The Best Side-Trips from Las Vegas

By: Maxine Sheppard

March 1, 2011

Ever eaten too much fast food and ended up craving cold iced water and salad? A few days in Las Vegas can have the same effect.

Las Vegas is exhilarating, overwhelming, fabulous and wild and there’s nowhere else like it on earth. But when you can no longer tell day from night, it’s time to get out beyond the city limits and experience the great American West.

Fortunately, Vegas’s backyard is home to some of the most mind-blowing man-made and natural marvels in all the United States, if not the world. We’ve narrowed them down to our three favourite places with advice on how to reach them and what to do while you’re there:


The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular excursions from Las Vegas, and there are almost as many activity options as there are people willing to take you there. For many, this will be the highlight of their stay, so it pays to do a bit of pre-trip research to ensure you make the most of your time.


If you’re not planning to make your own way there, you can reach the canyon by small plane (with raised wings for excellent viewing), helicopter or bus, though it’s also possible to go by Hummer (a rugged terrain vehicle) or even by boat or raft for part of the way.

One of the more recent attractions is the Skywalk, managed by the Hualapai Tribe. Located on the West Rim’s tribal lands, it’s a glass-bottomed structure, which projects about 70 ft out over the canyon’s rim and allows you to gaze down 4,000 ft to the Colorado River below.


Grand Canyon South Rim © Grand Canyon NPS

Grand Canyon South Rim © Grand Canyon NPS


Strictly speaking, the West Rim is not exactly part of the Grand Canyon itself but is a tributary canyon that sits just outside of the National Park boundaries. However, it’s the closest rim to Las Vegas, and helicopters flying here are allowed to fly beneath the ground level of the rim, something they’re not allowed to do at the South Rim.

The South Rim, however, is considered by most to be the ‘real’ Grand Canyon; more accessible and more dramatic, with a wider range of activity options and visitor centres. From here you can take a guided coach tour, go for a one or two hour horse-ride, hike into the canyon or even get there on a mule though you’ll need to be seriously good at planning for this one, as trips get booked months in advance.

There are far too many tour operators and trip combinations to mention, but check out Viator for a really extensive selection of Grand Canyon experiences departing from Las Vegas.


The Hoover Dam and Lake Mead

Straddling the border between Nevada and Arizona, the Hoover Dam was completed in 1936 and along with the Panama Canal and Brooklyn Bridge is often proclaimed to be one of the seven technical wonders of the world.


Lying just 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead (the reservoir created by the dam’s construction) are often visited as part of a trip to the Grand Canyon, but there’s easily enough to see and do here to warrant a full day’s visit.

As with the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam can be reached by road or air, with tours by helicopter being especially popular as they can fly at lower altitudes, for a genuinely thrilling aerial view. (To fully appreciate what a masterpiece of engineering this is, you really do need to see it from the air.)


The Hoover Dam © Maxine Sheppard

The Hoover Dam © Maxine Sheppard


At the dam itself, there are two options for getting more acquainted with the structure – the Powerplant Tour and the Dam Tour, both of which include admission to the rather excellent visitor’s centre, though the longer Dam tour also allows you to explore the internal tunnels and passageways of the dam.

Whichever tour you choose, there are some really fantastic photo opportunities. The powerplant balcony offers panoramic views over eight of the dam’s 17 gargantuan generators, and the visitor centre’s own observation deck looks out over Lake Mead and the Colorado river. You can also walk along the sidewalks on the top of the dam for gut-churning views of the dam face.

Lake Mead itself is a hugely popular destination for river cruises, with various options available (brunch, midday, dinner) to take advantage of the very special light, which casts the surroundings into various shades of peach, gold and russet depending on when you choose to visit.

If you’re after something slightly less sedate, but equally as relaxing, then consider exploring Lake Mead’s many hidden coves by kayak or canoe. Kayak Las Vegas offer half-day trips for all skill levels.


Red Rock Canyon

For the more adventurous traveller, a trip to the dramatic red rock formations and sandstone peaks of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is a must. Only 17 miles west of Las Vegas, it’s an easily accessible side-trip, though you’ll feel like you’re a world away from the lights and chaos of the Strip (despite the canyon being clearly visible from many of the Strip’s high vantage points).



Red Rock Canyon © Donald Swartz on

Red Rock Canyon © Donald Swartz on


The canyon was granted National Conservation Area status in 1990, recognising the unique geology and wildlife of its surroundings, though it’s predominantly the excellent hiking, mountain biking and rock-climbing opportunities that entice the 1 million visitors who come here each year.

A good way to get your bearings is to drive (either in a hire car or as part of a tour) the 13 mile scenic drive, which offers panoramic views of the spectacular desert landscape. Along the way you’ll see fossilized sand dunes, beautiful desert wildflowers and the brilliant colours of Calico Hills, a majestic sandstone formation popular with climbers. There are numerous viewpoints and picnic spots as well as the obligatory visitor centre, which houses a desert tortoise habitat.

To really feel the spirit of the canyon though, you’ll need to get out and walk. There are trails for all fitness levels, starting with an easy 0.7 mile loop to the waterfall at Lost Creek through to much more strenuous treks such as the 11 mile Grand Circle Adventure. Remember to watch your footing on the loose rocks and keep a lookout for snakes! If you prefer a guided hike, check out local company Hike This! Voted Nevada Magazine’s Best Tour company in 2008 & 2009, Look Tours also offer both on and off-road cycling tours of the canyon, as well as breakfast and sunset horseback rides.


Other Destinations

This is one of the most scenic regions of the world. If you have more time, and are prepared for a very early start then visits to Bryce Canyon, and even to Zion National Park over the border in Utah are also possible.



The Valley of Fire State Park is another eerie desert landscape, often used as a location for film and TV productions. The Professionals, starring Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin was filmed here in 1966, and more recently Total Recall, Star Trek Generations and Transformers all used the otherworldly rock formations as a backdrop.

For more Vegas-centric advice, see our tips on how to see the best of Las Vegas for free.

Virgin Atlantic operates flights to Las Vegas from London Gatwick and Manchester. If you’re looking for a complete holiday, then check out Virgin Holidays who can put together a bespoke itinerary.


Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

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