We don’t gamble. We’re not opposed, but my wife and I are both truly bored by even the idea. The lure of jackpots simply doesn’t call our names the way hiking in the desert does, with its endless strange vistas and quiet expanses.
Las Vegas, an entertainment attraction for many, offers Oregonians a convenient and comfortable spot from which to explore the Mojave Desert and the chance of experiencing sunny days in January, along with endless people watching — and good dining — on the Strip when you’re done hiking.
It was Allegiant, the discount airline with nonstop flights to Vegas from Eugene, that introduced us to the idea of vacationing in Sin City.
We kept going back after discovering how easy it is to visit a city where handling tens of thousands of tourists at a time has been developed into a fine art. With a little practice, you can step off the plane at McCarran International Airport, pick up your rental car, check into your room and be looking for dinner on the Strip, all within the space of an hour.
Our favorite trip is three nights in one of the city’s many rentable condos, which cluster behind the gaudy Strip hotels like so many sensible shoes at the back of the closet. That gives us two days of hiking, with dinner to follow each night at Wolfgang Puck or Spago.
Our two favorite hiking spots flank the city on opposite sides.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
This popular site, run by the Bureau of Land Management, offers a wide variety of hiking opportunities within its nearly 200,000 acres. You can do an easy stroll in the desert gravel near the modernist Visitor Center, which is tucked up against the carmine rocks that give the place its name; you can drive along the one-way 13-mile scenic loop road, an auto tour that suffices for some 99.99 percent of visitors; you can park at one of several trailheads on the loop road for an out-and-back desert hike of up to a dozen miles; or you can — as we invariably do — spend a few hours walking the 12-mile main loop trail, taking a lunch break in the middle.
The loop trail starts at the Visitor Center and follows the scenic road for several miles, giving good views of the red rock formations to the east. As you reach the northern end of the loop, you cross and recross the road, then cut back through a couple forested canyon entrances before finishing the walk with about a four-mile section of open, flat desert, well away from the road, populated by cactus and mesquite, the occasional coyote and not much else.
This is my favorite part of the walk. We usually walk counterclockwise from the Visitor Center so we can enjoy that stretch last.
Red Rock Canyon is open 6 am until 5 pm in the winter, while the Visitor Center is open 8 am to 4:30 pm. Admission for the day is $15 for a car and its occupants; Golden Age passports get you and up to three other people in your car admitted free. The park is a half-hour drive from the Strip; basically head west out of town on Charleston Boulevard and it’s on the right in a few miles.
Clark County Wetlands Park
This is one of the oddest and least-known recreation sites around Las Vegas, though in recent years more and more people are discovering its charms.
The Las Vegas Wash runs down a flat depression south of the city. It is, in essence, an artificial river that resulted when treated sewage from all those hotels was dumped into the wash, feeding a natural wetland full of wildlife as the water meandered south to Lake Mead.
The park was created after a flash flood scoured the wash clean, destroying the natural wetland and causing silt to be swept into the lake. Starting in 1991, an environmental partnership has rebuilt the wetland, plant by plant, and slowed the flowing water behind a series of artificial dams and weirs, some named for the former Strip hotels whose demolition debris was used to create them.
The centerpiece of the 2,900-acre park is the 210-acre fully planted Nature Preserve next to the wash, with paved trails and a spacious Nature Center on concrete stilts to protect it from the next flash flood. More interesting for longer hiking is a 15-mile loop trail that goes from the preserve down one side of the flowing wash, across a bridge, and back up the other side. That trail system is still under construction — hiking here means encountering heavy equipment now and then as well as a bit of dead reckoning — but the route can be easily followed.
The park is about a 20-minute drive from the Strip. Head east on Tropicana Boulevard; a mile east of Boulder Highway a small sign for the park marks a left turn from Tropicana. Admission is free; Nature Preserve hours are dawn to dusk.
Finding the best cup of tea
Oh, wait, I promised I’d write about drinking tea in Las Vegas. Tea? I’m nearly certain that I have had at least one cup there, though I’d have to punt on exactly where and when that happened.
Enter Google. The posh-looking Tea Lounge on the 23rd floor of the Waldorf Astoria, in the City Center complex on the Strip about midway up, offers formal tea sittings — you’ll want reservations for this one — at hours between 11 am and 4:15 pm. Afternoon tea is $48 adults, $28 for 12 and under.
The view pictured on the hotel website is stunning, with floor-to-ceiling windows letting you look down on Aria, on Paris, Las Vegas, and on Planet Hollywood.
We’ll be checking this one out next time we’re in town. You can gamble on that.