Visiting Las Vegas to hike? Where, one wag asked, from New York-New York to Paris to the Sahara?
Not quite. As my wife and I learned a couple of months ago, Vegas has plenty to offer as an outdoors destination. A short drive from the Strip puts you amid the stunning terrain of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area or Valley of Fire State Park, two stretches of land reminiscent of Zion or Bryce Canyon national parks in Utah.
Neither Joyzelle nor I are Vegas people. We've lived happily without gambling, neon or Siegfried & Roy. But we do like the outdoors, and my long-held phobia of scorpions mandates that any trip to the desert involve a hotel rather than a tent. So Vegas, surprisingly, began to seem a natural destination.
We settled on the Marriott Suites, a few blocks off the Strip, hoping to have as un-Vegas an experience as possible. The hotel, at $179 a night plus tax, also was one of the better values, given we had booked late for a holiday weekend in peak season.
We breathed a sigh of relief when we stepped into the lobby and were greeted not by the clatter of slot machines but the chatter at the bar. Our suite was compact and bland but comfortable.
The three-day weekend had given us the flexibility to dodge Friday night traffic out of Los Angeles. We arrived on Saturday and gave in to the city only for Saturday night, when we partook of your average Vegas buffet at the nearby Las Vegas Hilton -- adequate food, wine dispensed by bar tap. As we went back for our third round of desserts, we tried to tell ourselves we were different from the other gluttons because we had packed hiking boots.
An expanse of alien terrain
Valley of Fire State Park, 55 miles northeast of the Strip, was our destination the next day. The valley gets its name from its twisted ramparts of red sandstone, which explode in color when hit by sunlight and are framed by towering gray peaks. The red comes in all shades -- a brilliant vermilion, a milder maroon, blackened copper -- streaked with black and green highlights. Joyzelle likened the landscape to a giant penny as we pulled over to marvel at the view.
One paved road runs west to east through the park, with turnoffs to eyeball odd rock formations or take short walks. A spur road extends north from the visitor center at the park's midsection, heading over a patch of hills into an even wilder stretch of undulating rocks and twisted canyons. It's terrain so unreal that it has been used to represent alien realms in films such as "The Beastmaster" and "Star Trek: Generations."
We found few marked trails but plenty of diversions. Our first major stop was at the trail for White Domes, at the northern end of the spur road. The easy, 1 1/4-mile loop is named for two towers of rock that loom above. It runs past an old movie set and through a slot canyon about 10 feet wide.
Back down the spur road and off the first turnout, a dirt road led into the desert. A ranger at the visitor center had told us this was a "self-explore" park, so we took her at her word and walked the road for about a quarter-mile before ending about 50 feet above a wash.
We clambered over a hill, taking care not to step on bighorn sheep tracks in the pink sand. At the top we could see mile after mile of multicolored desert. We ate our packed lunch under an enormous red outcropping, called Duck Rock because of its profile.
The spur road later led to another turnoff and a dirt road for Fire Canyon, ablaze in color. I craned my neck to see the blue line of Lake Mead over the canyon's southern rim. After spotting a pair of folks standing on top of a huge white knob called Silica Dome, Joyzelle and I headed toward that peak.
An interpretive sign said the dome's soft silica eventually would erode and become oxidized into a red formation. Joyzelle passed on the scramble to the top, but I went up and admired the crumbly cobweb of rock under my boots and the desert panorama below.
The next stop was Petroglyph Canyon, an easy half-mile trail to ancient Anasazi, Paiute and Basket Weaver petroglyphs -- sun signs, antelope, pinwheel collections of lines. It was the only crowded part of the park.
We were exhausted and hungry when we returned to the hotel, so we tried the restaurant next door, Piero's. A friend had recommended the place for its old-Vegas atmosphere and said it was a favorite of the flamboyant mayor, former mob lawyer Oscar Goodman.
Not knowing just what to expect, we entered the dark restaurant and stepped into a time warp, a place where the waiters' names were inscribed in gold thread on white tuxedo jackets. When the staff brought menus, Joyzelle and I realized that the moderately priced list we had eyed in the foyer had been for lunch. Dinner entrees, even the pasta, started at $23.
Our stomachs growled. We sank into our leather banquette, ordered a round of impeccably mixed cocktails and surrendered. Joyzelle had a tangy pasta in tomato sauce with scallops, I ordered a New York strip steak with a dollop of perfectly mashed potatoes, and we both vowed to eat cheaper the next day.
In the morning we drove west on Charleston Avenue past shopping centers and subdivisions. After half an hour we reached the edge of the city, the skeletons of more homes-to-be and a breathtaking view of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
The name is a misnomer. The park is more valley than canyon. The eastern edge is the Calico Hills, knobs of rock that are a prime rock-climbing destination. The western side of the valley is a striking collection of 7,000-foot-high mountains and cliffs.
A scenic road loops through the park, offering easy access to views and hikes. We took the turnoff for White Rock Spring and picked up a loop by Willow Spring. The 6 1/2-mile trail turned out to be the highlight of the weekend. It crept up and around a massive beige and scarlet mountain that rose from the valley floor. Behind the monolith was a verdant network of gullies, dotted with pinyon pine and agave.
We descended into a canyon, its east wall made of more striking slabs of red rock. We passed one other couple but were otherwise alone on the first 4 1/2 miles of the trail. Threatening clouds discouraged us from a side trip to a spring that purportedly hosts bighorn sheep and wild burros, but the solitude was welcome.