Stunning parks, great scenery outside Vegas worth the gamble
LAS VEGAS -- The images of Las Vegas are familiar: gambling, ostentatious theme hotels, gambling, shows, the Strip ... and gambling.
All are legitimate lures to the city, which gets its name from the Spanish for "The Meadows," but is better known as "Sin City" or by its now-famous tagline, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."
But when we visited friends who moved there from the East, they recommended leaving Vegas for some regional sightseeing. So, on our first morning there, we awoke to see the sunrise, packed a lunch and got an early start to Zion National Park, about 160 miles away. Zion's big brother, the Grand Canyon, is about another 100 miles from there.
Zion, officially made a national park in 1919, is actually in Utah, but with Las Vegas sitting in the southeast corner of Nevada, it is easily reached by going through a bit of neighboring Arizona to get there. The drive northeast took us past the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and in the neighborhood of the sprawling Nellis Air Force Base, all through some of America's most stunning scenery. (We felt sympathy for our driver friend, who had to keep his eyes on the road.)
The distances went by quickly as we gaped through the car windows at commanding rock formations and canyons, arid brush valleys.
The entrance fee to the park -- good for a week -- is $25 per car (and passengers), $12 for a motorcycle and $12 per person. (Check for free days, like National Public Lands Day, and annual passes; plus, April through October, you can take a free shuttle bus that began running in the year 2000 to reduce traffic.)
We saw Court of the Patriarchs, with a view of rock formations named Abraham, Isaac and Jacob peaks, ranging some 7,000 feet up. (They were so named by Mormons, who discovered the canyon in 1858 and settled there in the mid-19th century.)
We had our picnic lunch at The Gorge and marveled at the red sandstone walls, created by millions of years of sedimentation and uplift, towering majestically on both sides of the Virgin River running through the canyon. Magnificent indeed. There, we caught our first glimpse of wildlife, young deer grazing near the water.
We alighted again at the Temple of Sinawava, named for the coyote god of the Paiute Indians. Here, Zion Canyon narrows and we walked the paved foot-trail about a mile to the mouth of the gorge, sharing the way with numerous squirrels who seemed oblivious to the two-footed invaders.
We gloried in more of the stunning sights on the ride back and returned to Vegas well in time for dinner and to make our donations to the ubiquitous slot machines.
Hoover Dam was next on our hosts' itinerary.
Just about 30 miles or so southeast of Las Vegas, in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, this concrete dam was completed in 1935 and formed Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake and reservoir in the United States. (The second largest is nearby Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River. Most of it, including the Rainbow Bridge, is in Utah, though it straddles the border between Utah and Arizona.)
Traffic is not allowed across the Hoover Dam, but, after parking, we climbed up the stairs to the Mike Callahan-Pat Tillman Memorial arch bridge for a spectacular view of the dam and the surrounding area. The bridge is in Nevada on one side and Arizona on the other.
An outing for another day of our visit was Mount Charleston, in the Spring Mountains and Toiyabe National Forest, northwest of Las Vegas. At nearly 12,000 feet, it is the highest point in the area, a popular getaway spot for Las Vegans who want to escape the summer heat. Its cool mountain breezes bring temperatures down 20 to 30 degrees.
On the way back, we drove around Red Rock Canyon, awed by its towering red sandstone cliffs, some reaching 3,000 feet. It was hard to believe that this natural beauty was only about 15 miles west of metropolitan Las Vegas.
Back in the city, we took a walk on the wild side and wandered the Strip to ogle the flashy hotels, see a show and contribute, again, to the cacophonous casinos that bait visitors with slot machines, card tables and roulette wheels.
After just an extended weekend, we headed back to McCarran Airport for the trip home. While waiting to board our flight, we played the slot machines, in the terminal.