Potentially the most expensive stretch of road in the world, the 4 miles that make up the Las Vegas Strip dazzles 42 million visitors a year. Even those of us who could care less about gambling. Roughly 15,000 miles of glowing neon tube lights illuminate The Strip. And Cirque du Soliel’s latest nightly show cost $165 million dollars to produce. Not to mention the hundreds of world famous restaurants featuring celebrity chefs such as Wolf Gang Puck, Masaharu Morimoto, and Mario Batali. It’s certainly a feast for all the senses. But by no means is it the only gem to be found within the Mojave desert! For our recent trip to town we wanted to discover some residential favorites by asking a couple of locals, in this case my brother and his girlfriend. They introduced us to some of their favorite escapes and local grub houses and showed us how to love Vegas like a local.
Mount Charleston and the Spring Mountains
The Spring Mountains are a cool and lush “island” that towers over the lower, dryer surrounding desert. Located 30 minutes northwest of Las Vegas with an elevation of 12,000 ft, these mountains catch eastward storms and collect rain and snow before it can reach the desert valley. This creates an oasis 20-30 degrees cooler than nearby Las Vegas. The Spring Mountain National Recreation Area provides 51 miles of hiking trails through towering pines and crisp, pungent junipers of Mt. Charleston. Come November when the snow starts to fall, visitors head up the road a few more minutes to Lee Canyon for skiing, sledding, and snowboarding. Cabins and rooms can be found at reasonable rates for those wishing for short reprieve from the city.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation
Nevada’s first National Conservation Area can be found 15 miles due west of Las Vegas on State Route 159. Dusky red and cream sandstone peaks with lofty shear, steep walls beacon to locals and tourists alike. Two million people a year visit Red Rock Canyon to hike, bike, rock climb, or just drive the scenic 13-mile loop. Rock climbers can be seen throughout the park scaling the sandstone walls while hikers explore the trails and crevices below. There are plenty of overlooks with parking lots and bathrooms scattered along the winding drive. Nineteen marked trails twist through the massive rock formations and range from easy to strenuous.
Valley of Fire State Park
Nevada’s oldest state park was named for it’s fiery red cliffs and pocked sandstone monoliths looming out from the valley. Chockablock full of otherworldly crimson formations, petrified wood, and 3,000 year old Nuwuvi petroglyphs, visitors get a glimpse into Valley of Fire’s ancient anthropologic history. Traveling US-15 north, take exit 75 and twist and twine for 18 miles through the gently rolling desert until you come upon the park gate. There’s a $10/car entrance fee which helps maintain the parks’s dozens of easy trails and designated picnic and camping areas.
Zion National Park, Utah
A day trip to Zion National Park is absolutely recommended if you are up for a bit of a drive. The 2 and half hour drive shoots northeast through the Joshua Trees of the Nevada/Arizona desert then snakes through the imposing cliffs of the Virgin River Gorge. Springdale,Utah (named one of America’s 20 Prettiest Towns by Forbes Traveler) sits at the gates of the southern entrance of the park. Squat earth toned cottages and B&B’s sit shoulder to shoulder with fine art galleries and gem/mineral shops. There are several parking areas with shuttles to prevent traffic jams at the gates. The shuttles also deliver visitors to several backcountry trails throughout the park where regular traffic isn’t permitted. Driver’s can take the Zion-Mt. Carmel scenic drive through southern quarter of the park though. Highlights of the drive include the chance to see wildlife such as Bighorn Sheep, the 1.1 mile tunnel through the heart of the mountain, and the relatively easy Canyon Overlook Trail. The view at the end of the trail is legendary. Look for the parking area for this trail as soon as you emerge from the mile long tunnel.
After partaking in some of America’s most beautiful and exquisite natural preservations, one tends to get a little hungry. Luckily, if one is adventurous enough to veer off The Strip and Fremont just a bit you can find stellar eats at down-to-earth prices.
Chicago Style Taco Shop
Don’t let the name fool you, this North Vegas taco shop is cranking out some legit tacos. They boast authentic flavor options like barbacoa (Mexican BBQ), pastor (seasoned pork), lengua (tongue), and tripas (tripe) for a whooping $2 per taco. Choose between topping them with either refreshing onion and cilantro or crisp lettuce and tomato. Team them up with a small order (not all that small) of Windy City Fries smothered with your choice of succulent meat and melted cheese for just $6 more.
Japanese Curry ZEN
Finding bona fide Asian and Asian-influenced cuisine in Vegas is no sweat. Well, no sweat until you start eating anyway. ZEN’s roux-like curry flaunts 15 traditional spices common throughout southern Asia and northern India. Their welcoming staff serve up their vitalizing curry with steamed rice and options such as pork katsu, kurobuta sausage, spinach, vegetables, and tofu katsu. For around $10 dollars you get enough curry to eat in house and take some to go.
Four Kegs Sports Pub
Featured on Guy Fieri’s hit show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, this unassuming sports pub hit a homer with their bar food and excellent cibo italiano. Open 24 hours, they dish out a wild array of dishes such as monster-sized strombolis, juicy half-pound burgers, loaded down square pizzas, smoky and sticky baby back ribs, and savory chicken wings. Keep an eye on their specials, even though the prices were already great, their wings and Sicilian pizzas were half price during NFL Football games.
If you make the trek to Zion National Park then be sure to stop in for breakfast or lunch at Springdale’s Cafe Soliel. Sipping a gourmet espresso or nibbling an artisan style panini al fresco under the shadow of Zion’s colossal buttes is tough to top. Browse the dining room to appreciate some of the locals artwork and music and maybe even take a piece home with you.
Sure, even Vegas residents hit up The Strip from time to time. Especially since they get local discounts to many of the shows and attractions, and the gaudy spectacle and roguish history are unquestionably alluring. But for a cliché-less Vegas experience, venture off the beaten path and unearth some of the valley’s residential gems.
What are some of your favorite Vegas discoveries?