Southern Nevada’s Unforgettable Nature Areas

Even in the desert, nature bursts with beauty

Springtime in Vegas. Its warm, yet mild, temperatures make you want to get outdoors and pack a picnic, go for a hike, even go camping for a night or two. You’re in luck —there are myriad possibilities that are less than 100 miles away, some just outside of the city limits. Get out and explore the great outdoors, learn about native cultures, even discover some celebrity-owned haunts, with our guide to the greatest nature areas in southern Nevada.

 

Go back to the Ice Age, literally, with a trip to the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge—this glorious look into the species indigenous to Nevada (it has the highest concentration of endemic species in the United States), the refuge is known for its “fossil water,” which melted from ice from the last ice age. Mammoths and other large creatures drank this very water, and the desert fish that swim in the springs have survived since that time. In fact, the refuge absolutely teems with plants and animals that can’t be found anywhere else in the world, including five that are on the endangered species list and seven species that are threatened.

 

The wildlife viewing is second-to-none at Ash Meadows—more than 300 species of birds have been seen here. Animals include 20 species of reptiles (including the chuckwalla) and four species of amphibians, as well as bighorn sheep, antelope, ground squirrels, bats, coyotes and several species of dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies.

 

The refuge is located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

 

Glamorized in newspapers by the movie stars who came to the “Wild West,” to obtain a divorce, Tule Springs Ranch at Floyd Lamb State Park was a self-supporting ranch and could accommodate 10-12 guests waiting out the six-week residency requirement, which in the 1940s was the shortest time requirement of any state to obtain a divorce.

The guest house sheltered many would-be divorcees during the 1940s. (Courtesy City of Las Vegas)

But Tule Springs was more than a home to prospective divorcees; it is also regarded in the scientific community as one of the best examples of Pleistocene paleontoligic sites in the West. Here, fossils of mammoths, giant sloths, bison, horses, camels and Pleistocene fauna have been discovered. Now a City of Las Vegas park, four small lakes can be found here; fishing is allowed. Located 15 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

A handful of small lakes dots the property. (Courtesy City of Las Vegas)

The most dramatic and breathtaking natural wonders near Las Vegas can be found in  Nevada’s oldest state park, Valley of Fire. It’s named for the brilliant red sandstone formations created as sand dunes shifted during the Jurassic period. The Basket Maker people and Anasazi Pueblo farmers were native to the region, and their use does not go unpreserved—it’s evidenced in early dwellings, as well as the petroglyphs that can be seen while hiking through the area. While visiting, common animal sightings include ravens, roadrunners, lizards, kit foxes, black-tailed jackrabbits and on rare occasions, desert tortoises.

Who is observing whom?

Valley of Fire is also a great place to camp for those who want to get some space from their neighbors. The picturesque surroundings offer unique discoveries at every turn, although you’ll want to make your way throughout the park to discover the most famous rock formations: Atlatl Rock, Seven Sisters, the Cabins and White Domes. Located 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

 

Nevada’s entry point to the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and the part of the Spring Mountains, Mount Charleston’s elevation ranges from 3,000-12,000 feet, making it a respite from the hot Vegas temps in summer and an ideal place at which to take up sports such as skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding in winter. In spring, it’s the ideal place to undertake a hike or bird-watch; in all, 58 species of plants and animals unique to the area call this forest home. Pack a picnic lunch and stop at the rolling meadow; if you wish to stay overnight, forgo the noisy, crowded campground and spring for a cabin at the on-site lodge.

The idyllic views from Mount Charleston are as cool as they are peaceful.

Mount Charleston was also the site of one of the most notorious plane crashes in Air Force history. In 1955, an Air Force plane carrying aircraft designers, CIA agents and civilians clipped a ridge 50 feet below the mountain’s crest. The passengers were en route to Groom Lake, to work on the secret U-2 program. Located 35 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

 

Owned at one time by Howard Hughes, and later, German actress Vera Krupp, Spring Mountain Ranch State Park is so named because of the springs in the mountains, which provided water to the Paiute Indians, and later, settlers to the area. But let the actors who are versed in the ranch’s background relay that information first hand—Spring Mountain has a vibrant living history program, which not only introduces you to the pioneers who made Las Vegas what it is today, but also the Civil War and colonial living.

 

From May through December, Spring Mountain Ranch opens for musicals beneath the stars. Patrons bring blankets to spread out on the lawn, or can rent a chair for a dollar. Super Summer Theatre offers families the chance to relax outdoors in temps that are 10-15 degrees cooler than in town, while watching the best community theater talent Las Vegas has to offer. 

 

The park is just beyond the scenic drive that takes you into the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, which has more than 30 miles of hiking trails, accessible off the 13-mile scenic loop road that takes you through the canyon. Before you venture inside Red Rock, say hello to “spokestortoise” Mojave Max – you may also spy wild burros behind the visitor’s center. Get an early start to hike as many of the trails as you can, some of which take you right up to the red peaks and white bluffs. Red Rock and Spring Mountain Ranch are located 15 miles west of Las Vegas.