Las Vegas summers are known for their triple-digit extremes, which send many visitors straight to the pool or inside the casino to escape the heat.
While either water or air conditioning will certainly help keep you cool, if you’d like to enjoy a whole day of milder temps, take a day trip to Mount Charleston. In July, the average high at Mount Charleston is 80°F, while the city can easily top 100°F.
Kyle Canyon and Mt. Charleston — Photo courtesy of Terrisa Meeks
Mount Charleston is more formally known as the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area. There’s also a large wilderness surrounding the actual mountain itself, which has a peak just under 12,000 feet. Visitors should note that Las Vegas residents tend to refer to the entire place as Mount Charleston, though.
Two canyons, Kyle and Lee, hold campgrounds, trails, picnic areas, two hotels and even a ski resort. Mount Charleston can easily be explored in a day, and it’s only about an hour’s drive from the Strip.
From the Las Vegas Strip, take I-15 North to US 95 North until you get to Highway 157, which will take you into Kyle Canyon.
As you drive to the canyon and gain altitude, the desert around you slowly changes into a mountain area. You’ll notice the Joshua trees and cacti start to give way to pine, juniper, scrub oak and manzanita. In the upper elevations of Mount Charleston, you’ll also find bristlecone pines, which can be incredibly long-lived, reaching thousands of years in age.
Las Vegas: Keep cool in a Las Vegas summer with these fun things to do
First stop: Spring Mountains Visitor Gateway
Spring Mountains Gateway Visitor Center — Photo courtesy of Terrisa Meeks
Your first stop should be the Spring Mountains Visitor Gateway, which encompasses 90 acres. The displays inside the visitor center explain the area’s history and wildlife, providing a helpful overview for the rest of your day in the area. One must-see at the center is the Polage Art window mural by artist Austine Wood Comarow, which uses polarization to create an ever-changing mural depicting the flora and fauna of the Spring Mountains.
Outside of the center, you’ll find several hiking trails, picnic areas and amphitheaters. Visitors can walk through Seven Stones Plaza, a sculpture/monument to the seven Paiute tribes who consider the area sacred.
Directly outside the visitor center is the Cold War memorial, which includes a propeller from a plane that crashed near the summit of Mt. Charleston in 1955, killing all 14 men aboard. The plane was flying on a secret mission to what’s now known as Area 51, as part of a project involving the U-2 spy plane. The crash victims’ families didn’t know the details of the crash for decades because of the project’s extreme secrecy.
A network of trails outside the center will take you into the surrounding area. You can enjoy a short stroll or take a more serious hike, but when you’re exploring, remember to bring plenty of water, use sunscreen and wear a hat. It’s cooler here than in the city, but there’s still an abundance of direct sunlight and not much shade in this area.
After leaving the visitor center, travel up 157 past The Retreat on Charleston Peak, which is a popular location for weddings. As you continue up the road, you’ll pass several hiking trails, campgrounds and the small village of Mt. Charleston.
Second stop: Mt. Charleston Lodge
Patio area at the Mt. Charleston Lodge — Photo courtesy of Terrisa Meeks
Your next destination is the Mt. Charleston Lodge, perched at 7,000 feet where the road ends and the air is refreshingly cool. The view of Mt. Charleston from here is picture-perfect.
Stop here for lunch and photos before continuing the last leg of your exploration, which will take you over the mountains to Highway 158. The food is American fare served in hearty portions, and during summer, you may wait a while for a table, especially if you want to sit outside on the patio.
After leaving the Lodge, you’ll retrace your route back down Highway 157 until you reach the turn to 158. This two-lane mountain road features several paved turnouts for cars to pull over and enjoy the expansive views.
If you feel like hiking, you can stop at the popular short hiking trail of Robber’s Roost, and if you skipped lunch because you wanted to find a place to picnic, the Deer Creek picnic area is off 158 and can only be reached by foot.
Third stop: Desert View Overlook
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While all of Highway 158 is scenic, the Desert View Overlook, located at an elevation of about 8,000 feet, gives you a stunning panoramic view of the Mojave Desert. The short, paved trail at the overlook has a multitude of information panels about the area’s geology and inhabitants.
Continue along 158 until you reach 156, where you can turn right and head back to the city, or turn left and drive into Lee Canyon. During summer, the ski resort is closed, but the area still has some great trails, like the Bristlecone Loop trail where you can learn about these incredible trees, easily identified by their needles which look a lot like large green bottle brushes.
To get back to Vegas, take 156 back to US 95. If you’re returning at night, you’ll get to enjoy a great view of the city lights as you head back into town.