My latest writing assignment for my UBC Travel and Food writing class was to produce a piece on “A Weekend in …” (previous assignment was a Restaurant Review). I had just returned from a visit to Las Vegas to see my sister so naturally, this was top of mind. Plus, I knew I could put a different spin on it since I’ve stayed off the strip during my last 3 visits and was able to do a ton of hiking around the natural surrounding and experience off-the-beaten path activities.
Las Vegas is notoriously known as Sin City with the old adage, ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.’ The popular Hollywood movie The Hangover, with huge amounts of cash blown, wild nights out at the clubs and random mishaps, is most people’s immediate impression of a weekend in Vegas but there’s a whole other side that is family-friendly and will appease the more conservative crowd that has nothing to do with gambling or alcohol. You can start by getting out of town for a while.
Exploring the Natural Outdoors – Twenty Minutes to Three Hours Drive Away
Drive twenty minutes past The Strip, beyond the opulence and neon lights and you reach the beautiful Red Rock Canyon – a large state park with plenty of natural sights like vast plains and towering mountains to admire and hiking trails to explore. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, there are also many rock climbing routes that will test your abilities as you scale these richly-coloured red rocks that clump together to form boulders.
Further out, and closer to an hour’s drive away is the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada’s oldest park. Here you will see a whole range of earthy colours with striated reds, browns and whites and vast rugged terrain full of contrasts. Some famous landmarks here include rock formations that resemble aliens and elephants.
Las Vegas makes an excellent base camp for a day trip over to Arizona to the Grand Canyon, often cited as natural wonder of the world for its deep and expansive canyon views. You could also head north to Utah, and within two hours, reach Zion National Park, one of the “Big 5” parks of Utah.
Zion has jagged mountains and several distinctly unique hikes – one is called The Narrows, where you wade through the river embedded in a slot canyon with high rocky walls that rise and tower over either side of you. The other hike is called Angel’s Landing, which is not for the faint of heart as there are 1000-foot drops to your right and left. If you’re so brave though, you get an epic view of the lush valley and mountainscape around you as you reach the summit.
A final option for outdoor enthusiasts is taking a two to three hour road trip west to California to explore a bit of Death Valley National Park. This park really deserves a full day of its own with sites like Zabriskie Point where you look out to small rolling hills, layered upon each other, one shade of brown and tan over the next. There is also Artist’s Palette – a mountain wall smeared with naturally occurring blues, greens and purples and Golden Canyon – a gentle hike towards the cathedral-like stone monument awash in a red glow.
If nature isn’t your thing, there’s an excellent food scene in Las Vegas. Of course there are the expensive celebrity chef restaurants and places for the high rollers to drop a lot of dough. But there’s also great value to be found. The buffets have reinvented themselves over the past few years and where there used to be large salad bars and seafood platters that were all about copious amounts of food that weren’t necessarily great, just lots of excess, there are now a few establishments that specialize in gourmet buffets with cute “one-size” servings. Imagine getting a tiny waffle cone with a single piece of fried chicken, or a dainty little pot of stew served on a colourful square plate the size of your hand. Much effort and emphasis has been placed on these pretty platings and individual servings at the Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan Hotel or Bacchanal Buffet at Caesar’s Palace. Be prepared to spend about $40- $50 USD. The key is to come around 3pm so that you receive the lunch price, but then you start to get the dinner specialties like king crab and lobster.
As for fun eats off the strip, there are many great taco joints to try fresh fish tacos for $2-3 each. Pink Box Doughnuts is a local shop that sells unique and odd-flavoured doughnuts such as the Fat Elvis with peanut butter and banana, or a blue cheese and fig donut. Each of these donuts will cost about $1 – $1.50 which is significantly cheaper than the gourmet doughnuts you would get at Cartem’s or Lucky’s in Vancouver, BC, or the Voodoo and Blue Star in Portland, Oregon, that would be double that price. Another local’s favourite for breakfast is a Hawaiian Pancake restaurant called Baby Stax, serving up items such as a decadent red velvet pancake stack with cream cheese icing or traditional Hawaiian breakfast with Spam.
Visit Luxury Open Houses
Because the land is relatively cheap in Las Vegas, compared to other parts of the country, some people buy new homes rather than renovate theirs when they’re ready for an upgrade. The two more affluent neighborhoods in Las Vegas are called Summerlin, with its own series of man-made lakes, and Henderson. One fun thing to do is go to open houses for new luxury homes.
I went to a few in Henderson that were designed by the Blue Heron Company and it’s inspiring to see modern design and desert architecture. Their use of indoor and outdoor space given the year-round warm temperature included an elegant rain shower with a dual entrance to the master bedroom and outdoor walking space. Infinity pools and waterways lined the edge of some homes and from the roof of one of the massive houses I had an amazing view of the Vegas strip and Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance.
Learn your own Cirque du Soleil Moves
Las Vegas entertainment includes the excellent shows with amazing skilled performers who make up the Cirque du Soleil. Those pros have to practice somewhere when you think about it, so what about learning from those very same professionals and taking some alternative fitness classes like Headstand, Flexibility or Aerial Silks? Locals and visitors alike can head on over to Shine Fitness Studios and drop in for a few classes (as shown in the feature image at the top – my friend Anna has been going consistently and now looks like a pro!). If you time it right, you might be learning from some of the amazing professionals that perform in Cirque du Soleil.
Clubs and Pool Parties
Finally, if you want to experience the typical party scene in Vegas and go to a nightclub to drink, at the very least, be smart about it and contact some promoters to get you on a list and bypass the lines. Also, if you’re truly doing it local-style, you would sign up for status cards that can offer you free tables at the nightclubs and complimentary cabanas at the pools during the day if you were to go on a weeknight.
Vegas is also huge conference city with impressive events like the annual AT&T Developer’s Summit and Hackathon and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) where most recently Kevin Spacey gave a keynote presentation. I no longer think people are going to Vegas are just there for wild shenanigans. I now realize there’s an abundance of fun activities beyond the strip! You too can see for yourself and change your perception of Las Vegas being only a party city.
My sister (the entrepreneur of the family and thus, more mobile than I!) lives in Vegas most of the year so I’ll certainly be back regularly! There are so many more hikes and parks I want to explore and will post about. Stay tuned and check out my Vegas tags on the side for more updates. What questions do you have? Let me know in the comments!