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BEYOND VEGAS - STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL EXTREMES AWAIT
 
(2011 - Winter Issue)

Writer: Jeff Lukovich



The Las Vegas Strip is without doubt one of the glitziest and most entertaining places in the world.

However many travellers don’t realize that beyond the glamour, the city can be a great base to explore some of America’s most breathtaking scenery and interesting human history.

In fact, 87 per cent of the state of Nevada is publicly owned and federally managed land, most of it open to all forms of recreation. And despite the misconception that the majority of Nevada’s wildlife is to be found in its casinos and nightclubs, the state ranks 11th in the U.S. in terms of biodiversity.

Riding Red Rock Canyon

My venture off the strip begins atop a horse just on the western outskirts of Las Vegas. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is a beautiful area of stark mountain ranges layered with striking orange and red-hued rock, buttes that look straight out of Wild West movies and a remarkable variety of cactus, burning bush and Joshua trees.

Cowboy Trail Rides aims to provide greenhorns like us with an authentic western experience. Our ride negotiates switchbacks and steep rocky terrain, overlooks dramatic sandstone formations and is a little bit like spending two hours on a mechanical bull set to slow motion. Wild Spanish burros amble at a distance and red-tailed hawks soar and dive looking for prey.

Besides horseback riding, Red Rock Canyon’s 80,000 hectares offer biking, climbing and more than 50 kilometres of hiking trails. A scenic 21-kilometre loop road takes visitors to many of the park’s scenic features and side roads allow access to its many trails.

Ghost Towns and Mining History

A two-hour drive northwest of Vegas brings us to the ghost town of Rhyolite, which has to rank as one of the swiftest boom-to-bust stories around. The town began in 1904 when gold was discovered, grew to a population of approximately 10,000 virtually overnight and then by 1908, the dream was pretty much over and the town largely deserted. Three railroad companies made stops here during its brief heyday and the train station, bank and school are its most impressive remaining buildings.

Just down the road is the Goldwell Open Air Museum, which features a number of eclectic outdoor sculptures and installations. The most prominent is a number of ghost figures cast in plaster by Belgian sculptor Albert Szukalski, including a series depicting The Last Supper.

We drive 10 minutes down the road to overnight in the town of Beatty, founded in the late 1800s as the central supply hub of the Bullfrog Mining District. Today, it’s a gateway to Death Valley National Park, just over the nearby Nevada-California border.

At the Beatty Museum and Historical Society, we explore the area’s mining past through an impressive collection of documents, books, photos and artifacts. The atomic bomb display of photos, Geiger counters, and a 1940’s-era radiation suit reminds us that the U.S. atomic bomb program was carried out at the nearby Nevada Test Site.

An Extreme Land

Besides being the largest national park in the lower 48 states, Death Valley National Park is also the country’s hottest, driest and lowest. Those extremes and its stunningly beautiful, often otherworldly terrain put it on the must-see list of many travellers.

We begin our visit at the Mediterranean-style Scotty’s Castle, improbably set in a desert wilderness near the north end of the park. Tours through the fabulous interiors of the castle tell the story of the strange friendship between Albert Johnson, a Chicago insurance magnate who financed the construction, and Walter Scott, a local con man, who told potential marks that this was actually his place, financed by a fabulous gold discovery in which they could invest.

Next, we drive south to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. It offers orientation programs, a museum, bookstore and ranger talks. On our November visit, the temperature is a comfortable 20 C, but naturalist and park photographer Bob Greenburg tells us that summer temperatures often hit 52 C. European visitors in particular, he tells us, like to experience that extreme.

Farther down the road at the Devil’s Golf Course, we wonder at a surreal landscape of rock salt eroded by wind and rain into jagged spires. The ground is so uneven and seemingly inhospitable that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.”

At Badwater, the lowest point in North America, we stand in the parking lot and look 86 metres up a rock face to where a large white sign marks sea level. Then we venture out onto the huge salt flats, which from a distance appear to be a gigantic lake.

Too soon it’s time to head out of the park, but before we do, we stop at Zabriskie Point, one of Death Valley’s most famous and spectacular viewpoints. We watch the sun set, as the colours play off a maze of wildly eroded and vibrantly tinted badlands.

Man-made Wonders

Just 48 kilometres southeast of Vegas is the Hoover Dam, one of Nevada’s most popular attractions.

Our tour guide Jeff Tilton begins by mentioning that the man most responsible for getting the Hoover Dam completed on time and under budget was a Canadian, Frank Crowe, the construction superintendent for the project.

Construction began in March 1931; it was dedicated on September 30, 1935 and there is enough concrete in the dam to build a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York. Always planned as a symbol of American ingenuity and power, a lot of attention was paid to making it an attractive and impressive-looking structure. Named the American Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium, its marble floors, brass doors, statues and other decorative touches make it an inviting place to visit.

A new feature, just completed last year, is the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge. It improves travel between Nevada and Arizona, and for dam visitors, its pedestrian path provides a fabulous high-level view over Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.

There’s something surreal about Lake Mead—a huge lake planted smack dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I first laid eyes on it more than 30 years ago, coming over a ridge on a parched highway, and I thought I was experiencing my first desert mirage. But it’s very real to the four million annual visitors who enjoy all manner of water sports on and under its surface. Today, we put up our feet and enjoy a leisurely paddlewheel cruise along the lake before returning to Vegas for our flight home.

 
 
 
 
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