Las Vegas is generally thought of as a destination unto itself, rather than a launching pad to other places. But increasingly, Vegas visitors are realizing that the Strips makes a luxurious home base for exploring any of natural attractions—including nine national parks—within a seven-hour drive of the city. Also, one could argue that a dose of rugged landscapes and serene sunsets cleanses the palate nicely after a few days of windowless casino life. You can plan one of these excursions as a simple day trip or as an overnight, depending on the attraction (we’re including some parks that are close, and some farther away). Luxury tour operators are also making it easier for Vegas visitors to get away in style: as in, you can have your Champagne picnic at the base of the Grand Canyon via helicopter—not burro— then return to the city for a smashing dinner. Here are the five most compelling trips outside the Vegas grid:
Bonnie Springs Ranch
Just 30 minutes away from the Las Vegas Strip, the Wild West-style Bonnie Spring Ranch is a good outing for kids (or grown-ups) who start feeling claustrophobic in a casino hotel. At this 115-acre spread, you can all go to the zoo, ride the train and take horseback rides; and, although you might want to tell yourself they’re cheesy, almost everyone loves the “gunfights” that occur in the center of town. The stables are open every day, with pony rides for kids, and the zoo features wolves and a Canadian Lynx.
Death Valley National Park
This spot in Eastern California’s Mojave Desert is the lowest, driest, and hottest area in North America—and got dubbed Death Valley by prospectors traveling through during the Gold Rush. It’s just a two- to three-hour drive from Las Vegas: The faster way is on route 95, but you can take a more scenic look from the 160, where you’ll see the simple beauty of flat plains, valleys and cracked earth. (You can also easily find 40-minute flights there.) The guided tour from the Visitors Center is well worth the time—particularly for dinosaur fans who will be fascinated by the paleontology tour. Also, don’t miss Scotty’s Castle in Grapevine Canyon, an incredible Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial villa located in an oasis in Grapevine Canyon.
Thousands of people a day travel to the Hoover Dam, which is only about 45 minutes away from the Strip. From the overlook—when you look straight down from its 726 feet—you’ll get amazing views of the dam, Lake Mead, the Black Canyon and the Colorado River. There are two tours available: one of the power plant, and one that travels the passageways of the dam (most people prefer the latter).
Grand Canyon National Park
Of course, it’s one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. But until the many helicopter companies began flying visitors over—and into—it, you used to have to take a five-hour bus ride to the North and South rims. The two main routes from Vegas are the West Rim, through a Native American reservation, or the South Rim, which is maintained by the U.S. government. Companies like Maverick, Papillon and Sundance Helicopters provide transportation from the Strip to McCarran International Airport; from there you can also check out the canyon on the 4,000-foot-high Skywalk, the vertiginous, horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that’s cantilevered over part of the West Rim.
Zion National Park
One of the most extravagant and awe-inspiring pieces of nature in the west is just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Vegas. Make your base Springdale, Utah (home of the adorably old-timey Springdale Candy Company), before heading into the towering cliffs of Zion National Park, which was given its name by Mormon pioneers. The park has an explosion of color—with white, red and pink rock formations among its wildflowers, forests and waterfalls. Start in the visitor center to figure out which of the many trails is right for you. I’ve even hiked some trails with a three-year-old.