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10 Hikes And Sights Outside Las Vegas

By Andrew Belonsky

It would be criminal to visit Las Vegas and not venture into Nevada's naturally indiscriminate landscape. Auburn deserts stretch into sprightly forests that then melt into sprawling sand dunes. Bighorn sheep, natural springs and Joshua trees speckle the landscape, enveloping you in natural beauty and making you forget you're only a quick drive from one of the brightest, brashest man made strips in the world.

Here are ten outdoor adventures for those hoping to get away from the glitz, glam and games.

First, Lake Mead.

Created by the stonewall that is the Hoover Dam, this man made reservoir has the capacity to grow to 112-mile long. It is an awesome site and remains the quintessential symbol of man's cooperation with, rather than conquest of, nature, and at only 24-miles outside Vegas, this is the locals' go-to spot for boating, fishing and escaping the scorching summer sun.

There are hikes, like the well maintained River Mountains Loop and the more untamed Grapevine Canyon Trail that leads to ancient petroglyphs, but those are best traversed in the cooler spring or fall months. Physical activity in 120 degree heat is not advised.

There's also a strip of sand located near Overton down North Shore Road that's become a de facto nude gay beach, though rangers are known to give out tickets, so strip at your own risk. Clothed or not, you should check out Lake Mead before it's gone. Climate scientists worry that drought may push it below its minimum elevation level by 2017, and that the entire thing could be history by 2050.

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Over 150 million years in the making and named for the mountains' crimson hue, Valley of Fire State Park was once home to Anasazi Pueblo farmers.

Though they hightailed it about 860 years ago, their art remains, providing a stark contrast to the lights of the strip.

The caves, formed by the whipping sands that have passed through before, provide hours of natural entertainment for those hoping to get up close with one of Nevada's most beautiful attractions. Local hikers recommend the 6.7 mile Charlie's Loop for an afternoon adventure, or the 7.9 mile Prospect Trail is available for an even longer jaunt, while the much shorter — .8 miles — Mouse's Tank Trail gives you a closer look at the petroglyphs with far less sweat.

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Keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep roaming around this 1.6 million acre refuge 25 miles north of town.

The largest safe space for wildlife in the lower 48 states and peppered with peaks and valleys from six major mountain ranges, including the hikers and climbers' paradises of Vegas Range and the Sheep Range, Desert National Wildlife Refuge was formerly the site of first a Native American people and later Mormon farmers before the government took it over in 1936.

Today, it's an perfect place to hide away from any trouble you may have caused in Vegas.

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A moderate 6.3 mile hike in Red Rock Canyon, the Las Vegas Overlook loop can't be beat when it comes to looking down on Sin City, but turn around and you'll see real splendor in the canyon's cardinals and pinks.

Or, if you're not in the mood to hoof it over limestone, there's also a Cowboy Trails horseback tour that will let a beast do the work for you, just like the wranglers of yore.

Eagle eyed hikers should keep an eye out for sea shell imprints left over from when the entire state was submerged under water.

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Standing at 11,916 feet above sea level, Charleston Peak is the highest of the splendid protrusions that make up Nevada's Spring Mountains, allowing for snowfields that make it one of the most popular nearby skiing destinations.

In the spring and fall, this park's trails have something many other Nevada trails don't: a plethora of trees and their very welcome shade.

Higher up you'll encounter the more common desert shrubs that give the soaring landscape its pop and sporadic springs that can be tapped for a mid-hike rest.

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Part of the larger Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex visited earlier, Ash Meadows is renowned for its natural springs, which bubble up from the ground from ancient wells that help sustain the 239 bird species that live here.

It's also home to 24 plant species found nowhere else in the world, such as a species of milkvetch shrub named after the refuge. Reservoirs also abound, as seen in the 70-acre Crystal Reservoir.

The "hiking" here is really just getting out of your car and walk toward the springs and wells marked on the map.

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Deserts, the saying goes, have secrets, and none are more tight lipped than California's nearby Mojave Desert, located 2 hours outside of town, right in the middle of the drive to Los Angeles. Naturally as iconic as the Hoover Dam, though far more impressive in its expansiveness and cultural impact, the blazing red Mojave is more than just an overheated desert stretch.

Mitchell Caverns let you get deep inside these ancient rock formations, while Hole-in-the-Wall Canyon (pictured) lets you take a wider view of the majesty. The ghost town of Kelso stands as a reminder of the bygone railroad days, and the similarly named dunes show what a little wind and millions of years can do to a landscape's face.

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If you're up for a slightly longer driver, about three-and-a-half hours, head southwest to Joshua Tree National Park.

Named for the type of outstretched yucca tree that grows here and the rest of the Mojave, Joshua tree is more than acres of forest populated by snakes, sheep and jackrabbits, all of which are noteworthy in their own right. It's a cultural mecca, thanks in large part to U2's 1987 album The Joshua Tree.

The tree pictured on that memorable cover has since fallen down, but today, the Joshua Tree Music Festival keeps the park's musical tradition alive for those who want to play in nature without missing the beat.

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Back near Las Vegas proper, locals favor Lovell Canyon Trail near Rainbow Mountain for afternoon excursions.

Clocking in at about 5.5 miles, this easy-to-moderate hike may be just the thing you need to clear your head after last night's romp. Again, we can't stress enough how extraordinarily beautiful it is outside of town, and this trail is one of the most convenient ways to experience it.

Don't blow your chance!

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Another local favorite off the beaten path, Goldstrike Hot Springs is only for the more experienced hikers looking for a real work.

Twenty-four miles outside of town and 6.5 miles total, this trail has some fixed ropes to help you along, but still requires plenty of skills.

The work will be worth it though: at the end you can take a small dip in some of the namesake springs. Like Lake Mead, they're diminishing rapidly, so get them while they're hot.

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