LAS VEGAS — Sure, the typical trip to Las Vegas is likely to make your wallet lighter and your stomach heavier. The gambling, free-flowing booze and never-ending buffets that give Sin City its fun reputation can take a toll on your finances and physique.
But there are alternatives that belie the idea that Vegas is all about food, drink and slot machines. Step outside the strip, and a seemingly endless amount of healthy activities await you – hiking, cycling, paddling and more amid some of the best desert and mountain scenery in North America.
And, as one enthusiast puts it, “you can’t lose money in the mountains.”
That enthusiast would be Branch Whitney, author of Hiking Las Vegas and founder of the 52 Peak Club – a group in which members earn playing cards as rewards for hiking 52 trails in the area. The tougher the trail, the higher the card value.
“We have three distinct areas here, all within 60 minutes of the strip, which allow for year-round hiking,” he said.
The trails are varied – everything from a flat and easy 20-minute stroll through a canyon to an all-day, 12-kilometre trek up a mountain. Yes, Vegas itself is at a low elevation in the desert, but nearby are tall, sometimes snow-capped peaks.
Whitney’s website offers free downloads of trail guides that describe the difficulty level, trail directions and scenery for dozens of hikes. There are also tour companies that will take you to hiking trails and provide water and other support.
Cyclists have options too. A short distance from Vegas is the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. It’s a 25-minute car drive from the strip, and is also a popular destination for those who prefer pedal power.
The road through the conservation area is a 21-kilometre, one way loop with frequent places to stop, park your bike or car and explore trails. The red hills – a product of the area’s iron-rich rock – provide a striking contrast to the desert floor.
On a recent trek, our hiking tour followed a creek for a relaxed and easy three-kilometre round trip. Our guide explained the plants and animals we came across. Nearby, we saw a group of five mountain climbers grunting their way up one of the conservation area’s peaks.
Because Las Vegas is such a tourist destination, tour companies provide a wide range of options to see Red Rock. You can be picked up from your hotel door, driven there and hike. You can cycle all the way from Vegas and do the loop. Or, you can be driven there and cycle the loop only.
Tour companies also provide all the equipment – whether it be for cycling, kayaking or mountain-climbing – so you don’t have to pack gear in your luggage.
“All my tours are pretty much custom,” said Bob McCall of Cycle Vegas, which provides guided tours of Red Rock and other areas.
“It depends on what kind of shape people are in.”
The first half of the Red Rock loop is a challenging uphill section, but McCall says he recently took an 80-year-old man on the trek and everyone did fine.
“You just take a break. There are pulloffs about every mile on that climb, and if you just break it up into one-mile segments, it’s easier to do it that way.”
Slightly further afield, there are also guided bike tours to the Hoover Dam – a massive 221-metre-high barrier that created the scenic Lake Mead. There are also rafting tours in the area.
About 90 kilometres from Vegas is Valley of Fire State Park, with more hikes amid bright red rocks and cliffs.
And if you’re okay with a long car or bus ride, you can reach the Grand Canyon in a little less than three hours and hike, take a helicopter tour or descend to the bottom of the canyon and go rafting along the Colorado River, surrounded by the gorge’s massive walls.
After a day of exercise, most hotels along the Las Vegas strip have spas where you can pamper your sore muscles, content in the knowledge that you have defied the odds by living healthy in a town known for excess.
McCall said the fact there are healthy, active options for Las Vegas visitors remains something of a secret.
“There’s better stuff to do here than drink yourself into oblivion and lose all your money gambling,” he says, chuckling.