Cashing in around Vegas: Nature offers plenty of action away from the Strip

LAS VEGAS — Not much of a gambler? Finding outdoorsy things to do within a short drive of Las Vegas is a safe bet. Going for a hike can mean more than strolling down the Strip, taking in the extravagantly colorful sights engineered by humankind over the last half-century. Going for a hike also can mean walking past awe-inspiring red geologic formations carved by nature over millions of years, since Las Vegas also makes a great home base for adventures that won't put your bank account in jeopardy. Some parks are close enough that you can be back on the Strip in time to catch a Cirque du Soleil show, though if the nightlife keeps you from rising early, it may be wise to book a 10 p.m. showing. Spring is an especially good time to explore the area, before the heat makes hiking tiring or even dangerous. If you're lucky enough to hit the desert when it's in bloom, consider putting some money down on the roulette wheel afterward. To savor a few hours of peace and quiet away from the constant casino cacophony, here are a few options. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, 17 miles west of the Strip on Highway 159, can be toured in half a day if time is limited. The park features a 13-mile one-way loop road through the conservation area's more spectacular parts. Allow plenty of time to stop and absorb the red and white hills ringing the central desert area. The red comes from iron in the sandstone created from giant dunes that covered the western United States 180 million years ago. You could just do the drive, but with 25 miles of hiking trails, surely one of the scenic stops will entice you to take a walk (if you're not wearing your Vegas spike heels). A popular 2.5-mile round-trip hike up to Calico Tanks passes an American Indian agave roasting pit and then follows a creek bed to a tinaja. This natural water tank, a mini-lake in the spring, helped draw early peoples to the area. My friend and I lost the trail a few times while scrambling over the rock slabs, but by following the creek and rock cairns we never worried about getting lost. Hikers unfazed by heights can go just five minutes past the tinaja and get a great view of the arid Las Vegas valley, including the Stratosphere and other Strip landmarks. The texture of the rock and the stark line between the red and tan sandstone make for good picture taking, so we spent more than two hours just on that trail. The park draws tourists from other states and countries as well as locals such as Tiffany, a massage therapist hiking with her puppy. The somewhat shaded Calico Tanks hike is one of the cooler options for summer days, Tiffany said. It was only about 60 degrees that day in early March, but Red Rock Canyon's summer temperatures can top 105 degrees, so planning is important. Spring and summer are the best times for flowers. Even in spring, take several quarts of water. Only the visitor center has drinkable water. Halfway through the driving loop, Willow Spring offers a picnic area, as well as a path to a few petroglyphs, rock art pecked into the cliff around A.D. 800. Red Rock isn't just for hikers. We saw numerous bicyclists giving their quads a workout as the road gained 1,000 feet in altitude (the highest point is 4,771 feet), and watched rock climbers reaching for adventure — and handholds — on the sheer cliffs. Keep in mind that unlike the Strip, sunset on the loop road quickly marks the end of the day. We aborted another hike because we didn't want to encounter a cholla cactus in the dark. Valley of Fire State Park, 55 miles northeast of Vegas off I-15 on Highway 169. The formations' redness is stunning, even on a rainy day when we couldn't see the rocks "on fire" at sunset. The rocks are even redder than at Red Rock Canyon, and fault activity and millenniums of erosion have sculpted the soft sandstone into intriguing formations with names such as Elephant Rock, the Beehives and Seven Sisters. Valley of Fire has a variety of overlooks and trails, most of them short. Atlatl Rock, a popular site up a metal staircase from a parking lot, is known for its petroglyphs. It includes a picture of an atlatl, a notched stick used to throw primitive spears. Because of its easy access, the rock art is protected behind a clear shield. Finding prehistoric petroglyphs on our own was much more fun. The half-mile round-trip hike to Mouse's Tank, another natural basin, prompted numerous cries of "Look here!" Look for the petroglyphs on rock faces darkened by desert varnish, a mineral patina. Rainbow Vista offers a view of the valley and rocks of other colors. As at Mouse's Tank, there's a trail on the soft red sand, but hikers may be tempted to disappear into side canyons as well. Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit, as daily summer temperatures usually exceed 100 degrees. Spring is a good time to see flowers such as desert marigold and desert mallow along the roads. Hoover Dam and Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 35 miles southeast of Vegas on Highway 93. Hoover Dam can be connected to Valley of Fire via the 63-mile Northshore Road that offers ever-changing scenery, including views of Lake Mead, colorful rock formations and desolate desert. We spied a wild horse, but the bighorn sheep were hiding in the hills. Visitors with plenty of time can go hiking, biking or boating at Lake Mead, but a visit to Valley of Fire and Hoover Dam easily fills a day. Who knew that a stop at Hoover Dam, one of America's Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders, would take two hours, even without a tour? The dam doesn't count as nature, of course, but you don't have to be a techno-geek to be awed by the size, complexity and durability of the project. Built for flood control, water delivery and hydroelectric power, the dam has had a profound effect on growth in the Southwest. The influx of laborers making about 65 cents an hour also gave the Vegas area a growth spurt. We snagged a free parking spot on the Arizona side and walked the 1,244 feet across the dam, staring down 726 straight feet of concrete to the Colorado River. We checked out the bathrooms in the Art Deco towers with mosaic floors and also rubbed the toe of a winged figure statue for good luck. We didn't have time for a tour but paid $8 for the visitor center, with its informative displays on the construction from 1931 to '35. The dam was sort of a stimulus project for the Great Depression — and finished ahead of schedule. Now there's a new project: A span bridge just south of the dam is scheduled to open late this year to improve security and traffic flow. Death Valley National Park in California is a bigger trip, 120 to 172 miles depending on whether you take the shortest or the most scenic route. If you think the desert is dry and boring, the stark beauty of the landscape may come as a surprise. (The drive there, however, included flat stretches of 70 mph highway so straight that a curve was something my friend announced.) Once in the park we took a 13-mile side road to Dante's View and hiked half a mile to the summit (5,590 feet) for a spectacular vista. But it was neither hellish nor an inferno that day. It's mind-boggling to realize you're looking down almost 6,000 feet to Death Valley's salt flats and Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level the lowest point in the U.S. To the west across the valley lies the snow-topped Panamint Range, punctuated by the 11,049-foot Telescope Peak. Looking down at the salt flats, we had trouble telling what was salt and what was water because there are seasonal lakes that vary in depth from year to year. On top it was cool, and we noted the colors of lichen on the rocks: orange, blue, green, black and lime green. There were signs of small green shoots and flower buds, but no blooms yet; the wildflowers were peaking in mid-April. It was around 50 degrees at Dante's View just after lunch. As we drove down, closer and closer to the low point, we watched the temperature reading in the rental car rise — 62 degrees when we hit Highway 190, and in the 70s on the salt flats. The rock color changed from the volcanic black basalt of the Black Mountains to yellow and gold near Twenty Mule Team Canyon (where borax was mined in the 1880s) and Zabriskie Point, a photo stop overlooking colorful badlands. Badwater Basin actually has a tiny pond with water and a few little plants. Otherwise, the salt flats are desolate, though the crystalline formations are intriguing. A 10-minute stroll took us to the edge of the shallow salt lake. We had hoped to catch the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes in the late afternoon to photograph the striking shadows, but as usual we were pushing it to hit our last stop by sunset, and a storm was rolling in. Five minutes after we headed onto the dunes, dust clouds rose in the distance and ominous dark clouds started spitting rain, so we hightailed it back to the car. Although we were almost disappointed that it wasn't hot that day, most visitors need to be concerned about adequate water and sun protection: The average high in April is 90 degrees. Think twice before visiting in August. There are creatures in such a desolate place, but we saw only a few gnat-like bugs at Dante's Peak, some road kill and a few crows. But if you want to see birds or just need to get some fresh air, you can always take a quick stroll past the pink wading birds at the Flamingo casino back in Vegas.

IF YOU GO: Because this is desert country, carry plenty of water and make sure you have a full gas tank before heading out. Camping is available at all of the parks. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, just west of Las Vegas. Loop road hours vary depending on season. Admission: rising to $7 per vehicle on May 1; Valley of Fire State Park, near Overton off I-15. No concessions. Admission: $6 per vehicle. Hoover Dam, east of Boulder City on Highway 93 on the Arizona border. Visitors center, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., admission $8. Dam and power plant tours cost extra. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, extends for about 100 miles north of Hoover Dam. Boat rentals and cruises available. Admission: $5 per vehicle for five days. Death Valley National Park, just over the border in California. Food, gas and lodging available at three sites, including Furnace Creek near visitor center. Admission: $25 per vehicle for seven days. MONEY-SAVING TIPS: Boulder City: If you're looking to save money on Friday or Saturday lodging and plan to visit sights east of Vegas, this town 20 miles east of Vegas, by Hoover Dam, has a walkable downtown. It has a number of small motels on the main drag such as the El Rancho, and Milo's Cellar is a great little restaurant/wine bar. Keep checking the Web: Cirque du Soleil shows such as "O" are often discounted 25 percent in the weeks before the show, and you can get that discount refunded if you ask. After getting $36 back on tickets, I managed to get $16 back on my Monte Carlo room, too, when that price dropped. Food: A late breakfast buffet for $14.95 carried us until dinner, through an afternoon at Red Rock Canyon, with nary a thought of trail mix. Buying sandwich fixings at the grocery store also saved money, and the El Rancho room had a fridge. Packing light: Hiking boots are useful, but tennis shoes would do — and it turns out lots of tourists wear sneakers as they walk the Strip.