There's so much more to Las Vegas than just neon signs and showgirls. The area is home to some of the most picturesque parks in the country, offering an array of outdoor activities for visitors to partake in. From bird watching to rock climbing, Las Vegas' many parks have it all.
One of the area's most popular outdoor destination is the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, known for its rugged red rock formations and great hiking opportunities. Valley of Fire State Park also ranks high with hikers, as it's home to 3,000-year-old Indian petroglyphs.
For those who want some relief from the scorching desert sun, Lake Mead National Recreation Area always makes a splash with visitors, as it offers an array of water activities for guests to enjoy. Nature lovers can also escape the heat at Mount Charleston, which--thanks to its high elevation--boasts temperatures that are much cooler than the Vegas Valley.
There's also plenty of wildlife for visitors to see, especially at parks like the Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park, the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, the Clark County Wetlands Park and the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex. In fact, the Botanical Gardens at the Springs Preserve was just named one of the "Top 10 North American Gardens Worth Traveling For!" And don't forget about local parks: Sunset Park offers a variety of activities for nature enthusiasts, from fishing to walking trails. Here's a look at 10 parks worth going beyond the neon for.
Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Comprised of four separate but adjoining preserves, this wildlife refuge located about 20 miles northwest of downtown Las Vegas sprawls over 1.6 million of acres. The largest parcel of the grand complex, Desert National Wildlife Refuge, is also the most convenient to Las Vegas. Its mountainous desert landscape is just beautiful, and there are several places to hike and watch wildlife like bighorn sheep, coyotes, desert tortoises, jackrabbits, and various lizards--not to mention a host of migratory birds. The refuge was established for the preservation and management of desert bighorn sheep and their habitat. Primary public use at the refuge consists of wildlife observation, primitive camping and picnicking. (702-879-6110)
Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve
Inadvertently, the City of Henderson created a popular habitat for birds with its wastewater reclamation facility. As a result, the spot became popular with birders, and in 1998, it was declared an official bird-viewing preserve. Nine ponds host a variety of birds, and the species you'll see--always impressive--depend on the season. During the summer months, you may see nesting American avocets, black-necked stilts and plenty of native waterfowl such as mallards and ruddy ducks, while during the winter and early spring, you can expect to see many species of duck, including one of the most beautiful of all North American ducks: the wood duck. Many birds live at the preserve year-round; others are just passing through. Fall is actually an exciting time to visit, with the possibility of seeing migrating warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, sparrows and many other passerine species. A number of paved and dirt paths wind their way through the 140-acre preserve; the paved path is approximately 3/4 of a mile long and accessible by wheelchair. The soft surfaces are mostly level and allow for easy walking. (702-267-4180)
Clark County Wetlands Park
Located between Las Vegas and Lake Mead about 1 mile east of Boulder Highway and Tropicana Avenue, Clark County Wetlands Park is a 2,900-acre oasis in the Mojave Desert. Reclaimed water from the urban area of Las Vegas flows through the park, allowing a permanent wetlands plant community to thrive. The park is also home to 212 species of birds, including snowy egrets, burrowing owls, wood ducks and great blue herons with wingspans of 6-and-a-half feet, as well as more than 70 species of mammals and reptiles. In addition to its impressive wildlife, the park boasts 13 miles of hiking trails, including 6 miles within its Nature Preserve. The 210-acre Nature Preserve is the centerpiece of the park, featuring wildlife viewing blinds, educational signage and a flagstone outdoor amphitheater that is ADA accessible. (702-455-7522)
Located just three miles from the famed Las Vegas Strip, the Springs Preserve is an award-winning 180-acre family destination dedicated to exploring green-living, desert life and Las Vegas' vibrant history through botanical gardens, interactive science and nature exhibits, animal shows and trails. Comprising 110 acres of display gardens, natural gardens, wildlife habitat, walking and biking trails and educational resources, the Springs Preserve's Botanical Gardens features more than 1,200 species of native and desert-adapted plants housed in several themed areas. Indoor experiences include exhibition galleries dedicated to showcasing art and traveling exhibitions of local and national significance, on-site technologically advanced learning centers and the Nevada State Museum. (702-822-7700, 702-822-7744)
The Spring Mountains National Recreation Area is part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Better known to locals as Mount Charleston, it is located just 30 minutes from downtown Las Vegas and encompasses more than 316,000 acres of remarkable beauty and surprising diversity. During the winter months, skiing is a top draw; when the weather warms, hiking trails become incredibly popular. Camping and picnicking are also prominent, and folks have been known to encounter wild horses and elk when they're taking advantage of the terrain's natural beauty. The area is actually home to more than 50 sensitive plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. Other activities include horseback riding, mountain biking and rock climbing. (775-331-6444)
The crown jewel of Clark County's park system, Sunset Park has served the Las Vegas valley since 1967. Phased park expansions have developed 185 of the 323 total acres, making Sunset the largest and the most distinguished park in town. An oasis in the desert, it offers something for everyone including tennis, volleyball and basketball courts, softball fields, a disc golf course, dog park, playground, shaded picnic areas, lake--fish included--and plenty of open space. The most recent expansion includes the addition of walking trails meandering through natural mesquite and dunes areas. Sunset Park also hosts many special events open to the public, including the annual Age of Chivalry Renaissance Festival. (702-455-8200)
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Located 4 miles southeast of Boulder City, Lake Mead National Recreation Park Area allows a great deal of relaxation and fun year-round. With 1.5 million acres, it's twice the size of Rhode Island and is America's largest man-made reservoir. Interestingly, three of America's four desert ecosystems--the Mojave, the Great Basin and the Sonoran deserts--also coincide at Lake Mead. With 50 miles of shoreline, the park offers multiple marinas, boating, fishing and water sports. It also caters to hikers, climbers, campers and car tours. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, as the area is home to thousands of desert plants and animals. (702-293-8906, 702-293-8990)
Valley of Fire State Park
This grand geological park, located 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas, is Nevada's oldest state park. Its brilliantly colored sandstone formations were generated from 150 million years of weathering in the Mojave Desert. In fact, the park's name comes from the vibrant appearance of sunlight on the ruddy rocks. Ancient trees and early man are represented throughout the park by areas of petrified wood and 3,000-year-old Indian petroglyphs. Popular activities include camping, hiking, picnicking and photography. A visitor center acclimates folks to the on-site attractions and talks about the power of natural forces. Seventy-two campsites are available for an additional fee (first-come, first-served) and come equipped with shaded tables, grills, water and restrooms. (702-397-2088)
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Part of the Mojave Desert, Red Rock Canyon is an easy escape from the fast pace of the Glitter City, located just 17 miles from downtown Vegas. The area showcases spectacular scenery, complete with rugged red rock formations, desert vegetation and open vistas. The visitor center can help you orient yourself to the landscape, and a gift shop and exhibits are available. While many folks opt to bike, hike or rock-climb, others make the most of the 13-mile scenic loop, which lets you drive a picturesque circuit and offers stop-offs for photography. Still others prefer to travel via horseback or simply enjoy a picnic at one of the picnic areas. (702-515-5350)
About Heather Turk
A graduate of the University of Southern California, Heather's byline has appeared everywhere from The Los Angeles Times to Playboy.com--with her review of The Truman Show making the front page of The Detroit News' movie section when she was just 16 years old. When she's not at her computer writing a story for one of the many outlets she freelances for (including Allegiant Air's in-flight magazine Sunseeker, the Los Angeles Times Las Vegas Guide and CBS Las Vegas), she can often be found at the movies, on the Strip checking out the latest restaurant/show/spa/hotel opening or at Disneyland.
Read more about Heather Turk here.