Zion Canyon in the middle of the park is 15 miles long and about a half-mile deep, with cliffs and sheer drops all around. The scenery will knock your socks off, with something amazing around every corner. There are plenty of hikes for the advanced or beginning hiker, all with scenic beauty that’s unparalleled. I was there in 1993 and count it as one of the most spectacular days of scenic beauty I’ve ever had.
Kanab and Beyond
East of Zion you can stay in Kanab. From there, you can take an easy drive north to reach the rim of the Grand Canyon. The geology of the Grand Canyon is grand itself, with layers of sandstone and rock that go from 230 million years old to 2 billion years old. What can a person say about the Grand Canyon? It’s huge, with great vistas of layered sandstone that go on forever. It is truly one of the wonders of the world. You can take hikes around the rim or down to the canyon. You can also just stop by the visitor centers and walk around, soaking it all in. The elevation of the north rim is around 8,800 feet above sea level, so bring a sweatshirt, even in the summer.
Bryce Canyon National Park
North of Kanab you can take a pleasant drive to Bryce Canyon National Park for some more awesome scenery. Some of the same sandstone formations seen in Zion and Grand Canyon can also be seen here. I visited last year on a perfect summer day and was amazed by the “hoodoos”. Hoodoos are tall, thin spires of eroded sandstone the park is known for. Interestingly enough, Bryce Canyon is not in fact a canyon. Rather, Byrce Canyon is a high ridge/cliff around 8,000-9,000 feet above sea level that drops off 1,000-3,000 feet on several sides. It’s actually not very big, as least when compared to the Grand Canyon. There’s plenty to see, with lots of scenic overlooks and hiking trails that will take you down around the hoodoos.
To the southeast of Las Vegas you will find Flagstaff, Arizona. Flagstaff sits in the high desert at the foot of the tallest mountain in Arizona. From Flagstaff you can drive to the south to see Sedona Canyon and the Sedona area, noted for its amazing red rock formations. You could also drive east of Flagstaff and visit the famous Meteor Crater. The crater was created about 50,000 years ago and is about a 4,000 feet wide and 600 feet deep. It cost $20 to see it when I was there 4 years ago, but it’s such a unique place that it is well worth it.
The old saying goes “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”…but going outside of Vegas to see some of the most amazing and interesting national parks and scenery will stay with you the rest of your life!
Author: Roger Ximenez
Roger Ximenez is the Director of Product at ID90 Travel. He has over 5+ years experience working alongside engineering teams to build the next generation of features. He is also the data and automation evangelist, promoting the use of data to streamline automation strategies.