Nothing showcases the beauty of desolation and solitude quite like the Mojave National Preserve. The 1.6 million-acre park in Southern California has an incredible array of land formations: sprawling mesas, deep valleys, and rugged mountains. The Kelso Dune Field is a must-see attraction because some of the dunes can “sing.” Hikers slowly slide down the dunes’ face and the sand emits a low-frequency rumble which can be both heard and felt throughout the body. The skyline of the Cima Dome area of the preserve features conical outlines of well-preserved volcanos and black basalt lava floes that went dormant 10,000 years ago during the last ice age. There are abandoned mines and old military outposts throughout the park, a haunting reminder of the humans that braved this harsh landscape. This savagely beautiful destination is only 80 minutes from Las Vegas.
Just 90-minutes from the chaos of Las Vegas, travelers can find a slower pace for recreation. Laughlin still caters to those who came to Nevada to gamble, so the main strip has casinos, upscale resorts, and bars. But it’s Laughlin’s proximity to the Colorado River that makes it a hub for outdoor enthusiasts. A day on the water can include everything from whitewater rafting to jetskiing. Alternatively, visitors can head to Lake Mojave, a manmade lake perfect for fishing, SCUBA diving, kayaking, and cliff jumping. A bit farther inland, there are trails for desert hiking, horseback riding, and riding ATV’s. The riverwalk offers waterfront views and is a picturesque place to catch some outdoor music or grab a bite to eat at an outdoor cafe.
Willow Beach is the go-to spot for freshwater recreation less than an hour from Las Vegas. The marina has lots of places to rent reasonably priced yet reliable boats, jet skis, and other watersports equipment. There are guided kayak tours that go right up to the base of the Hoover Dam, stopping at quiet coves, waterfalls, and hidden hot springs along the way. SCUBA divers can explore the lakebed in nearby Lake Mead. The gypsum reefs are extensive and consist of white, irregularly eroded formations and overhangs that can only be seen on guided dives. Expect to work up an appetite on the water; there are plenty of waterfront eateries and cafes serving up an array of American fare and finger foods. Fisherman lucky enough to hook something can take their catch to select restaurants and have it cooked up for lunch. It doesn’t get any fresher than that!
In the Valley of Fire State Park, it’s all about color. The park is famous for its 40,000 acres of deep red Aztec sandstone outcroppings, offset by the grey and tan limestone around them. Drive or hike through the park and explore the strange, almost alien, rock formations throughout the grounds. The Elephant Rock is a large formation loosely resembling a pachyderm just east of the entrance. Further in, the Beehives are large, sandstone domes that have been rippled by erosion to resemble the waxy surfaces of hives. In Pastel Canyon, the wind has smoothed the valleys into gently rolling shapes that look like they’ve been painted various shades of pink with an artist’s brush. No matter what trail visitors hike, cycle, or drive through there will be stunning rock formations to see and valleys to traverse. Incredibly, this stark yet stunning environment is less than an hour for Las Vegas.
Visitors that want a desert resort experience like Las Vegas but on a smaller scale head to Pahrump. The town has quite a few kitschy, roadside casinos and upscale golf courses. The open deserts around the town are ideal for ATV trails, hiking, and mountain biking. Perhaps the best way to see the surrounding landscape is by hot air balloon. Colorful balloons take off at dawn and float high above Pahrump and, on clear days, it’s possible to see Las Vegas in the distance (1 hour and 15 minutes by car).