Sin City’s Natural Side: A Guide to National Parks Near Las Vegas

Is it possible to go to Vegas and not gamble? What about not even stepping foot in a casino? Well, I’m here to tell you it is. If you’re more of an outdoors person, then there are plenty of national parks near Las Vegas to get you out of the city.

In 2019, over 327 million people visited the national parks in the U.S. For comparison, the U.S. population in 2019 was 328 million. It’s safe to say we love our national parks.

In Nevada alone, there are four national parks and 27 state parks. And, if you’re willing to drive a bit further, this number increases even more.

So, with all these options, where should you begin? Let’s get into the top national parks near Las Vegas.

Red Rock Canyon National Park

More than two million people visit Red Rock Canyon each year, and for a good reason. Red Rock Canyon is one of the most popular national parks near Las Vegas.

Its jagged rocks that line the road make you feel like you’re in The Martian. The various shades of amber give you a glimpse back in time (sometimes literally) as you admire the petroglyphs left behind the rock walls.

The colors and textures of Red Rock looks like something out of a movie.

Southern Paiutes, Anasazi, and other Native American tribes lived in this area and made their mark on the landscape for thousands of years. Some evidence remains, as you can see the roasting pits they used to cook, rock shelters that served as homes, and petroglyphs etched into the rock walls telling a story lost to time.

Nowadays, it serves as a large recreation area. The park covers almost 200,000 acres, and visitors can enjoy a range of activities such as hiking, biking, rock climbing, and camping.

The plethora of trail options are too much to ignore, and much of your time can be spent wandering around the various trails.

Icebox Canyon Hike

This hike isn’t long when it comes to distance — only about two miles — however, it will involve some climbing and scrambling on loose rocks.

This hike is excellent if you’re trying to escape the sun and heat. It sits back in a canyon, and the canyon walls provide excellent shelter to keep you cool. As you progress deeper, you will duck and climb around giant boulders that line (and sometimes sit on) the trail.

This is a great hike to take slowly and take in the natural beauty surrounding you. In all, it takes about 30-40 minutes if you take your time.

Entrance to the Ice Box Canyon hike.

At the end of the hike lies some small pools of water and a waterfall. Unfortunately, when my girlfriend and I went, everything was dry. But, the hike was enjoyable nonetheless.

Overall, this hike is great for people who are of moderate fitness and is a great pairing for some of the other hikes in the park.

Calico Tanks Hike

This was my favorite hike we did when we visited Red Rock Canyon. Weaving and winding around the massive rock formations, you can truly take in how old this area is.

This hike is ideal for people who are looking for a moderately strenuous hike or families/individuals short on time and want to take in as much of Red Rock Canyon as they can.

Easily seen on a clear day, Las Vegas sits on the left side of the picture in the distance.

This hike is about two miles long but provides more landscape variety compared to the Icebox Canyon hike.

At the end of the hike, you get a remarkable view of Las Vegas that makes for an excellent picnic spot, which some people had done the day we visited.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

With almost eight million visitors every year, this isn’t only one of the most popular national parks near Las Vegas, it’s one of the most popular national parks in the U.S.

While most come to visit the Hoover Dam, there’s plenty to discover beyond the towering structure.

Sadly, Lake Mead is drying up at an incredible rate. The lake services three states—Arizona, Nevada, and California—and delivers water to Mexico. Astoundingly, 90 percent of Las Vegas’s water supply comes from Lake Mead.

A combination of climate change and increased population demands has the lake running at a deficit. Since 2000, the lake has lost nearly 5.5 trillion gallons of water.

And the signs are evident. Rings line the lake like an old bathtub that needs a good cleaning.

Don’t believe me? Google ‘bathtub ring’ and pictures of Lake Mead will dot the image results.

You can see where the water reaches full capacity by looking at the island in the center of the photo.

Hopefully, a solution is coming so we can show our grandkids Lake Mead instead of Mead Canyon. I really don’t want to be one of those “back in my day” type of grandparents. And I don’t think you do, either.

Hoover Dam

Being one of the largest tourist attractions in the area, it’s hard to skip the Hoover Dam.

The sheer size of the dam is hard to fathom until you’re standing on it. Looking down on the Colorado River — a whopping 726 feet (221 meters) down — you begin to appreciate how much effort went into its construction.

View from the Hoover Dam

Construction started in 1931 and took around five years until all the features were completed. The construction took so much effort that an entire city was built for people working on the dam. That city is none other than Boulder City, the city that lies closest to the dam.

Take the time to visit this behemoth, and while you’re there, make sure to do the following item: the Gold Strike Hot Spring Hike.

Gold Strike Hot Spring Hike

The Gold Strike Hot Springs Hike was one of the highlights of our trip. This hike is about six miles out and back. This hike is more strenuous than the others in this post, even if you’re in decent shape.

However, it is worth the strain. As you descend toward the Colorado River, you’re greeted by cliff faces that shoot up into the sky, large boulders lie around, and you’ll see the occasional wildlife scurry by.

The Colorado River lies at the end of the hike and provides a cool recovery for your legs before the hike back.

There are three hot springs in total. Although, these will vary in depth depending on when you go. The best hot springs are the last two. Take some drinks, some food, and you can have a lovely day just relaxing by the springs.

If you want to throw your body for a loop, alternate dips in the last hot spring and the Colorado River. The mix of hot and (freezing) cold makes for a perfect natural spa day.

Once you’re done enjoying the springs, make sure you snap a few pictures down by the river. The views here are insta-worthy.

The hike back will be the most challenging part, as you have to climb up the way you came down. So, enjoy those springs and views while you can!

Valley of Fire State Park

Valley of Fire is the farthest from Vegas of the parks I’ve mentioned. It sits about an hour northeast of Las Vegas.

Spread out over 46,000 acres, this state park is easily traversed by car. Many of the main attractions will be just off the road or near enough that you won’t have to exert yourself too much.

The rock colors and patterns at Valley of Fire can’t be missed.

However, it offers many hiking opportunities if you’re looking to get out of the car and stretch your legs.

The vistas in this park are fantastic. Red and orange rock formations ebb and flow around the park. You can view this from the comfort of your car, but I recommend getting out. This way, you can wind your way along, over, and between the rocks.

It’s not until you get up close and admire these that you can appreciate their age and beauty. The rock formations and sand dunes in this area are over 150 million years old.

Mouse’s Tank Hike

This hike is relatively easy. Only about a mile out and back, it takes you on a nice, relaxing — though unshaded — walk to Mouse’s Tank.

The trail to Mouse’s Tank has little shade to save you from the Sun.

Along the way, petroglyphs will sporadically line the path. Almost all the petroglyphs are on the left rock wall, so be sure to keep an eye out for them.

As well, at the end of the path is where the hike gets its name.

Mouse’s Tank is named after a Paiute Indian named ‘Little Mouse.’ During the 1890s, Little Mouse was accused of killing two prospectors in the area, among various other crimes. Whether he actually committed these crimes is up for debate.

To escape the manhunt for him, he retreated to this area. Using a natural basin that had formed in the rock and was great for holding water for a long time after rainfall, he continued to hide and avoid capture.

Petroglyphs you see on the way to Mouse’s Tank.

Eventually, however, he was found. Not in his hideout, but a few miles away. When he was discovered, he tried to fight and escape the mob after him and was killed in the ensuing battle.

Thus, the area was eventually given the name Mouse’s Tank. You will see his hideout basin at the end of the hike. This is a great hike if you’re just looking for something quick and to move on to the next attraction.

Petrified Logs & Elephant Rock

I put these two together because neither requires much time.

The Petrified Logs are a set of fossilized logs that are ancient.

To make a long story short and unscientific, time and weather buried the logs underground, and groundwater carrying minerals made its way into the tiny air pockets in the wood.

Eventually, the wood degraded, and all that was left was the minerals, which took the tree’s shape. And as we know from our science classes in high school, this slowly becomes a fossil.

And here we are at the attraction, a bunch of poor saps (me included) staring at a rock in the ground that looks like a tree.

Meanwhile, we’re surrounded by miles of rocks seeing as we’re in the middle of a desert. Don’t get me wrong, the process is fascinating. The end result, for me, was worth a 5-minute stop then on to other things. But I digress.

The other quick stop — or even drive-by — is the Elephant Rock.

Photo Credit: Ken Lund; Flickr

As you can see from the picture, a road runs past the rock, so you can pull over, snap some pictures, then move on. This is a great option if you have children traveling with you.

But, you probably won’t spend too much time here unless you’re pareidolic.

Petroglyphs at Atlatl Rock

Personally, this attraction was more interesting despite the fact you’re still staring at an inanimate object.

Right off one of the main roads, Atlatl Rock erupts into the sky, casting an imposing figure as you approach it. Climb up some stairs, and a large rock wall greets you with some remarkable drawings etched into the stone wall.

It’s an exercise in creativity to figure out what they may have been trying to convey with these etchings.

It was a moment of revelation for me, though. I realized that the Native Americans in this area had invented the sticky hand — or, in this case, foot — long before I was ever playing with it as a child.

I mean just look at that sticky foot in the bottom right. These people were way ahead of their time in the toy game.

All jokes aside, if you’re looking to visit either the petroglyphs at Atlatl Rock or the Petrified Logs, and you’re short on time, go with Atlatl Rock. You can thank me later.

Conclusion

Don’t let the tales and notoriety of Las Vegas turn you off if you’re not into the usual activities. There’s something for everyone in this small corner of Nevada, and even more, if you’re willing to travel a bit.