Jason and I love Las Vegas. In fact we really, really love Vegas. The hotels are amazing, the food is delicious, and the shows are always fabulous. I know, I sound like a representative from the tourism board, but we never get sick of this crazy town.
And yet, for most visits to Sin City, we typically set aside time for a day trip away from the glitz and glamour. There is so much to see within driving distance, including some of the top natural wonders in the world. So if you’re planning a visit, here are our favorite day trips from Las Vegas. I’ve organized them in order of distance, starting with those closest to Vegas and ending with those the farthest.
Seven Magic Mountains, Nevada
For years we drove past the Seven Magic Mountains and wondered what those giant colored rocks were doing in the middle of the desert. So recently we decided to get off the 15 freeway and find out.
It turns out those rocks are part of a large-scale public art installation created by Swiss artist, Ugo Rondinone. It’s intended to be a creative critique of destinations like Las Vegas. The location is physically and symbolically mid-way between the natural and the artificial: the natural is expressed by the mountain ranges, desert, and Jean Dry Lake backdrop, and the artificial is expressed by the highway and the constant flow of traffic between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Honestly, I don’t think most people care that this is art. Instead, it’s become a wildly popular place for Instagram photos. But I’m glad we finally got around to checking it out. It’s free and an easy stop on your way to or from Vegas.
Seven Magic Mountains is located about thirty minutes southwest of Vegas. Be sure to use your GPS to find it, since the exits are long before you see the actual art installation. It is open 24 hours a day, but there are no lights, so plan to visit in the daytime.
Red Rock Canyon, Nevada
We’ve been to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area dozens of times and always enjoy it. This vast canyon floor is surrounded by red, beige, and pink rock formations ranging in size from large boulders to small mountains. This almost 200,000 acres reserve is popular with both hikers and rock climbers.
We come here to hike and have tried about six different trails in the area. Among our favorite trails are the 2.6 mile Ice Box Canyon Trail and 6 mile Calico Hills Trail. Keep your eyes peeled as you hike because you just might see Bighorn Sheep. Don’t plan to hike here in the summer when temperatures soar into the low 100’s. But if you’re coming late fall through spring, definitely set aside time to hike at Red Rock
If you don’t feel like hiking, no worries. There’s a 13 mile scenic drive around the canyon that offers great views. Along the way are several viewpoints where you can park and get out to get pictures.
But whatever you do, don’t skip the Visitors Center. Here you’ll find information about the wildlife and flora and fauna of the area. Volunteers are often available to help hikers select the right trail or answer any questions. There’s also plenty of bathrooms, vending machines, and even a small gift shop.
Red Rock is about thirty minutes northwest of the Las Vegas Strip, so this is a great half day activity. Currently the entrance fee is $15 per car, and it’s open from 6 AM to 8 PM.
Hoover Dam, Nevada
Less than an hour southeast of Las Vegas is the engineering marvel, Hoover Dam. At the time of its completion in 1935 it was the highest dam in the world. It’s as tall as a 60 story building and took over 21,000 men to build it. Today it provides power to Nevada, Arizona, and California.
There are several options for exploring the Hoover Dam. If time is limited, just driving over the dam is worth the experience. Other options include checking out the Visitors Center or taking a one-hour guided tour. If you don’t have a car, booking a tour from Las Vegas is also an option. We haven’t tried the helicopter tour yet, but it's a great way to get an aerial view of the dam. The one hour tour booked at the Hoover Dam Visitors Center is currently $15 a person. Organized tours from Vegas range in price from $50-$500 depending on mode of transportation, length of time, and size of the group.
Valley Of Fire State Park, Nevada
Valley of Fire State Park is another beautiful park, and it’s name says it all. Here, like Red Rock, you’ll find deep red rock formations, but with a large number of slot canyons and petrified wood thrown in for good measure.
I recommend starting at the Visitors Center to learn more about this park. And if you’re planning to hike, this is a great place to get suggestions from volunteers.
All of the trails in Valley of Fire are short--under two miles--and none of them are difficult. So when we visited we hiked several of the trails which is a great way to see different parts of the park. One of the highest rated hikes is the 1.2 mile Fire Wave Trail. Bright red rocks appear to roll like a wave, thus giving this trail its name.
Valley of Fire State Park is about one hour drive northeast of The Strip. Currently the entrance fee is $10 for Valley of Fire State Park and it’s open 24 hours a day.
Death Valley National Park, California
I can’t imagine a worse name for a national park than Death Valley, but since no one asked for my opinion on this, we are stuck with this depressing moniker. Despite the name, there is plenty of beauty to be found in Death Valley National Park.
Jason and I have only hiked one trail here, Golden Canyon, a 1.5 mile out and back hike that ends at the top of a rock formation called Red Cathedral. From here you have expansive views of the surrounding canyon. We packed a lunch and enjoyed it on the red rocks. We were told by a ranger that this is the most popular trail in the park, and yet we had it mostly to ourselves.
Other highlights within the park include Zabriskie Point, Artists Palette, Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, and Badwater Basin. Death Valley is about two hours northwest of Vegas, so it’s very manageable as a day trip from Las Vegas. However, the park itself is enormous--over 5,200 square miles. Prior to your trip, spend some time selecting the sites you most want to see and then map out your day accordingly.
While there are services in the park including lodging, restaurants, and gas stations, they may not be near the sights you want to see. So plan to bring food and water with you, and fill up your gas tank before leaving Vegas.
The entrance fee to Death Valley is currently $30 per vehicle. You will need to pull over to pay for your fee at the automated machines and then keep the receipt on your dashboard. If you’ll be visiting more than one national park a year, plan to purchase the America The Beautiful Pass for $80. This pass gives you admission to all national parks and monuments--it’s an amazing deal!
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Picking a favorite national park is sort of like picking a favorite child--it shouldn’t be done. But I’ll admit I have a special place in my heart for Joshua Tree, and highly recommend it as a day trip from Las Vegas. After living in Southern California for thirty years, I just started visiting this national park two years ago. It isn’t as sexy as Yosemite or Grand Canyon, but it’s stark desert landscape dotted with spiky Joshua Trees make for a beautiful tableau. And it doesn’t hurt that there’s some great hiking here.
This will be a full day trip since the drive is three hours each way, so I suggest getting an early start to allow plenty of time in the park. If you enjoy hiking I recommend the following trails;
- Hidden Valley Nature Trail, one mile loop through a former hideaway for Cattle Rustlers
- Barker’s Dam, a one mile loop past Barker’s Dam with petroglyphs to see at the end
- Fortynine Palms Oasis, a challenging 1.5 out and back trail to an oasis packed with fan palms.
Definitely stop at the Visitor’s Center on your way in or out. First, there are nice bathrooms here, but you’ll also find informative exhibits, a gift shop, and park rangers available to answer questions. It’s important to mention that there are no services in the park, so be sure to bring all the food and water you’ll need for the day. If you’re planning to hike, bring sunscreen, a hat, and a first aid kit.
Like Death Valley, the entrance fee to Joshua Tree is $30 per vehicle. But if you have the America The Beautiful Pass you won’t have to pay it and you’ll get into the park faster!