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Las Vegas Day Trip - Lake Mead and the Valley of Fire

Day trip east to Lake Mead and the Valley of Fire

We’re a big fan of the craziness of Las Vegas – both in exploring the everything-is-so-big Las Vegas Strip and the freaky sights and sounds of Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas. But there comes a point of overload and a need to get outside the city and enjoy the natural beauty within a day’s easy drive.

Day trip possibilities can take you in any direction – north, south, east or west. Spend your time within Vegas but rent a convertible and explore the bigger “wild west” of Nevada.

  • maybe north to Area 51?North – Area 51 throughout Rachel, Nevada (more below)
  • South – explore the lower Colorado River and stand at the border of California, Nevada and Arizona
  • East – explore Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the Hoover Dam and farther East to the Grand Canyon
  • West – drive into Death Valley and explore the Rhyolite ghost town!

If you’re from the north, trees, grasses, lakes and rivers are in vibrant abundance. Not so much in the desertscape of the Mojave Desert – home to Las Vegas, Nevada. Yet even the desertscape can hold amazing beauty in its starkness and harsh environment. From the mountains framing the Las Vegas Valley basin to the mesa’s, washes, canyons, valleys and sand … lots of sand and scrub … sits some epic sightlines and vistas. And did you know not 30 miles from Las Vegas sits the largest water reservoir in the United States that offers over 800 miles of shoreline for swimming and water recreation activities?

Lake Mead National Recreation Area towards the mountainsDay Trip from Las Vegas through the Lake Mead National Recreational Area and the Valley of Fire

Trip details: Las Vegas through the Lake Mead National Recreation are and the Valley of Fire mapped, approx. 145 miles round-trip, full day with stops

Necessary warnings: considering the heat and temperatures of the desert in the full summer sun, precautions should be taken to avoid prolonged exposure to the extreme heat, bring plenty of food and water and make sure your vehicle’s gas tank is topped up and in the vehicle in good maintenance.

Park fees: $25 per vehicle for a 7-day pass to Lake Mead National Recreation Park and $10 per vehicle Day Use fee for Valley of Fire State Park.

Colorado River + the Hoover Dam = Lake Mead National Recreation Area

overview of Lake Mead National Recreation Area (click photo to enlarge)The building of the Hoover Dam in the mid-1930’s blocked the free flow of the Colorado River. In the backflow that was created behind the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead National Recreation Area was created. With Lake Mead’s backflow stretching 112 miles with a depth in places over 500 feet deep, there’s a lot of shoreline (over 800 miles) for water recreation and outdoor activities year-round. Camping, boating, swimming and nature-watching are all benefits of this oasis in the desert.

Access to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area is predominantly off the Boulder City access point near the Hoover Dam – where the Alan Bible Visitor Center is located but there are a few alternate entry points due east of Las Vegas around the River Mountain range.

stop at the Redstones in Lake Mead National Recreation AreaMy recommendation is to begin your journey through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area via the Visitors Center by Boulder City. Let the Visitors Center guide you through the markers of the lake and take in the views of mountains framing the clear blue waters of the Colorado River’s Lake Mead, the marinas and the islands dotting this playground. Drive the Lakeshore Road route along the wash nestled between the mountain range on one side and Lake Mead on the other. At about 14 miles, turn and follow the Northshore route for another approx. 50 miles further into the desert and mountainous ranges to the Valley of Fire State Park.

Three highlights of Lake Mead Recreation Area worth stopping at:

  • Historic Railroad Trail an easy 7-mile there-and-back hike along the original railway line used to shunt supplies in for the building of the Hoover Dam with great panoramic views of Lake Mead and passage through the original blasted tunnels. feed the Carp at the Lake Mead MarinaNote: Tunnel 3 of 5 is closed temporarily for maintenance. Trailhead is within 0.5 mile from the Lake Mead Visitors Center.
  • Feed the Carp at the Lake Mead Marina – Turning right immediately following the Entrance Station nearest the Visitor Center takes you down to the marinas. If you bring some bread or popcorn, you can sit on the marina docks and feed the many fish in the area. Some are up to 14” long and examples of the vibrant marine life – great for kids!
  • Redstone Picnic Area - about mile marker 27 along the Northshore route site the amazing Redstone formations - ancient sand dunes some 180 million years old. Take a short hike (1-mile loop) deeper into the Redstones and see the beauty of erosion sculpting these vibrant old rocks into natures creations.

Other interesting points within Lake Mead National Recreation Area:

  • Swimming at Lake Mead National Recreation Area – although there are miles of shoreline framing Lake Mead, most shoreline areas are rocky and hard – although the water is fresh, clear and cool, great for a refreshing swim. We’ve heard the best beach is Cottonwood Cove down the Colorado watershed (sandy, not rocky).
  • St Thomas Nevada (courtesy reviewjournal)If you enjoy hiking within Like Mead National Recreation Area, Alltrails.com shows you over 30 trails in the area.
  • Visit the ghostly St. Thomas, Nevada – once flooded in the rising Lake Mead waters to a depth of 60’, now visible as a result of drought conditions these past few decades.
  • Just outside the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near the Boulder City area Visitor’s Center is the Hoover Dam – an engineering marvel instrumental in the creation of the Lake Mead Recreation area.
  • TripAdvisor rates Lake Mead National Recreation Area a 4.5

I see a prime opportunity for this stunning body of water to be better promoted and utilized as a water recreation destination for tourism from Las Vegas with local desert sand used to soften the beaches and amenities and recreation draw to pull visitors into this desert contradiction. Unfortunately, the mandate of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area is protection over recreation limiting the draw potential of this beautiful water resource.

Valley of Fire State Park

the red Aztec sandstone is exceptionally vibrantAs the name implies, the rocks and mountains of Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park bursts into vibrant shades of reds and oranges as the sun hits the ancient Aztec sandstone. With the sandstone colors contrasting with the local grey limestone in partnership with the wind-sculpted stone formations, driving through the Valley of Fire State Park is a visual treat that keeps your head turning.

These sandstone formations were created about 150 million years ago in the Jurassic Period from the shifting sand dunes as the waters of the inland seas retreated. Pressed firm yet easily eroded, these magnificently wind and water-sculpted shapes (arches, pillars and associated shapes) deliver interesting sights to explore.

Six highlights I recommend you see (listed east to west):

  • Seven Sisters Rock formation, Valley of Fire State ParkPetrified logs – petrified logs and stumps from 250 million years ago lie exposed.
  • Seven Sisters – an intriguing group of 7 eroded boulder-pillars stand tall separated from the main red rock clusters.
  • Visitors Center – interpretive displays and information relating to the Valley of Fire State Park.
  • Petroglyphs – 2000-year-old petroglyphs (stone carvings) can be found in Petroglyph Canyon and at Atlatl Rock.
  • Rainbow Vista and White Domes Rocks – multicolored sandstone formations contrasting with the red Aztec sandstone.
  • Beehives – rock structures with interesting erosion patterns that mimic a beehives ringed nest.

Interesting points relating to The Valley of Fire State Park

With natural water and stone formations in abundance across Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Valley of Fire State Park, your scenic drive will offer many geologic, landscape and scenic perspectives that will treat your senses to the creativity of the changing face of the desert.

Don’t you just love day trip adventures that get you out of Vegas? We certainly do … whether you head north, south, east or west! What’s your favorite get-out-of-Vegas activity? We’d love to hear. Drop a comment below and connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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