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Want to enjoy Las Vegas even more? Get out of town – on a day trip

Valley of Fire State Park
Valley of Fire, Nevada’s oldest state park.
(George Rose / Getty Images)

Eventually, you just have to take a break.

As fun as Las Vegas can be, you’ll need a respite from the bright lights, big city. You’ll want to feel the sun on your face, the wind in your hair and the smell of fresh, not recirculated, air.

So exit the casino and take a day trip to some of the weirder and wilder places — we mean that in the natural sense — away from the zillion-watt zoo.

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St. Thomas, Nev.

Reaching St. Thomas isn’t as easy nowadays as it was in the 1920s and ’30s, when it was a popular refueling stop along the Arrowhead Trail highway between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.

Getting here now means after a 65-mile jaunt northeast from Las Vegas, you take a bumpy, four-mile drive along a dirt road followed by a scramble down a steep hillside. Then you’ll need to make a two-mile hike through a thicket of tamarisks to what is the most unusual of the Silver State’s many ghost towns.

St. Thomas
A sign showing the trail to the ghost town of St. Thomas in Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

For decades, St. Thomas was underwater. It was flooded in 1938 after the building of Hoover Dam and the subsequent creation of sprawling Lake Mead. The village was thought to have been lost, but that was before a historic drought that began about 20 years ago caused the lake level to drop 140 feet.

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St. Thomas — or at least what’s left of the one-time Mormon settlement — has reemerged.

A few walls and the foundations of about 20 buildings, including the hotel and post office, are about all that remains, although at the schoolhouse, the front and rear steps, bleached both by water and sun, are intact.

Long admired for their electric glow, the casinos, hotels and other attractions of Las Vegas have largely turned to the brighter lights and lesser costs of LED technology. Neon? There’s a museum for that.

Intrepid travelers who make the trek will find interpretive signs recently posted by the National Park Service. “Now, when you stand at one of those foundations, you’ll see a photo of what that building looked like,” said Christie Vanover, a spokeswoman for the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Info: The town is off Interstate 15, Exit 93. Admission is $25 per vehicle when the entrance booth is staffed; bit.ly/StThomasNV

Valley of Fire State Park
Arch rock formations at the Valley of Fire, Nevada’s first state park.
(George Rose / Getty Images)

Valley of Fire State Park

Many people consider Valley of Fire Nevada’s premier state park. Roller-coaster roads take visitors through stunning formations of bright red sandstone. Trails beckon visitors to head to natural arches and the park’s bounty of petroglyphs, many easily accessible. The cooler months are the ideal time to visit, although the park and visitor center, with its well-curated exhibits of prehistoric life here, are open year-round.

Info: Valley of Fire State Park is about 53 miles from downtown Las Vegas. Admission is $10 per vehicle. bit.ly/valleyoffireNV

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Gold Strike Hot Springs Trail

Near the southern boundary of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the rugged Gold Strike Hot Springs Trail is for experienced hikers only. In about four hours, hikers descend 1,500 feet to the banks of the Colorado River, downriver from Hoover Dam and the Interstate 11 bridge.

Along the way, they are rewarded with wildflowers, waterfalls and steaming springs. (Always, always check the temperature of the water before climbing in.) Sometimes hikers will see bighorn sheep, which make the trek through the steep crevices look easy.

Casual hikers should not attempt this trail; rescues of people who get dehydrated or injured occur each year. Because of extreme summer heat, the trail is open only Oct. 1-May 14.

Info: Gold Strike Hot Springs Trail is about 35 miles southeast of the Vegas Strip. Admission is free. bit.ly/goldstrikehotsprings

Gold Strike Hot Springs Trail
Hikers use ropes to navigate the Gold Strike Hot Springs Trail.
(Sam Morris / Las Vegas News Bureau)

Emerald Tour of the Colorado River

Accessible to people of all skill levels, the Emerald Tour of the Colorado River kayak trip along the serene Colorado River leads guests through the Black Canyon to awe-inspiring Emerald Cave, a natural rock formation where sunlight hitting the water turns it a brilliant shade of green.

“It’s a natural phenomenon that only occurs a couple of hours out of the day for a few months out of the year, the spring and summer months, and then it goes back to a dark cave,” said Danny Latham, founder of Vegas Glass Kayaks.

Info: The six-hour Emerald Tour, timed to reach the cave when the sun is properly poised, departs at 10 a.m. daily and costs $195. The kayaks launch from Willow Beach in Arizona. Transportation from Las Vegas hotels is included. bit.ly/vegasglasskayaks

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Techatticup Mine
Old lanterns hang in Techatticup Mine.
(Alamy Stock Photo)

Eldorado Canyon Mine Tours

There’s still plenty of gold in these hills an hour or so southeast of Vegas. But guides for the Eldorado Canyon Mine Tours, not miners, work in the Techatticup Mine, once home to the richest veins of gold and silver in Southern Nevada.

After the mine’s discovery in 1861, prospectors traveling aboard steamboats plying the nearby Colorado River quickly reached it.

Before or after the tour, plan to spend some time exploring the old mining buildings and a colorful general store in which food and drinks are sold.

Info: The easy, one-quarter-mile, level walking tour of Eldorado Canyon Mine lasts a little more than an hour and begins at 9 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. daily, but only when four or more adults have reserved a spot. Advance booking is essential. Tickets cost $15 for those 13 and older and $10 for children 5-12. eldoradocanyonminetours.com

Oatman, Ariz.
A member of the Oatman Outlaws fires his gun during a show in the streets of Oatman, Ariz.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Oatman, Ariz.

Oatman was also once a thriving gold mining town, but today, the population has dwindled to about 120, many of whom work to keep the town’s history alive and its visitors entertained.

The main drag, which once carried Route 66 cross-country traffic, is now the domain of wild burros in search of food handouts; their ancestors were the miners’ pack animals. The road also hosts Wild West gunfights daily at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. (The mock gunslingers actually stop vehicles for a few minutes.) A cowboy hat is passed at the end of the show and the donations go to various charities.

Info: Oatman has plenty of dining and shopping options. The town is about 144 southeast of Las Vegas. oatmangoldroad.org

Wild burros in Oatman, Ariz.
Wild burros spot traffic along Route 66 in Oatman, Ariz.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Lee Canyon, Nev.

You can ski, snowboard and snowshoe about an hour’s drive from the Strip in Lee Canyon. Although the temperature in Vegas does dip below 32 degrees, it is seldom above freezing during winter in Lee Canyon, which has a base elevation of 8,510 feet. The ski resort gets about 160 inches of snow a year.

New this season is a large addition to Hillside Lodge, which hasn’t had a tune-up in 50 years. Besides expanding dining and lounge facilities, more restrooms have been added.

Lee Canyon rents ski gear and also offers “complimentary coaching”— essentially, free lessons — for beginner and intermediate skiers.

Info: Lee Canyon is about 55 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Lift ticket prices vary, depending on the day, but generally start at $64 a day. Check the online calendar for specifics. leecanyonlv.com

Lee Canyon
Lee Canyon, Nev.
(Lee Canyon)

Rhyolite, Nev

In a region still full of active gold claims, Rhyolite Ghost Town stands as a silent sentry to the miners who built this town 115 years ago. This one-time boom town had electricity, telephones, running water and even concrete sidewalks, but today only the shells of buildings remain, which you can explore.

The Rhyolite region is also home to two equally curious attractions. You can’t miss the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an outdoor sculpture park featuring Belgian artist Albert Szukalski’s rendition of the Last Supper. There’s also the Tom Kelly Bottle House, its walls built using 50,000 bottles of varying colors, shapes and sizes. No admission charge.

Info: Rhyolite Ghost Town is about 125 miles (two hours) northwest of Las Vegas. Admission is free. bit.ly/rhyoliteghosttown

Tom Kelly Bottle House
Tom Kelly Bottle House
(Getty Images / iStockphoto)

China Ranch Date Farm, Calif.

The China Ranch Date Farm, a small, family-run operation, is an oasis of greenery — cottonwood and willow trees and, of course, date palms abound — in the vast, inhospitable Mojave Desert. The gift shop, open every day except Christmas, sells all sorts of tasty date products, including fresh baked goods, and crafts by local artisans.

Nature hikes, as well as trails to abandoned mines, lead from the farm. There’s even a tiny museum.

Info: China Ranch Date Farm is near Tecopa in Inyo County, Calif. Admission is free. chinaranch.com

China Ranch Date Farm
An antique truck and date palms at China Ranch Date Farm.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Pahrump, Nev., Wine Country

Wine in the desert near Pahrump? Why not? Jack Sanders of Sanders Family Winery reminds visitors that the Shiraz, a popular varietal grape, originated in the deserts of Iran.

“The Cabernets do well,” Sanders said. “It’s a good, hot-weather grape. The Merlots do extremely well here.”

Besides Sanders winery, you’ll find Pahrump Valley Winery (which he founded in 1988); both offer free tastings.

Pahrump, a town of 36,000, has all the amenities and attractions a day tripper could want, including those wineries.

“I remember when Temecula only had two wineries. Now look at it,” Sanders said with an eye toward the future of viticulture in Pahrump.

Info: Pahrump is about 55 miles northwest of Las Vegas. visitpahrump.com


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