View at the top: Red Rock Canyon's Calico Tanks.
  • View at the top: Red Rock Canyon's Calico Tanks.
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I've been coming to Vegas for years: it's a bit like Los Angeles in a desert with a giant adult Disneyland in the middle, the glitter of the lights, the gambling and the shows.

This year I decided to view it differently. If you're seeking simple pleasures, Vegas offers multiple opportunities to connect with nature.

Leaving San Diego at 5:00 a.m. gave me a chance to miss the heat of the day. Making a pit stop in Barstow ensured I would be comfortable for the rest of the drive, which totaled 5.5 hours while observing the speed limit (a must as you get closer to towns).

Map of Red Rock Canyon scenic drive.

Map of Red Rock Canyon scenic drive.

I stayed at the Red Rock Casino Resort, which is about seven miles from the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area, where you can hike, do some climbing, camp or bike. Admission for car/truck is $7 per vehicle; motorcycle, $3; bicycle/pedestrian$3.

Red Rock opens at 6:00 a.m. During the summer you'll want to start your hikes early; temperatures can soar to above 105 degrees.

On my first day, I checked out the visitor center, which contains historical and geological exhibits, a cactus garden and a bookstore. The ranger suggested I start off by taking the 13-mile scenic drive. The visitor center has a nice panoramic window and a photo using that window is well worth it. Naturalist-guided walking tours are available.

The 13-mile drive was an eye opener: from flat areas to hills up to 4,770 feet – did I say hills? Maybe it should be mountains.

My favorites hikes (I did one per day):

On the Calico Tanks trail.

On the Calico Tanks trail.

Calico Tanks: 2.5 miles. Average time: two hours; difficulty: moderate. This hike over jumbled sandstone leads to a hidden water pocket (well, maybe not in the summer) and a great view of Las Vegas.

It took an hour to get to the top, but the majestic view of Vegas and the park made it all worth it. The “tanks” were void of water when I visited in the summer; fortunately, the strong winds cooled us down a bit.

First Creek Canyon Trail:: 3 miles. Average time: two hours; difficulty: easy-moderate. This is a three-mile walk across a desert valley to a waterfall with cottonwoods, willows and other shade trees. You'll encounter boulders towards the end of the trail (left). This hike is best done during a full moon!

There actually was water in the creek since we had had a summer storm just a couple days prior. We were lucky to photograph some evening primrose flowers.

La Madre Spring: 3.3 miles. Average time: two hours; difficulty: moderate. This hike follows an old road up a canyon with red-and-white sandstone cliffs on one side and gray limestone mountains on the other. The trail does not actually go to La Madre Spring; it ends at a concrete dam built in the 1960s.

The dam now provides water for wildlife and is a pleasant contrast to the desert environment. For the Red Rock area, the vegetation in the canyon is fairly dense, and the pinyon pine, juniper and scrub oaks actually feel like a forest.

Always check the weather before starting a hike: if it looks like it may rain, don’t hike that day. Make sure you bring plenty of water – two large bottles for each person is a good guide. Always hike with a buddy. A camera with a zoom feature is a must. Hiking shoes are recommended and a pair of gloves for the boulders. Some people were hiking with poles.

Be safe, but most of all, enjoy the experience! It's sure to carry memories for years to come.

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