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Though Vegas is designed to make you forget that there is an outside world, it might do you and your wallet some good to reacquaint yourself with the non-Vegas realm. The good news is that as the most geographically isolated major city in America, there’s nothing but nature in every direction outside its neon-lit borders.

There’s a startling contrast between the artificial wonders of Sin City and the natural wonders that, in some cases, lie just a few miles away. Few places are as developed and modern as Vegas; few places are as untouched as some of the canyons, desert, and mountains that surround it. The electrical and design marvel that is the Strip couldn’t exist without the extraordinary structural feat that is Hoover Dam. Need some fresh air? There are plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation, all in landscapes that are completely un-Vegas, in the best ways.

The Grand Canyon

About 270 miles E of Las Vegas

The geographically challenged among us believe that the Grand Canyon is just a hop, skip, and a jump from Las Vegas and therefore a great idea for a side trip while visiting Sin City. While this may be true from a strictly comparative basis—the canyon is closer than say, London—it’s not exactly what you’d call “close.”

While the West Rim is closer to Las Vegas at 180 miles and about 2 hours away, the more popular side for visitors is the South Rim at 270 miles and another 2 hours farther, as there’s more to see and do.

The quickest and easiest way to get to the West Rim is via helicopter. Papillon (www.papillon.com; [tel] 888/635-7272), a popular charter service, offers several packages to the west side, including a bird’s eye view of Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, and possibly the Grapevine Mesa. The shorter, 4-hour tour ($129–$219) is just a quick fly-by over the canyon, but the narrated guide, available in multiple languages, is thorough, informative, and excellent. A more expensive package (that extends the tour by an hour for about $100 more) allows for a landing at the bottom of the canyon, 4,000 feet below the rim, where you’re treated to a champagne picnic in one of the most gorgeous settings you’ll ever dine. If you want a full-day excursion, there’s an option to combine the flight to canyon, a boat trip on the Colorado River, and VIP passes on the SkyWalk bridge ($449–$539).

For the most serene experience, the North Rim is the unsung hero of the Grand Canyon, where visitors can be closer to nature without all the tour bus crowds. But that solitude comes at a price, as the North Rim is the most difficult to get to. Despite it being the same distance as the South rim, this side is more wild and secluded, so a day trip by car isn’t advised. Fortunately between April and November, Papillon heads there for a daylong tour ($319–$369) that packs in as much nature as you can muster. The 8-hour day starts with a prop plane ride with stunning views of Hoover Dam, Lake Mead and the Colorado River before dropping you off at an isolated landing strip at Bar 10 Ranch, a bona fide ranch where they sometimes have to shoo the cattle from the runway. Your guide will take you via ATV on a 2-hour round trip tour down to the North Rim, 3,000 feet above the Colorado River, where you can appreciate the majesty of the canyon and not fight tourists to breathe in the landscape. The tour includes a cowboy’s lunch back at the lodge, and try to stay awake on the flight back home.

Whenever you bring up the West Rim, folks always mention the SkyWalk, and it’s usually not in a favorable manner. More than 1 million pounds of steel went into the construction of this U-shaped footbridge that extends 70 feet from the rim over the canyon. The transparent glass base is supposed to allow visitors to look down and absorb the awesomeness of the Grand Canyon. However, exorbitant fees (about $44, which go to the Hualapai tribe, whose reservation the bridge is on) and relatively unreasonable demands—no cameras, no backpacks—keep a lot of visitors away. Before you decide to pay the price of admission, consider that just a few yards from the bridge, Eagle’s Point offers similar, if not better, views absolutely free.

To visit the South Rim, there are more helicopter tours available, but we suggest if you’ve got a whole day to kill, get up early and catch the Papillon Bus Tour ($89–$150). The coach is air-conditioned and comfortable, and makes frequent rest stops. You’ll get off the bus for photo ops at Hoover Dam, drive through the 900-year-old Joshua tree forest, and also receive a voucher for lunch at the National Geographic food court. Like a trip in school, this will be a learning experience, thanks to a knowledgeable driver well-versed in the history and geology of the American Southwest.

Or be the captain of your ship! Renting a car and driving is an excellent and affordable option, especially if you’ve got a group. Four to five hours over the two-lane highway (three to the West Rim) is doable, but not unheard of. Plus you’ll have the luxury of staying as long as you like and exploring on your own terms. We find that many visitors decide to stay overnight, just for the pleasure of seeing the canyon at dusk and dawn. The shifts in light are a remarkable sight here. For information on South Rim lodging, see www.grandcanyonlodges.com.

If you’re taking your own car, head east on Flamingo Road or Tropicana Boulevard to I-515 S. This becomes NV 93, which crosses over Hoover Dam into Arizona and leads to I-40 at Kingman. Take the interstate east to NV 64 at Williams, Arizona, and follow the signs north. Drivers should be advised that much of the route to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas is along narrow, twisty roads that can be a challenge and are often jammed with traffic.

Leaving (Lake) Las Vegas

Originally created as a playground for the rich and famous (Céline Dion had a house here), Lake Las Vegas is a man-made reservoir created in a formerly dry, dusty valley about 20 miles east of the city on the way to Lake Mead. Surrounded by multimillion-dollar houses and rambling upscale condominium complexes, the bulk of the area is privately owned; but curving gracefully around the western lip of the lake is MonteLago Village, an homage to an Italian seaside community that features accommodations, dining, shopping, entertainment, and recreation options for those with a taste (and a budget) for the finer things in life.

The area was hit hard by the global economic recession, and many of the reasons to visit vanished. The fantastic Ritz-Carlton hotel, the casino, and two of the three golf courses closed. Many of the stores and restaurants went out of business, and most of the development sank into bankruptcy.

Things are improving, with the Ritz reborn as a fancy Hilton, but it’s still a far cry from what its developers hoped it would be. Gone are the shops and restaurants along quaint cobblestone streets that once anchored MonteLago Village Resort and Casino. The candy-colored structure is still there with a few condo rentals, but for now, the former Italian-esque village awaits its next incarnation. If you find yourself wanting to cobble together a picnic on the shores of the lake in spring, they did just open Seasons Market, a fancy gourmet grocery right next door.

The former Ritz-Carlton is now operating as the Hilton Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa, 1610 Lake Las Vegas Pkwy. (www.hilton.com; tel 702/567-4700). Though not much has changed in the room and amenities department, a focus on the business traveler has diminished some of the personal touches that made it special. Still the immaculate gardens are serene, the pool is a blissful retreat, and rooms are gorgeous, especially those located on the re-creation of the Ponte Vecchio bridge over the lake.

 

On the other side of the lake, the Westin Lake Las Vegas, 101 MonteLago Blvd. (www.westinlakelasvegas.com; tel 702/567-6000), is new but in name only, having formerly been a Loews, and before that a Hyatt. Not much has changed with the new ownership except the addition of their trademark "Heavenly" beds and some toning down of the Moroccan-themed decor. There are more than 500 rooms, a spa, several pools, restaurants, recreation programs, kids programs, and more, so you won’t be lacking in things to do here or in ways to be pampered.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.