Neon to Nature – Things to do Outside of Las Vegas

May 2, 2024   2 Comments »

If you think the Vegas area is all gambling, shows, nightclubs, and parties…you are so very wrong! Look out the window of your Vegas hotel…this city is surrounded by mountains. Those mountains and deserts are an outdoor playground! There are plenty of things to do outside of Las Vegas that will bring you peace, quiet, and closer to nature.

However, I’m not bashing the neon side of Vegas, there’s a side of me that also loves the glitz and glam of the Las Vegas attractions. In my younger days – I used to go there all the time to party and go clubbing. These days I’m less interested in clubbing, and more interested in things like food, drink, and art that Vegas also abounds in.

Las Vegas Neon to Nature

Just like in life and investing – diversity is important. I don’t think humans should be pigeonholed into one thing – and the same goes for travel. With that in mind, I’ve chosen my favorite heart-pumping outdoor things to do near Las Vegas, mixed with my favorite unique (and somewhat quirky) experiences to do in Vegas.

I’m going to show you how you can have the best of both worlds: neon and nature. Let’s go sightseeing outside Las Vegas!

Nature: Outdoor Activities Near Las Vegas

There’s plenty of natural beauty near Las Vegas. Nevada contains forty-eight million acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which equates to 63 percent of the state. Vegas is a great jumping-off point for visits to national and state parks around the region, national recreation areas, desert playgrounds, and more. Plus – once you get outside of the glow of the strip – it also has some pretty phenomenal night skies.

Valley of fire state park near vegas

1. Valley of Fire State Park Hiking

Distance from Vegas: 45 miles; approx. 45 min drive.

Valley of Fire State Park was a highlight for me in my Neon to Nature adventure. The entire time we were hiking, I felt as if I were walking on some Willy Wonka version of rainbow sherbet – the colors in this park were breathtaking. In fact, all I could think about was how this state park was better than many of the national parks I’ve seen. It’s definitely one of the hidden gems outside Las Vegas, and you should absolutely include it on your trip!

The park has the honor of being Nevada’s first and largest state park. And the best part is that it only sees about 300,000 visitors a year. It’s said that the name was coined by an AAA official traveling through the park at sunset.

It has hikes ranging from .1 miles to 9 miles and tons of ways to see the distinct topography. There are also multiple campgrounds for traditional camping and RV camping. Even if you don’t have much time, the drive through the park is stunning. It feels like you are on another planet.

We hiked the Fire Wave, White Domes, and Seven Wonders Loop Hike – probably the most popular hikes in the park. This is a ‘figure 8’ 3.2-mile trail and quite simple hiking – but the views are astonishing.

The Fire Wave is the most popular attraction/hike in Valley of Fire State Park. I’m not sure if we were just lucky or what – but when we reached it on our hike, there was no one there! The slick rock has interchanging stripes of beige and red-orange colored sandstone. These stripes are so perfect that they practically don’t look real. But Mother Nature’s artwork is indeed real…and we were able to really enjoy it all by ourselves!

I was admiring the beautiful swirling colors and rock formations on the hike, and a thought hit me: National Parks are wonderful – but this doesn’t mean they are the best and only places to go. You can have state parks like this one, which are even better than our National Parks.

“Keep your mind open to going to places other than just the National Parks – spread the love around to state parks too. This concept is really part of my core values and one of my strongest travel values. Explore, don’t follow – make your own way.”

If you are into photography, check out this great photography resource site about where to get the best photos of the park.

2. XGrid Camper Rentals

If you are more of an independent traveler and want to make a multi-day ‘getaway’ from the Las Vegas strip, then check out XGRiD Campers for super unique outdoor things to do near Vegas. This Las Vegas company rents and sells rugged, off-road campers that you can take anywhere – and I mean anywhere!  This takes ‘car camping’ to a whole other level! 

xgrid camper rental vegas

“63% of Nevada is BLM land – and that means that you can camp on it for free! It’s the perfect way to really get off the grid and enjoy the outdoors in Nevada. “

While I was there in the park, XGRID showed off their three most popular campers: the Boreas Camper, the Opus, and the Xpedition Trailer. These rigs are lightweight enough that you can tow them with a jeep, light truck, or SUV. You can bring your own truck – or rent a truck in Vegas.

The camper rentals are like a Jenga game – everything looks super compact and square/right angle-ish until you find your camping spot, and suddenly, you have a beautiful slide-out outdoor kitchen and bathroom with heavy-duty awnings. Granted – I love anything that is compact and optimized to be efficient. But this design is truly ingenious. Each camper was different from the other – but essentially, you had a slide-out cooler/refrigerator, stove, and workspace for cutting and chopping.

Road trip from Grand Canyon to Antelope Canyon

Elevated Backcountry Cooking with Chef Corso

Speaking of cutting and chopping, as part of our XGRID demo, Chef Corso of OutdoorEats cooked us up a restaurant-level feast in the outdoor kitchens. Chef Corso is classically trained in Italy and California, but he’s chosen to specialize in outdoor/backpacking cooking and recipes. He believes people should be able to eat healthy, fresh, and well – even on the side of a mountain! He has a couple of small cookbooks where he shares his trail meals and cooking techniques.

He made us beet salad, bruschetta, lemon chicken pad thai, and finished the meal off with his banana and Nilla Wafer dessert, which was so simple but restaurant quality. If you are a foodie who also loves to camp and hike like me…then be sure to check out his site, recipes, and community…he was such a cool guy! Make sure you check out his camp cooking books!

I fell in love with these solar-powered campers (and Chef Corso’s cooking) and can’t wait to go back and take one out for a short trip outside of Vegas.

3. Hire A Personal Wilderness Guide/Photographer to take you anywhere outside of Vegas

During our day in Valley of Fire State Park, we were led by guide Ryan of Elite Custom Adventures. He is available to take Vegas visitors on customized day trips (or longer) from Vegas to any parks around the region. Ryan is an independent outdoor guide, a wilderness first responder, and an incredible photographer. What sets his guiding services apart from other operators is that he does professional photography and videography for his guests throughout their experience.

He led us on a hike around the park and memorialized it by taking photos of all of us. He specializes in National Park trips from the Vegas area and will help you get your hike completely planned and photographed all while keeping you safe in the backcountry. It’s a really cool offering – and if you are anywhere near Vegas, or if you want to do some exploration of any national parks or get cool pics of astrophotography and the Milky Way – Ryan’s your guy!

Within a day’s drive of Vegas, he can take you to the Great Basin, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Zion Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Petrified Forest.

4. Oui Experience UTV Tours

Distance from Vegas: 90-minute drive
Distance from Laughlin: 45-minute drive

“This is the dirtiest fun you can have with your clothes on!” remarked Jake our UTV guide. Oui Experience tours will allow you to explore the Mojave Desert at high speeds! Jake and his wife offer a complete desert experience with yurt stays as well as UTV day tours.

UTV rental near vegas - las vegas outdoor activities for families

I know what you are thinking – what the heck is a UTV? UTV stands for Utility Tracker Vehicle (also referred to as a side-by-side). Jake described it as a golf cart and an ATV (4-wheeler) that had a baby and supercharged it – that’s a UTV. It feels and drives more like a car than a motorcycle or an ATV. On an ATV you straddle the engine and have handlebars, but driving a UTV means having a steering wheel and a ‘seat’. UTVs can go between 20 and 70 mph, and the most surprising thing to me is that they are smoooooth. It felt as if I were hovering over the rough terrain, like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

We traveled all over the desert; through canyons, up mountains, and down to Lake Mojave. We stopped at old mines, and soaked in picturesque views – and the part I loved the most was Jake’s enthusiasm for his desert home and the fact that we never saw another person. It felt like a little hidden gem outside of Vegas!

If you want to stay longer than a day on a trip to the Mojave desert, then check out Oui Experience’s yurt, which you can rent out. It’s a little bit of luxury in the desert, and it’s definitely unique. But the main reason I would recommend this is it’s a chance to really experience the desert even more. Jake has so much energy, and you can tell he loves to share the region he loves with visitors. The yurt is a cool glamping experience that brings you closer to the desert lifestyle. It would be a super place to stay, play, and watch the night sky.

Tip: If you go on a tour with Oui Experience, make sure you stop at the nearby roadside Carnitas restaurant. Richard and his wife run a roadside carnitas kitchen that is delicious. It doesn’t get more authentic than this! It’s basically a plywood shack, but as you would expect – it has some incredible food! We stopped after our tour and had the tacos and enchiladas…it’s the real deal.

5. Kayaking the Colorado River in Black Canyon

Distance from Vegas: 58 miles; approx. 1-hour drive.

Glass Bottom kayaks met us at the Willow Beach Marina for our day out on the water in the Black Canyon. If you are thinking of riding a ‘gondola’ at the Venetian, think again. Why not do the ‘real local thing’ and paddle on the Colorado River? I love the Colorado River, and this is a super outdoor adventure you can do on the river that will get you closer to nature. In addition, you’ll learn a bit about how the Colorado River is being used to provide water to millions of people – a hot topic these days.

Emerald Cave is one of the must-see spots outside of Vegas in the Lake Mead Recreation Area. The area includes 1.5 million acres of mountains, canyons, valleys, and two vast lakes. We started our day kayaking from Willow Beach Marina, located in the Black Canyon region of the Colorado River. After we kayaked upstream towards Emerald Cave, the canyon walls grew steeper. At their height, the volcanic canyon walls tower over 900 feet. It’s a beautiful site and perspective from a kayak.

Due to the Hoover Dam, this part of the Colorado River is so clear it’s incredible. Not only was I shocked by the bright green waters, but you could also see ghost trees (underwater trees) throughout the whole canyon. When they dammed the Colorado River, it flooded the area and left entire forests underwater, now called ghost trees. It was a day full of sun, water, wildlife, and the beauty of the outdoors…only a 90-minute drive from Visit Las Vegas!

Vegas Glass Kayaks

I made the trip with Vegas Glass Kayaks – a unique way to kayak the area. The kayaks are actually made of plexiglass. However, I must say that plexiglass didn’t really allow us to ‘see through’ the kayak as I would’ve expected. The idea is a good one, but it didn’t really work, in my opinion. Plus, the kayak is a little wider than I like for kayaking (but better for people who might not be as comfortable in a kayak). For me, the wider kayak affected my stroke, and I felt as if I had to work harder (this could have been in my head, though!) Regardless – our Glass Bottom kayak guide was wonderful. She educated us about the area, and the day included lunch and a short hike.

If you prefer a more streamlined traditional kayak – there are many options at the marina.

6. Rail Explorers in Boulder City

Distance from Las Vegas – 28 miles, 30 minutes

There’s a new growing way to adventure by rail that combines two of my loves…rail biking! Actually, I’m not exactly sure what the term is – but you power a ‘4-person bike’ by pedaling on an old railroad line. We did an exhilarating 8-mile rail ride from the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Boulder City to the Pass Turnaround and back at night!

And if you think this takes fitness…it really doesn’t! Rail Explorers USA has a ‘REX Propulsion System’ – custom-built electric motors that make the 8-mile round trip journey truly effortless.

There’s something about the sound of ‘riding the rails’ that is so comforting to me, and this crazy rail bike was no exception – I loved the clackity-clack as we zoomed down the track. After a few miles, we were away from the Boulder City lights and out into complete darkness.

Our turn-around point was glowing in the distance with multiple fire pits dancing in the darkness. We got off, took a seat around the fire pit, and had a beer as the crew did the arduous task of turning around the rail bike.

We had a super time sitting under the stars, sipping drinks, and warming up by the fire at our turnaround point. One of the Rail Explorer guides told us great fireside stories of the history of the area and entertained us until it was time to get back on our rail bike and head back to Boulder City. Where we were sitting at the fire pits used to be a tent city that was outside of Boulder City limits. Boulder City was a purpose-built town to house the workers. However, the government did not allow any booze or gambling.

Therefore, tent cities grew just outside of Boulder City, where people could get up to no good – which is how Las Vegas started to thrive. Since the dam was being built in Boulder City, that was the main attraction in the area, and that is probably why you still see so many hotels in the little town today. As time moved forward, the two towns switched roles; Vegas became the main attraction, and Boulder City was a bit of an afterthought.

I did the night tour, but Rail Explorers also offers day tours. Plus – you should plan on stopping at the Rail Museum. And don’t miss the Boulder City Store for a coffee and a snack, as well as some great gifts highlighting the history of this city and the famous Hoover Dam.

Expert Tip: You can bring beverages on the rail bikes! We stopped at a local bar and picked up beers for the ride. The beauty is that you don’t have to steer (the rails do that for you), so it’s an activity where you can drink and ‘drive’ if you’d like. It was really nice to have a few beers/beverages at the fire pits, too, for star gazing!

Rail Explorers in Boulder City has a number of different tour options – you can check them all out here.

Neon: Unique Things to do in Las Vegas

If Mother Nature represents all of that beautiful land and things to do around Vegas, then the Las Vegas Strip is like Mother Nature’s uncle – the one who likes to party and have fun. We all have an aunt or uncle like that – right?

I’m not really a gambler, but I am fascinated with the psychology of gambling and casino design. However, the OMG Kittens slot machine about drew me in…those casinos are sneaky!!

kitten slot machine vegas
Kitten Slot Machine…there’s something for everyone in Vegas

Gamble away to your heart’s content, but know there are many cool things to do in Vegas besides gambling; check out these museums, interactive art, food, drink, and more!

1. Neon Museum

This is your chance to learn about the history of Las Vegas through neon – the gas that made Vegas famous. In addition to the history of the hotels and businesses through the years, you also learn about sign-making and maintenance.

Founded in 1996, the Neon Museum is a non-profit organization dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying, and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs for educational, historic, arts, and cultural enrichment.

This outdoor ‘museum’ was really a sign of a ‘graveyard.’ They offer tours every night where you get to learn about the history of some of the casinos, hotels, and other businesses, all through their neon signs. Not only were the stories fascinating – it was so much fun to photograph! It was a true neon experience in Las Vegas!

Like everything in Vegas…you can even ‘visit’ this Nevada museum 24 hours a day – The Neon Museum collection also includes nine restored signs that are installed throughout the city and can be viewed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Information about these signs is available here.

Love signs? Don’t miss the Cincinnati Sign Museum – one of the coolest museums I’ve been to!

The Neon Museum in Las Vegas Nevada

2. Area 15

Step through Our Portal to Wonder, Wander, Gawk, And Gasp at Everything Inside. Why not fully immerse yourself in the bright, artsy, quirky side of Vegas? Las Vegas’s new immersive art experience- Area15 is a real trip. It’s as if you walked into a commercialized rave. It’s a big warehouse filled with lights, neon, music, virtual reality, and immersive art; this place will bend your mind – in a good way. ⠀

Much like a casino – you won’t find a window anywhere in Area 15. But there’s plenty of light…normally in the form of neon colors and black lights. There are a number of experiences/exhibitions you can choose from once inside that require tickets. They have a number of virtual reality experiences to try, as well as bars and even a really cool arcade that takes it to a whole new level. I never really thought I’d be excited by an arcade again in my life, but we had a blast sipping alcoholic slushie drinks and playing video games. They have all of the old school games here, too: hello, Frogger, PacMan, Donkey Kong of my youth!

We went to one of the current exhibitions, WINK, by Chris Wink, the former creative director of Blue Man Group. As you walk in they hand you a pair of 3D glasses for this immersive black light experience that will awaken all of the senses. You take a crazy ‘journey’ through 6 infinity mirror rooms, each distinctly different in color, sound, and general vibe. It’s like no journey I’ve ever been on before! And best part – free entry!

Tip: Feel free to do a few shots or slushies before going into this experience. It’s cool sober, but it would be really cool with some ‘enhancements’. I told you Vegas used to be my raving playground…WINK brought back some great memories.

Spend a day at Area15 and awaken all of your senses and open your mind! You can even have an incredible meal there at The Beast by Todd English. This innovative food hall/restaurant experience fits perfectly into colorful, quirky Area 15. Go hungry, as it’s best to try a variety of his offerings and share among your group. And definitely try the Smokehouse BBQ platter!!

3. Meow Wolf

Looking for more weird Vegas attractions? Area 15 is also the home of Meow Wolf’s ‘otherworldly’ OmegaMart experience. Omega Mart is Meow Wolf’s second permanent installation. Be ready for an interactive, mind-bending immersive art grocery experience. It’s certainly not what it seems and challenges our eyes and minds with its subtle artistic touch to everyday products.

omega mart vegas

I loved exploring this extraordinarily weird supermarket that bursts into surreal worlds. My favorite part though was the front part of the exhibit (the grocery store) and all of the funny products…many of which you could buy…just like at a real store!

Plan for about 2 full hours at Omega Mart – plus as with all Meow Wolf experiences – it’s great to visit multiple times to see what new things you find and solve the mysteries.

4. Local Life at Fergusons Downtown

If you want a bit of the ‘lighter side’ of the Neon City, go get a feel for local life in Vegas at Fergusons Downtown. This innovative neighborhood center is a great example of how there is so much more to Vegas than the strip. They’ve taken the historic Ferguson’s Hotel and revitalized the space into the perfect one-square block of local goodness! Fergusons is a place where the local community can connect, shop, eat, drink, stay, work, gather, and explore.

Stop in at the Mothership Coffee Roastery for a coffee (and relax in their cool mid-century modern space) and support local contemporary and traditional artisans/creators and entrepreneurs at unique little shops in this outdoor oasis. Founder Juanny Romero uses the vehicle of coffee to create communities – the space is chill and welcoming – and the coffee is outstanding! She’s a force of good in the community and an inspiration to women entrepreneurs.

And while at Fergusons, bring an appetite after shopping because next door is the Vegas Test Kitchen. VTK was designed during the pandemic to build a home and be a creative outlet for the talented chefs in our community. An ever-changing lineup of chefs experimenting with new concepts – what’s not to love?

Food and Drink on the Las Vegas Strip

The best part about doing a Neon to Nature trip in Las Vegas is you can play all day in the outdoors, burning calories – and then come into Vegas, get cleaned up, and go out on the town! And for me, that meant eating and drinking well at places like Roy Choi’s Best Friend and cocktails at the Dorsey Cocktail bar in the Venetian! From the glamor of the restaurants on the strip to sample local favorites like Luv-it custard!

There are so many incredible restaurants and bars in Vegas; there’s something for everyone.

Chef Roy Choi went from being a food truck entrepreneur to becoming a famous Netflix chef. He has now opened his signature restaurant, Best Friend, at Park MGM. Known for its Korean BBQ mixed with Mexican influences – it represents LA-style food…and it’s finger-licking good! Much like Omega Mart, you feel like you have entered an LA neighborhood bodega and go through an unassuming door that opens up to an incredible restaurant in the back.

Tip: Get the slushie drinks, and don’t skip dessert!

Best Friend desserts

My favorite travel rules are always to say “Yes” and always take the local’s advice. So when our driver, who had been carting us all over Vegas for the past few days, said that we HAD to try Luv it Custard (a Vegas institution), I was all in! Never mind that I was stopping to have this famous custard before my dinner; who says that pre-dinner dessert isn’t a thing? The custard was quite a treat. And the best part is that it’s behind an unassuming gas station and opens late. Yay, Vegas!

Get a little ‘taste’ of that famous Vegas-style nightlife at the Dorsey Bar in the Venetian. Consistently named as one of Vegas’s top cocktail bars for its high-end cocktail creations, it’s worth a stop for a spendy drink or two.

Check out the highlights from my Neon to Nature trip here:

So, if you haven’t been to Vegas in years like me, now is the time to go and check it out again! This city is always evolving in its offerings inside and outside the city. Plus – now you know how you can take a trip to Vegas and get the best of both worlds – neon and nature. It is possible to have it all in Vegas!

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