Wonders to see away from the Vegas Strip

Valley of Fire State Park, about an hour northeast of Las Vegas. Carry water, wear a hat, use sunscreen, sit on a rock in the shade from time to time.

I have been to Las Vegas close to 30 times over the last 25 years.

That, apparently, makes me a high-roller in the eyes of some marketing folks who make those sorts of decisions. Or maybe it’s just analytics.

In reality, I traveled not for the Sin but to visit family members. I do not eat in posh restaurants in Strip hotels. I know which side streets to drive down on a Saturday. Until my last trip, I had gambled on two nights in the previous 12 years, plus a few $5 tickets in the sportsbook.

But I love going there (and also getting out of town), even though it has for a long time been in the heat of August, because of the school calendar. I’ve had to find age-appropriate adventures for a child, year after year.

The arcade games and trapeze show at Circus Circus worked for a time, as did a visit to see the fish tank on the wall at the Mirage; in later years, there was the aquarium at Mandalay Bay.

But as the child’s age turns from single to double digits and then into adolescence, a parent’s needs change. Here are some options away from the wonderfulness and kitsch of the Strip.

Natural Wonders

Red Rock Canyon. West of town, about a half-hour drive from the Strip, this national conservation area has a 13-mile scenic drive loop that climbs more than a thousand feet in elevation from the visitor center and offers wide-open vistas of the Las Vegas valley, with hiking (and walking) trails that vary in difficulty.

Admission: $15 per car. Hours: visitor center, daily 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; access to other areas, including scenic drive and camping, varies. Information: 702-515-5350 or www.blm.gov (then search for Red Rock Canyon) and other websites.

Valley of Fire. An hour northeast, via Interstate 15 to exit 75, Nevada’s largest state park features brilliant red sandstone formations that look like, well, any number of things depending on the angle you see them from and the time of day and year. Trails vary widely in difficulty, length, and petroglyphs. Most recently, we hiked Mouse’s Tank Trail, three-quarters of a mile round trip, with a gentle elevation change. Carry water, wear a hat, use sunscreen, sit on a rock in the shade from time to time. Daytime temperatures during the summer easily hit triple digits, in blazing sunshine.

Admission: $10 per car. Hours: visitor center, daily 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; other areas close at sunset. Information: 702-397-2088 or www.parks.nv.gov (then search for Valley of Fire) and other websites.

Mount Charleston. Need to cool off after going to Valley of Fire? Especially after sunset, you might want a jacket at 8,500 feet. Drive about an hour northwest of town, out U.S. Route 95 to state Route 157. Aside from scenic drives and trails for hiking, biking, and horse riding for much of the year, there is skiing in the winter. If none of those activities are on your to-do list, you can easily find a picnic area or restaurant patio for lunch. My dad went there to paint.

Hours: Spring Mountains National Recreation Area visitor center, daily 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Information: 702-872-5486 or www.gomtcharleston.com

Camera icon Reid Tuvim / Staff
At Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, hikers traverse a series of switchbacks.

Bryce Canyon, Death Valley, Zion. These three very different National Parks are within a few hours’ drive (though factor in the time zone change to Utah for Bryce and Zion). We have gone to Bryce and Zion but not to Death Valley. You’ve seen the striking Bryce Canyon hoodoos in photographs, but hikes among the rock formations and views from the overlooks are awe-inspiring — except for the folks who haven’t put down their selfie sticks and looked around. The Zion ecosystem changes from desert to marshy river bank within a few miles; beware the squirrels that think they own the paved path along the North Fork of the Virgin River as it exits the Narrows. We have traveled to the parks for overnight stays on weekends, to take maximum advantage of lower weekday hotel rates in Las Vegas. Accommodations near the parks are limited, so reserve FAR in advance during summers.

Camera icon Reid Tuvim / Staff
The North Fork of the Virgin River at Zion National Park. The Zion ecosystem changes from desert to marshy river bank within a few miles.

Admission: at Death Valley, $25 per car, valid for seven days (increasing to $30 on June 1); at Bryce and Zion, $30 per car, valid for seven days (increasing to $35 on June 1). Information: www.nps.gov (then search for a specific park).

Hours for Bryce: park open 24 hours throughout the year; visitor center hours vary by the season. Information: 435-834-5322.

Hours for Death Valley: park open 24 hours throughout the year; Furnace Creek visitor center open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Information: 760-786-3200.

Hours for Zion:  park open 24 hours throughout the year; visitor center hours vary by the season. Information: 435-772-3256.

Non-Natural Wonders

Hoover Dam. OK, this one is pretty obvious. The basic facts – the dam on the Nevada-Arizona border was constructed between 1931 and 1936, involving thousands of workers during the Great Depression, to control flooding and stabilize irrigation on the Colorado River and to provide electricity for the Southwestern United States – can’t compete with the wow factor you’ll find 45 minutes southwest of the Strip, via U.S. Route 93 and state Route 172. Tours – which aren’t mandatory – last either 30 or 60 minutes, taking small groups 500 feet down, where you see one of the tunnels that can divert millions of gallons of water per minute and the Nevada half of the power plant generators, housed in a huge room with beautiful art deco designs. The longer tour includes additional passageways.

Visitor center exhibits tell the story of the dam; from the overlook there, you feel the magnitude of the engineering feats of the dam and, in the other direction, the highway bridge spanning the canyon. The bridge includes a walkway accessible from a parking area off the road to the dam. Be prepared to deal with a significant wind if you want to see the dam from more than 800 feet above the river.

Either going or coming, drive into Boulder City instead of taking the bypass road. Stop for lunch and a walk around the shops. One thing you won’t see: slot machines. The town was originally built to house workers for the dam, and gambling was banned.

Admission: visitor center and 30-minute powerplant tour: adults, $15; seniors and youths (4-16), $12; children (3 and younger), free. For 60-minute tour: $30;  no children under 8, no disability access. For visitor center only: $10 (children 3 and younger, free). Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., no entrance after 4:15, last tour at 3:30.  Parking: $10 in close-in lots, free in farther lots. Information: www.usbr.gov  (and search for Hoover Dam) and other websites.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Twenty minutes northeast of the Strip, out I-15, the racetrack that hosts NASCAR racing in March and September is the anchor of a speedway complex that includes a drag strip, off-road course, and go-kart track among the 11 tracks on the property. But beyond racing, the complex offers tours that include being driven faster than you realize around the 1.5-mile track for a couple of laps – our escort stopped to let us climb up one of the 20-degree banked turns – and a look at the track from a luxury suite atop the stands. Plus, when we were there, the gift shop had Victory Lane-scented candles for sale! (Think burning rubber.)

Tours daily, weather and track use permitting. (Aside from races, the speedway is the site of driving schools and other events.) Tickets: adults, $8; seniors and youths, $6. Information: www.lvms.com.