By Andrea Bennett
January 14, 2015
Credit: Niebrugge Images / Alamy

Soaking up the wonders of Mother Nature is not generally travelers’ primary motivation for visiting Las Vegas. But you only have to look out your west-facing hotel room on the Strip—and see the dramatic cliffs of Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area—to know that a goldmine of hiking fun awaits. And that’s just one reason (albeit a nearly 200,000-acre reason) to hike around Las Vegas. Where else, for instance, could you easily transport yourself from the steamy summer heat on the Strip to an Alpine village that’s several climate zones away and up to 40 degrees cooler? Or, you could travel just a bit farther, and hike cliffs that appear to be on fire when the sun hits them just right. This being Vegas, our local hiking options offer a natural showmanship on the caliber of a great Strip show. You just need to know where to go. Here are my five favorite Vegas area hikes:

Valley of Fire

It’s well worth the 90-minute drive to get to Nevada’s oldest state park. Most people consider Valley of Fire to be the ultimate hiking dream, with its red rock cliffs, canyons and valleys spread over 34,880 acres. Don’t miss Atlatl Rock, where you can see ancient petroglyphs that date back thousands of years, to the Moapa tribe, or the three-mile hike through Fire Canyon, where the rocks look like they’re ablaze when the sun hits them just right.

Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area

Nevada’s first National Conservation Area—only 17 miles west of the Strip on Charleston Boulevard—is enormous: It’s 195,000-plus acres, and visited by more than a million people each year. More than 30 miles of hiking trails, rock climbing and mountain biking—as well as cool interpretive programs, like night hikes, sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management—make it one of the most popular natural areas in the Vegas Valley. A spectacular hike that most people can do is the 6.3-mile hike to Las Vegas Overlook. You’ll get an incredible view of Red Rock Canyon, and might even see seashell imprints along the way. Ask at the visitors’ center where you can find the fossilized tracks of the two-footed dinosaurs known as theropods, which have been found here.

Mount Charleston

The journey up Mount Charleston is fun all the time, but it’s at its most dramatic in the summer. That time of year, you can drive just 35 miles northwest of Las Vegas to an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet, passing through a number of distinct climate zones and past the cacti into juniper, aspen and Ponderosa pines. If you love a little soft adventure, check out Mary Jane Falls: this hike featuring a waterfall and cave only takes an hour. Big Falls, meanwhile, has a dramatic,100-foot waterfall. After your adventure, hang out on the deck at Mount Charleston Lodge (at 7,700 feet) for a hot chocolate or a cocktail.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

If you’d prefer a bit of nature-gawking to a major hike, Ash Meadows—with its 23,000 acres of blue-green streams and pools—is a strange and beautiful desert oasis. It’s famous for its rare and tiny pupfish—which is only one of 24 resident creatures that are not found anywhere else in the world. You might see birds like the desert Phainopeplam, or (since this is Pahrump—famous for its legalized prostitution), and you might also spot Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss, hard at work renovating one of the local brothels.

Frenchman Mountain

If you're a devoted hiker and have even half a day, you’ll love Frenchman Mountain, which is the highest peak in the range along the eastern border of the Las Vegas Valley. You can climb two peaks here: a northern false summit (3,942 feet) and a southern true summit (4,052 feet) separated by a saddle. It takes only 20 minutes to get here from the Strip; once you’ve reached the summit, you’ll get some excellent views of the city to the west, and the Lake Mead region to your east. Just avoid it during the height of the summer and take plenty of water.