Las Vegas rises up in the Mojave Desert like an urban island of lights and tall buildings. But beyond the dazzling hotel casinos on the Strip, you’ll find the striking natural beauty of the surrounding desert. Canyons, rock formations, and forbidding yet intriguing landscapes are all within a day's traveling distance.
Vegas makes a great base camp for a series of day trips into the desert. In three days, you can see wondrous natural sights, and you won't have to pitch a tent once (unless you want to). Spend your days snapping pictures and marveling at amazing scenery, and come back to the Strip for the evening.
Since you'll be traveling all day, pick a hotel with plenty of amenities. At the end of a long day, you won't have to go far for a restaurant or entertainment. Additionally, large properties often have a concierge or a helpful front desk that can recommend tours if you don't feel like figuring out the logistics. While most Vegas Strip hotel casinos have an array of on-site features, expansive properties like The Venetian, Mandalay Bay, or MGM Grand offer guests enough options that you'll never have to leave unless you want to.
Day One: Death Valley
Nevada and California share Death Valley National Park, which is the largest national park in the "lower 48," so you'll have to visit Alaska to find something larger. Located northwest of Las Vegas, Death Valley is so large that you could spend all three days there and not come close to seeing everything. It's also a fine destination for a day trip from Las Vegas.Scotty's Castle in Death Valley National Park — Photo courtesy of Gabriel Millos
Scotty's Castle, one of Death Valley's most popular attractions, is about a two-hour drive from Las Vegas. In the 1920s and 1930s, smooth-talking Walter Scott, a.k.a. Death Valley Scotty, convinced Albert Mussey Johnson to build an impressive building, the "castle." The technology used was truly innovative for its day. The Underground Tour takes visitors behind the scenes (more accurately, below the scenes) to see things like the water wheel that supplied the house with electricity.
Day Two: Valley of Fire
The Valley of Fire State Park is contained within the area known as the Grand Circle, a geographic area that covers portions of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. Within this circle, you'll find a dramatic collection of buttes, cliffs, canyons, mountains, and rock formations. Elephant Rock, Valley of Fire State Park — Photo courtesy of Ken Lund
Two hours northeast of Las Vegas off Interstate 15, you'll find Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada's first and oldest state park. Stop at the visitor center to learn about the ancient people that lived in the area. Hike the trails to see fascinating rock formations, and the petroglyphs and pictographs that the early inhabitants left behind. The park has several picnic areas and hiking trails, including the popular Atlatl Rock, where you can climb a staircase to see a large display of rock art.
Day Three: The Grand Canyon
For your last venture away from the Strip, splurge and take a helicopter tour to the Grand Canyon. Papillon Helicopters or TourGuy.com are two of the many tour groups that can help you see one of the rims. The North and South Rim are within Grand Canyon National Park, so regulations there restrict helicopters. At the West Rim, the Hualapai Tribal Nation allows more flights and landings at the bottom of the canyon.Grand Canyon South Rim — Photo courtesy of Comte Mal
A helicopter ride will give you a new perspective of the desert. Along the way to the Gand Canyon, the views of Lake Mead and Hoover Dam will have you snapping loads of pictures. The view as you descend into the Grand Canyon will leave you speechless.