If there’s one thing you often hear said about the Las Vegas Strip, it’s that it’s worth seeing – once. For many, a day or two may well be enough. But even if your idea of hedonism features more mountains of rock than mountains of money, it might still be worth sticking around. You don’t have to travel far to experience a very different type of thrill from that offered by Sin City.
Around 26 miles southeast of Las Vegas lies Boulder City, a small town with a fascinating history which also serves as a convenient launch pad for some of southern Nevada’s more wholesome activities, including hiking, boating, off-roading and mountain biking against Nevada’s impressive desert-mountain backdrop. Not only is the town quieter, smaller and altogether more quaint than Las Vegas, it is its opposite in one crucial respect – gambling is illegal here, making Boulder City just one of two locations in Nevada where the only the chips you’ll find are of the potato variety (the other is the town of Panaca near the Utah border).
Boulder City was originally built in 1931 for workers hoping to gain employment constructing the Hoover Dam (originally called the Boulder Dam) on the nearby Colorado River. (At this time Las Vegas was still a modest-sized town, though as the same year saw the legalisation of casino gambling in Nevada, this modesty wasn’t to last long.) As a result of this history, it’s the Hoover Dam that dominates the cultural offering of Boulder City with its most renowned accommodation, the Boulder Dam Hotel, originally built in 1933 to house visiting dignitaries and governmental officials.
A tourist attraction in its own right, the wood- panelled lobby of this historic building features black and white photographs of its early days and a vintage music player to set the scene. It’s also home to the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum where the damn is both celebrated as a remarkable feat of engineering, designed to bring optimism back to a country ravaged by the Great Depression, but also as an endeavour that cost many lives. The official death-toll of the dam’s construction was 112, the last occurring in 1935, when an electrician’s helper, Patrick Tierney, fell from an intake tower. The town itself, which began as nothing more than a squatter’s camp on a barren slope, was eventually constructed to accommodate 5,000 workers.
Today, Boulder City is green and pleasant. Cafés, restaurants and pretty antique shops, housed in original Art Deco buildings, are its main draws. Of course, to really understand its history, a visit to the dam itself is essential. Tours across the top of the dam are held daily, but an alternative, which also takes in the natural splendour of Nevada’s volcanic scenery, is to take a trip along Black Canyon and gaze up rather than down at its imposing façade.
The canyon, encompassing a 12-mile stretch of the Colorado river, runs south from the dam and marks the border between Nevada and Arizona. Options for traversing this waterway include kayaks or motor- assisted rafts and from this starting point, just below the dam, the sheer scale of its monstrous wall is best appreciated. It’s a sight that conjures mixed feelings. All dams have implications for the waterways they plug, and the Hoover dam fundamentally changed the habitat of the Colorado River, with wide-ranging consequences for its wildlife. Yet it’s hard not to be impressed by this man-made feat which still provides electricity to 1.3 million people in the region.
Leaving the dam behind, the walls of Black Canyon, so-called due to deposits of iron and manganese that darken the surface of the looming rocks, rise nearly 2,000 feet on either side. Dotted with shrubs and squat barrel cactus, they are visibly scarred and stretched by millions of years of tectonic movement.
At some points along the journey sediment rock, even older than the volcanic rock above it, becomes visible in striated layers, while in others, hot spring water trickles down sulphur-stained fissures, hidden within caves and crevices. On the Nevadan side of Black Canyon these walls offer various hiking opportunities, though some trails are closed in the hotter months for safety reasons, making spring a good time to visit for those with serious hiking aspirations. Though the trails aren’t long, they are steep, and the dry, hot conditions are prone to catching people unawares.
Back on the water, small beaches emerge at several points along the route, providing the brave with opportunities to bathe – or perhaps just paddle. Unlike the warmer, silty water on the north side of the dam, the water in Black Canyon is clear and cold, even when temperatures soar – in summer it can reach 45oC. Early spring offers more palatable temperatures (though low to mid 30s are still common) and on April weekdays the water is quiet – the odd kayaker or camper the only other company, along with several different species of bird. Redhead and ring-necked ducks, cormorants and grebes bob at the edge of the water and, if you’re lucky, you might see a great blue heron, a peregrine falcon or the scavengers of the canyon – turkey vultures – among many others. Even luckier visitors might spot the bighorn sheep – hardy canyon dwellers with horns that can weigh up to 14kg – though you’d be very blessed indeed to spot their elusive predator, the mountain lion.
Of course, if there’s one thing this region isn’t short of, it’s canyons. The maze of Red Rock Canyon and its towering sandstone peaks lies just a few miles west of Las Vegas, while to the east is Bootleg Canyon (named after the criminals who secretively produced liquor here during the Prohibition years). Both offer a range of hiking, biking and climbing, with Bootleg Canyon in particular home to some of southern Nevada’s best mountain biking trails. Though these red, rocky slopes may look inhospitable, the canyons offer another chance to spot Nevada’s wildlife.
Keep an eye out for red-tailed hawks, bighorn sheep and chuckwallas – large lizards that once provided food for the Native American people of this region. For a more thrilling approach, Bootleg Canyon offers adrenalin junkies a perfect option. The canyon is home to four zip lines that carry willing participants soaring above a mile and a half of craggy peaks. Alternatively, for those looking to put things into true bird’s-eye context, helicopter tours from Boulder City fly visitors in a loop, passing over the Hoover Dam and completing their circuit above the grand-daddy of all canyons – Grand Canyon West – whose vast walls plummet vertiginously below on an almost unbelievable scale.
From this vantage you’ll also look down at the waters of Lake Mead, a man-made lake on the Colorado River covering 247 square miles and butting into the Hoover Dam. Surrounded by the mountain plateaus and wide desert basins of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the lake is the largest reservoir in the United States in terms of water capacity and as such there are plenty of activities available, both on and under its surface. Water-skiing, sport fishing, swimming, scuba diving, boating, canoeing and kayaking all take place here.
For residents of the lower Colorado Basin, Lake Mead and the Colorado river in general represent an even more important asset, though one under increasing strain. The river provides water to 40 million people in the western US, but a 20-year drought has put it under pressure. Lake Mead hasn’t been full since 1983 and it fell to its lowest level ever in 2016 (this is clearly visible at the lake where a white line high out of the water marks the previous water-level). In April this year, President Trump signed a plan to cut back on the use of water from the Colorado River. Under the plan, Arizona, Nevada and in some circumstances California, have agreed not to extract water from Lake Mead when it falls to a certain level.
Though it certainly makes for a challenging environment, southern Nevada’s dryness also means desert scenery aplenty and, to round off a visit, Vegas is a convenient starting point for some full-on desert wanderings. Named after the Mojave Native Americans, the Mojave desert spans southern Nevada and southeastern California. One way to reach the Nevadan portion of the desert is to take a trip to the tiny ex-mining town of Goodsprings and its famous bar – the Pioneer Saloon – from which it’s possible to begin hiking or off-roading into the desert proper, (as the driest desert in North America, Mojave really is a proper desert). Driving down narrow trails in a bumpy dune-buggy, with dust rising all around, nothing could feel further from Las Vegas than this vast expanse of rock, dunes and iconic Joshua trees, pocked with tiny settlements and abandoned mining towns. Stopping on an outcrop of rock and looking out, the desert feels ancient and constant, a place where wild horses are free to roam, where bars look like movie sets, and where the local people perch on stools, drinking whiskey and wearing cowboy hats.
Returning from this wilderness to the neon glare of Las Vegas rams home what this city really is – a town sprung up from the desert, a surprisingly successful entertainment hub nestled within an inhospitable landscape. Thankfully, its proximity to such dramatic landscapes means it’s possible to enjoy the city but also to escape it. While the inside of one casino may look much like another, it’s the beauty of Nevada’s desert scenery that proves memorable.
Las Vegas locals have one main recommendation for time spent in the city – head downtown. Located a few miles north of the strip, downtown Las Vegas (DTLV) was the original site of the city back in 1905. For a long time the area was abandoned, a definite no-go area for tourists, but while some areas still feel neglected, others have been completely rejuvenated. DTLV offers a different experience from that of the strip. With plenty of art galleries, music and museums (including the excellent mob museum and the neon museum – where vintage Las Vegas signs go to rest) the cultural offering is richer. Freemont Street is the heart of DTLV with the Fremont Street Experience hosting outdoor concerts and a regular light show.
To the south is the Art District, home to a monthly arts festival celebrating the work of local artists, musicians and other creatives. To really get the feel of the place head to the downtown container park – an oasis of independent boutiques, tiny whiskey bars and vegan cafes. An afternoon here feels more like being in chilled-out east London than flashy Las Vegas.
Black Canyon river adventures: www.blackcanyonadventures.com
Mountain biking Bootleg Canyon: bikeblastlasvegas.com
Flightlinez Bootleg Canyon: www.flightlinezbootleg.com
Vegas off-road tours: www.vegasoffroadtours.com
Papillon helicopter tours: www.papillon.com
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