Two Sides of Vegas
The sensory overload that is Las Vegas—the fine dining, the gaming, the shows, the spas, the scene—makes for a remarkable vacation. But just as with a night at the tables or a meal at a Vegas buffet, pacing yourself is key.
Do it with hiking boots. The perfect complement to Vegas extravagance lies within an hour’s drive in any direction: a striking desert tableau of red rocks, slot canyons and ragged escarpments. We’ve laid out a week’s worth of memorable hikes along with an equally adventurous evening lineup. In this city that doesn’t sleep, you have time for both the sandstone and the Strip.
Day 1: Strolling the Strip
Arriving in Vegas is all about acclimatizing. Get out and wander along Las Vegas Boulevard, adjusting to the spectacle that is the Strip: the glare of LED screens, the Alice in Wonderland perspective (tilted skyscrapers! A 45-foot bronze lion! A half-size Eiffel Tower!) and an Elvis on every corner. If it’s your first visit, take in the iconic spectacles, like the choreographed “dancing” fountains at Bellagio and the erupting volcano at the Mirage. Returning visitors know there’s always something new in town. Slated for 2013: the Linq and SkyVue, competing entertainment districts with two of the world’s largest Ferris wheels.
More than four miles long, the Strip alone is a good warm-up for a hiking vacation. If the weather cooperates, grab an outdoor table for dinner at Mon Ami Gabi, a Parisian-style café that puts you in a prime people-watching position.
Day 2: Red Rock Welcome
It’s about 30 minutes and 180 million years from the Strip to Red Rock Canyon, whose rocky ridges of ancient sandstone rise more than 2,000 feet at the city’s western edge. The 198,000-acre national conservation area is the beloved backyard of many Vegas locals, who come here to hike, rock climb and cycle on the one-way, 13-mile scenic drive that loops through the park and leads to most of its trailheads.
Just beyond the entrance, the Calico Hills glow brilliant ocher in the desert sun. From the second parking area, Calico II, follow the trail that descends to the base of these weathered cliffs, which are sculpted into smooth pillars, overhangs and magical mini canyons. Head north to the Sandstone Quarry parking area, where the Calico Tanks trail winds for a mile through a rocky seam on the other side of the ridge, culminating in a view of the Las Vegas valley.
Follow your first day of hiking with a healthy evening at Aria. Spend an hour in the spa’s Shio Salt Room, where a wall of illuminated salt bricks is said to provide respiratory benefits. It seems only natural to move on to a margarita or salt-rimmed agave martini at Javier’s. This new Southern California import eschews greasy Tex-Mex for fresh Mexican cuisine. After that? Well, just beyond your leather-topped table lies the green felt of the casino.
Day 3: Low Desert to Arctic Ice
The vast reservoir held back by the Hoover Dam may be the centerpiece of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, but hikers also find plenty of terrain to explore in this sun-baked low-desert landscape 45 minutes southeast of the Strip. Rather than signposted trails, the most intriguing hikes here are dry riverbeds (“washes”) and jeep roads. On Northshore Road near mile marker 16, a 2.4-mile hike along a primitive road brings you to Anniversary Narrows, a tight labyrinth of twisted and tilted sandstone.
For detailed directions, check out birdandhike.com, a terrific site created by desert ecologist Ph.D. Jim Boone. Better yet, consider hiring Boone as a guide: His trained eye will alert you to tiny blooms, skittering lizards and other nuances of the desert.
After a day on the desert floor, the Grecian opulence of Caesars Palace’s sprawling Garden of the Gods pool area will appear like a mirage—an oasis of palms, fountains and cool blue mosaic tile. Even nonguests can get a day pass here or at Caesars’s luxe Qua Baths & Spa. Book the Mojave Rain treatment, a massage in which essential oils are drizzled along your spine. Or simply loll in the Roman Baths, the cedarwood sauna and the Arctic Ice Room, complete with drifting snowflakes.
Caesars’s Colosseum may be Vegas’s most iconic showroom: Its 120-foot-wide stage befits the spectacle of headliners like Celine Dion and Elton John. After a show, slide into a seat at Nobu’s teppanyaki table, part of the new Nobu Hotel within Caesars Palace.
Day 4: Watery Oasis
Return to Red Rock to explore some of the shorter hikes and overlooks that branch off from the scenic drive. Put Ice Box Canyon at the top of the list. The trail traverses open desert for about a half-mile, then funnels into a narrow canyon bookended by 2,500-foot-high walls. You’ll be scrambling over rocks as you descend, only to hopscotch back and forth across a creek and then—if spring has brought any rain—be treated to a rare treasure at trail’s end: a desert waterfall.
Bellagio hosts the city’s two biggest water shows: the dancing fountains and Cirque du Soleil’s O, which adds eau to the troupe’s already astounding acrobatics. Precede the show with dinner in-house at Sensi, whose tables surround five glass-walled kitchens so you can watch expert hands slip naan into the clay tandoori oven. Cap off the evening at Hyde, Bellagio’s sleek cocktail bar–nightclub. There’s a wall of windows and a patio right at the edge of Lake Bellagio—and the fountains are even prettier at night.
Day 5: Visual Feast
About an hour north of Las Vegas, Valley of Fire State Park preserves slickrock and stunning red sandstone formations made more spectacular by the figures carved in the rock walls in ancient times. From the Mouse’s Tank trailhead, hike through Petroglyph Canyon, a 3,000-year-old art gallery whose walls are covered with birds, dancers and other designs. Continue north on the park road to White Domes, a 1.25-mile trail that loops around multicolored sandstone mounds and through an 80-foot deep slot canyon.
Modern-day artists are making their mark on the Strip. Contemporary works are scattered throughout CityCenter, including Maya Lin’s 84-foot cast of the Colorado River, suspended over the Aria hotel’s reception desk. The cheeky Cosmopolitan has modern art everywhere, from vintage cigarette machines dispensing five-dollar artworks to digital columns depicting eerily seductive human silhouettes.
Immerse yourself in the glittering three-story sculpture that is the Chandelier bar, draped in two million crystal beads. Dinner options encircle the Cosmopolitan’s third floor; Estiatorio Milos brings Mediterranean flavors and style to the Strip. Nearby, the Marquee Nightclub thumps with a lively house-music scene.
Day 6: Pine Trees and Vintage Vegas
Ancient pines and lofty views highlight the day’s hike at Mount Charleston, part of the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area. Locals like to escape the summer heat in these forested mountains about an hour west of Vegas; in spring you should check ahead to make sure the roads are free of snow. The 1.5-mile hike up Cathedral Rock climbs almost 1,000 feet through shimmying aspens and spring wild-flowers to a rocky promontory from which you can gaze down the canyon and take a peek at 11,918-foot Mount Charleston. Next, drive north to Lee Canyon Road and the Upper Bristlecone trailhead. Hike uphill about 1.5 miles to see rare examples of these gnarled and twisted pines, which can live for thousands of years. Return the way you came, or continue on to make a six-mile loop with ample mountain panoramas.
Vegas first rose to gaming fame north of the Strip, along Fremont Street. The just-opened Neon Museum pays homage to the downtown’s mid-20th-century heyday as Glitter Gulch, dusting off and displaying some of its great vintage neon signs, both in the museum’s “boneyard” and in installations along Fremont Street, just east of the Fremont Street Experience light canopy.
While you’re reliving the Rat Pack era, why not take in a classic Vegas buffet? The hands-down winner is Caesars Palace’s Bacchanal Buffet, an extravaganza of exquisite mini plates, from tiny fry baskets of fish and chips to bamboo containers of authentic dim sum.
Day 7: Hearty Farewell
The White Rock Trail is proof that Red Rock Canyon offers mighty scenic hikes in other colors, too. This diverse 6.3-mile loop climbs west from the Scenic Drive, weaving through a valley of limestone and sandstone studded with piñon, juniper and Joshua trees. As the trail swings southwest behind the high backbone of the White Rock Hills, you’ll trade civilization for solitude and maybe a sighting of bighorn sheep. Complete the loop by following gravel Rocky Gap Road east to the Willow Springs picnic area, where you’ll pass some fine examples of human-handprint rock art. From here, pick up the northbound trail back to your car, crossing open desert dotted with fat barrel cactus.
After your week of hiking, fend off soreness with an Arnica Muscle Repair massage at Vdara Spa, a serene, sophisticated gem tucked away in CityCenter’s Vdara Hotel. Then refuel those well-worked muscles at the new Gordon Ramsay Steak, a little bit of London inside the Paris Las Vegas hotel. Your server will bring the better part of a steer to your table on the display cart, but it’s the quality rather than the staggering quantity that makes for a memorable meal. A bite of the American Kobe rib cap (the outer section of a rib eye cut) proves as rich and tender as a stick of butter. Ah, well—you can always hike a little harder next time.
Bellagio: 3600 S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV; 702-693-7111
Mirage: 3400 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, NV; 800-374-9000
Linq: 3475 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, Nevada
SkyVue: 3951 S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, Nevada; 888-975-9883
Mon Ami Gabi: 3655 S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV; 702-944-4224
Aria: 3730 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, NV; 866-359-7757
Hoover Dam: 702-494-2517
Lake Mead National Recreation Area: Temple Bar Marina, AZ 86443; 702-293-8990
Caesars Palace: 3570 S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV; 702-731-7110
Sensi: 3600 Las Vegas Blvd Overpass, Las Vegas, NV; 702-693-8800
Hyde: 3600 S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV; 702-693-8700
Valley of Fire State Park: 29450 Valley of Fire Hwy, Overton, NV; 702-397-2088
Cosmopolitan: 3708 S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV; 702-698-7000
Estiatorio Milos: 702-698-7930
Spring Mountains National Recreation Area: www.fs.usda.gov/goto/htnf/smnra
Neon Museum: 770 N. Las Vegas Blvd.
Caesars Palace’s Bacchanal Buffet: 702-731-7110
Vdara Hotel: 2600 W Harmon Ave, Las Vegas, NV; 702-590-2111
Paris: 3655 S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV; 702-946-7000
Gordon Ramsay Steak: 877-346-4642