Las Vegas might surprise you. It's not all about drinking, gambling and doing dumb things that might get you on Taxicab Confessions - there are many outdoor activities within an hour's drive, and there are interesting museums in the city itself.
The Nevada State Museum & Historical Society, though small, sits on historic Lorenzi Park and is a great place to eat lunch and feed the birds. Inside is the 15,000- to 20,000-year-old fossil of a 13' tall Columbian mammoth and a full-size diagram of a 225 million-year-old 48' ichthyosaur, both found in the nearby desert. There's also an exhibit about the Paiutes, Native Americans and farmers of corn, beans, squash and sunflowers as far back as 1,000 A.D.
Upon hearing there were fossils and rare Native American sites awaiting my discovery nearby, I jumped in the car and headed to the nearest national park, Red Rock Canyon.
Red Rock Canyon is only a 30-minute drive from downtown Las Vegas. Whether you are into hikes or just a leisurely drive, the $6 per car entrance fee is a bargain.
As it was an early December day, there were a few inches of snow on the ground, so we remained in the car most of the time, stopping at the trail heads to read information about each area and enjoy the natural wonders dusted in light snow.
A few days later, we decided to escape city life again by taking another drive up to the Hoover Dam, where we watched as construction workers worked on the new bypass and bridge 1,500 feet south of the dam. Allow at least three hours for the round trip, depending on what else you decide to do, such as a "quick" helicopter ride or rafting.
Lake Mead is a 30-minute drive from downtown Las Vegas and has nine different access points. It's $5 per car. You can get a license and fish or take a paddle boat cruise for as little as $24 per adult and $12 per child (slightly more for brunch and dinner). What better way to relax and enjoy the lake than with a cocktail in hand? Be sure and bring some bread for the carp that mill around the docks by the hundreds.
The Valley of Fire, however, is the most awesome, wonderful sight within a one-hour drive of Las Vegas. Our park entrance fee was $6 per car. We toured the park by car for approximately four hours, stopping to take short hikes to natural wonders, most within a quarter mile of the road. Sandstone and sand dunes eroded by water over 150 million years make for some spectacular rock formations. There are intricately carved holes and beautifully carved shapes cut, or sculpted, into the rock.
First we encountered the Beehives, aptly named 30'-tall rock formations. Petrified logs resembled the purple decorative gravel I encountered outside my favorite restaurant, 'Le Taco Belle, and to this day I wonder if the Las Vegas decorative stones are in fact the ancient forests that once shaded the valley.
A few minutes later we pulled up to Ayer Rock, climbing modern stairs to see intricate petroglyphs hundreds of years old. The Fremont people, who made this area their home as far back as 900 A.D., left petroglyphs in the mountains surrounding Las Vegas.
In one it appeared that a man had channeled water into many streams for a garden. Crops and goats were also depicted surrounding the area as if it was a farm.
Did you know that scientists have a better understanding of hieroglyphics (Egyptian writing) than they do petroglyphs?
And then we saw the colors - pink, white, orange and purple sandstone hills. It was as if God had been playing with a set of paints, throwing colors onto the surrounding hillsides at random. A little farther down the road, boulders of compressed sandstone were layered pink, white, orange and purple. Then the sun started playing tricks on me. I picked up a few pebbles of bright pink sandstone to show my friends, who, tired from spending too many miles walking the strip, decided to remain in the parking lot. But when I returned and pulled the stones out of my pocket, the colors had dulled.
In addition to the Paiutes and the Fremonts, the ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) settled in an area known as Public Grande de Nevada. Their ancient ruins were discovered in 1826 in the Muddy River (which we passed on the way to Valley of Fire) and Virgin River Valleys. Some of the sites were lost when Lake Mead filled after Hoover Dam was built. The Lost City Museum, located in Overton, Nevada sits on one of these ancestral sites, and with a list of 150 ancient sites in this area, it is at the top of my list for exploring on my next trip to Las Vegas.
The Atomic Museum will show you the history of Vegas and its role in the development of atomic testing. If you have kids check out the Lied Discovery Children's Museum. The Desert Botanical Garden was also on my list but my vacation wasn't long enough. http://www.dbg.org/
Next time you plan a vacation to Vegas, plan some time to experience the natural awe inspiring natural features only an hour's drive from Las Vegas. Or plan a couple of days and venture up to nearby Zion National Park... my next travel destination.
Looking for more petroglyph sites around Las Vegas? Check out: http://www.rockartnevada.com/ or http://www.sunsetcities.com/valleyoffire.html. Links to trails with petroglyphs in the lake area can be found at www.birdsandhike.com.
Alice Albrecht is a local writer and government worker, whose work has appeared locally in the CCW, Juneau Empire, Juneau What, and a few national publications. She also received an Honorable Mention at the Hollywood Discover Awards. Alice enjoys local hikes and coming up with exciting ideas for movies.