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3 Southwestern Weekend Getaways


Photo: Buff Strickland

Desert Backcountry
(381 miles round-trip from Las Vegas)

WELCOME TO THE GREATEST EARTH ON SHOW , declares one highway sign. Those words couldn’t be truer about this drive from Las Vegas through Nevada and Utah—where the sky is vast, the landscape is alive, the cowboy hats are big, and the pickup trucks come caked and splattered with red dirt. This is the real American Southwest, with a wildness and emptiness that allows you a taste of frontier life. It’s a trip through the land of the Marlboro Man and Thelma and Louise .

Lay of the Land

Twenty miles outside Las Vegas, a world away from the fountains at Bellagio, the I-15 freeway traffic starts to dwindle, and a realization sets in: this is 100 percent desert—mesquite-shrub, cholla-sprouting, brittlebush-parched earth. Make a stop at Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park , where red sandstone that’s been whipped, beaten, and sculpted by wind and rain forms odd geological structures, such as beehive- and piano-shaped stones. • The drive north passes through Joshua tree–strewn desert and canyons, ending up in the hub of St. George . Remnants of its Mormon pioneer past live on downtown, but the area shows signs of overdevelopment from the snowbirds who have flocked to this sunny corner. • East of  St. George lies the 1950’s-style town of Springdale , reached by State Route 9, which dips along the Virgin River and ascends into pasture surrounded by mesas. Motels and cafés line Zion Park Boulevard, Springdale’s main drag, along with galleries and (of course) adventure outfitters. The main draw here is nature—you’re right outside Zion National Park . • Head northeast from St. George to Silver Reef , an atmospheric ghost town that was once the largest settlement in southern Utah. An 1879 Wells Fargo bank (which now houses a bronze-sculpture gallery), an old stone kiln, some photogenic ruins, and the Cosmopolitan Restaurant (see next page) are all that remain of the former silver-mining boomtown. • West of St. George is Ivins , set in the foothills of Snow Canyon State Park . The landscape forms a jigsaw puzzle of snowcapped mountains, jagged cliffs, deep valleys, and jumbled lava rock. In these parts, sunsets are an event, with the mesas and cliffs morphing from maroon and orange into green, purple, and black.

—Mary Bianco

The Route

Las Vegas to Valley of Fire: 73 miles
Valley of Fire to St. George: 84 miles
St. George to Springdale: 41 miles


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