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Exploring the wild side of Vegas



… without stepping foot on the Strip

By Megan Paulson Explore Big Sky Staff Writer

A trip to Vegas doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be immersed in the glitz, gambling and gluttony typically synonymous with Sin City. In fact, Vegas has a much wilder side than you’d expect: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area at 195,819 acres and just 17 miles from the Strip, offers activities to satisfy any outdoor adventurer.

For a quick mid-winter break from the snow and cold of Big Sky country, we headed out to explore the wild side of Vegas without ever stepping foot onto the Strip.

Getting there: Allegiant Airlines
Allegiant Airlines’ two-hour flight to McCarran International Airport. Tickets round trip from Bozeman topped the bill at $150.

Getting around: Alamo Rental Car
For $22/day, we had a full-sized car that boasted 40 miles/gallon. Total gas consumed from the four-day trip? Three gallons, totaling $10.67.

Basecamp: Summerlin, Nev.
With a population of 100,000, Summerlin is a 22,500-acre, master-planned community 20 minutes from the airport. The community currently has more that 150 neighborhood and village parks, nine golf courses and more than 150 miles of the Summerlin Trail System. Lodging options vary in price and amenities:
• Camping: Campsites are available at Red Rock Canyon Campground (open September – May), located approximately five miles from Summerlin and two miles from the Red Rock Canyon Visitors Center
• Hotels: Mid-tier rates and major chains including Mariott, Hilton, La Quinta, Hampton Inn and Best Western
• Resorts: Red Rock Resort and Spa (16-screen movie theatre, 72-lane bowling center, 24-hour services on site), Suncoast Hotel and Casino

Where to eat:
Breakfast – The Cracked Egg
Locally owned and operated, The Cracked Egg has won the “Best of Las Vegas” award four times, most recently in 2013. It offers great breakfast options from a huge menu, and has something for everyone: Try the pork verde heuvros rancheros with avocado, and top it off with a strong cup of coffee. Bonus side: opt for the coffee cake instead of toast for a sweet finish.

Lunch – BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse
Conveniently located off of Charleston Street on the drive back from Red Rock Canyon – BJ’s offers a variety of burgers, homemade pizzas, pastas and sandwiches to refuel. Try the German-, Belgian- and Russian-inspired brews for a refreshing break from the desert sun: Pook’s Pilsner, Field Day IPA, and the Brewhouse Blonde.

Dinner – Summerlin offers a host of places to choose from – here are a few that hit the mark for different price points and palettes.
• Firefly Tapas – variety of hot and cold tapas plates; be sure to try the house specialty Sangria that marinates for three days $-$$
• Budget: PF Changs – dinner for two under $20; classic Asian-inspired dishes, fast service $
• Claim Jumper – Montana steakhouse meets desert grill; fresh-cut steaks and seafood, and finish with the Jumper’s Mud Pie $$-$$$

What to do: Visit Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
The dramatic sandstone cliffs and mountains, plants and wildlife of Red Rocks are part of the Mojave Desert. In 1990, special legislation supported by the Nevada congressional delegation changed the status of the Red Rock Recreation Lands to a National Conservation Area, the seventh to be designated nationally.

Stop by the LEED gold-certified visitors center that offers a host of information and interpretation about recreation opportunities, wildlife, vegetation, geology and cultural resources. The majority of the innovative, interpretive exhibits are outside with four themed elements: earth, air, fire and water. The exhibit is designed to encourage stewardship for public land by providing an outdoor experience that instills a sense of personal responsibility.

Road biking and scenic drive
A popular way to experience Red Rock Canyon, this 13-mile loop is a one-way road allowing cars and bikes. Riders can expect multiple steep grades for the first five miles with switchbacks at the top of the ride, and a rewarding 1,000-foot descent back down to the visitors center. Multiple pullouts along the route offer interpretive signs, access to trails, and photo ops.

Rock climbing
Hundreds of rock climbing routes ranging from easy scrambles to 5.14 in difficulty line Red Rock Canyon. Primarily Aztec sandstone, the rock at Calico’s 1& 2, and Sandstone Quarry are the focus of sport climbing, while the rock of the main escarpment has a greater cementing factor and is considered to be the best quality. Overnight bivy permits are available for six areas within the park.

Fun for hikers at any experience level, the park has more than 30 miles of hiking trails to choose from. Most hikes are 1-3 hours, making morning or afternoon excursions easily doable. Multiple springs and small waterfalls can be seen from the trails that meander through the desert landscape. Top pick for a hot day: Ice Box Canyon takes you through a cool, shady, narrow box canyon with seasonal waterfalls in the heart of the park.

Visit Mojave Max
If you’re out early and are lucky enough to catch a glimpse, the park has a resident tortoise named Mojave Max that lives at Red Rock Canyon NCA. Look for tortoise crossing signs as you exit the visitors center. The desert tortoise is Nevada’s state reptile, and Max is a “spokestortoise” for all the wild tortoises that live in the Mojave Desert and serves as a major symbol of the desert. Max was born in 1989, weighs 12.5 pounds, is 13 inches long, and expected to live 60-80 years.

Learn more about activities in Red Rock Canyon NCA at

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