Las Vegas is a fairly compact city, at least as far the most popular tourist attractions are concerned. The airport is just over a mile from the southern end of The Strip, making it easy and inexpensive to use public transport to get around.
If The Strip is your main Vegas destination, getting a car isn’t even your best option. Traffic on The Strip is notoriously painful, and gets worse in the evenings, which makes walking or using the monorail the most efficient way to travel.
However, not having a car in Vegas means missing out on a lot of stunning side trips. Vegas is more than just its downtown resorts, casinos, and restaurants. Beyond the city limits are a host of natural sites and attractions well worth a day or two on the road.
Red Rock Canyon
Distance from The Strip: 25 miles
Time to Drive: 30 minutes (+traffic)
The Drive: High or low through the city to avoid the most traffic. Then, a gorgeous drive through the mountains to the west of the valley.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is the closest national or state park to Las Vegas proper, lying just beyond the westernmost edge of its metro area.
The famous red rocks of the American Southwest don’t get much better than they do at Red Rock. Plus, there’s history and hieroglyphs.
The scenic drive at Red Rock is a small loop, but it’s pretty scenic. You can see a lot from your car.
The Con: Due to its proximity to Las Vegas, and the numerous buses that take Vegas tourists to Red Rock, it gets a lot of visitors, which can make Red Rock a bit crowded all the time. But if you’ve only got half a day and want to see Southern Nevada’s epic scenery, this is the quickest place to go.
Valley of Fire State Park
Distance from The Strip: 52 miles for the quick trip, 70 miles for the longer (more scenic) route
Time to Drive: <1 hour – 1 ½ hours
The Drive: A fairly boring jaunt up the interstate or a much more scenic adventure through Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Northeast of Vegas lies the jewel of Southern Nevada. The state’s first state park, Valley of Fire has most everything Red Rock has and then some.
It’s most famous feature, the Fire Wave, is a stunning formation that takes a bit of a hike to get to. You can’t see it from the road, but you will see many other sites from the comfort of your car.
Pro Tip: Pack a picnic lunch and turn off on Fire Canyon Road. Most park visitors don’t, so you’ll be left largely in peace with an amazing view of the park’s stunning Silica Dome.
Bonus: It’s amazing what just a little distance will do. While Valley of Fire gets its share of Vegas-going visitors, it’s never as busy as Red Rock. Translation: You’ll actually find a place to park.
And, unlike Red Rock, which can sometimes feel like a tourist attraction, Valley of Fire feels like a real slice of the southwestern desert. There’s more of it to drive through, and you can easily pair it with a visit to Lake Mead (see below).
Lake Mead (Hoover Dam)
Distance from The Strip: 30 miles
Time to Drive: 45 minutes
The Drive: Through the city, the adjacent suburb of Henderson, and the cute town of Boulder City, with glittering views of Lake Mead as you approach.
Okay, so Lake Mead isn’t actually a natural attraction. It’s man-made. But the Colorado River does run through it and it looks natural, so we’re going to give it a pass.
While there are plenty of outdoorsy things to do around Lake Mead – not just water sports, but hiking and mountain biking as well – you don’t have to do anything. Lake Mead is worth the drive just to look at.
For a spectacular reveal, take the route through Henderson and Boulder City, which brings you in from slightly above the lake and provides a sweeping vista. On a clear day, you’ll probably want to pull over for a moment.
This route also brings you in closest to Hoover Dam, which definitely isn’t a natural attraction, but it’s right there, so you might as well pop by for a look-see or to drive over the dam itself.
You can also tack Lake Mead onto a day at Valley of Fire. The road that connects the two provides plenty of glimpses of the water. If you do combine Valley of Fire with Lake Mead, it’s suggested you make the quick trip up the interstate into Valley of Fire and come out the other (eastern) side to roll down the road to Lake Mead/Hoover Dam.
Come back the Boulder City-Henderson route, and once the lake vista starts to appear in your rear-view, pull it over and take a look back. You would be remiss to skip that view.
Distance from The Strip: 150 miles
Time to Drive: 2 ½ hours
The Drive: Northwest out of the city through nothing, nothing, and more nothing, no matter which way you go.
Choosing the NV-160 West route takes you through Pahrump, which is about the most urban it gets along the way.
Death Valley doesn’t boast color like Red Rock or Valley of Fire, but it has some of the most unique and varied scenery you will see pretty much anywhere in the world. Sand dunes. Salt flats. Tatooine. Seriously, A New Hope and Return of the Jedi both filmed here.
While many of Death Valley’s best features require short hikes, there is a lot to see from the road, including two scenic drives – Artists Drive and Twenty Mule Team Canyon.
A day trip to Death Valley from Las Vegas makes for a long day, but it can be done in the summer months when the sun stretches longer. Just get up early and know what you want to see. It’s a big place. You can lose a lot of time backtracking.
If you stay after dark, take the roads back with caution. The drive between Death Valley and Las Vegas is rife with wildlife, including wild horses. You’ll see many a thing scamper across the path of your headlights after dark.
Joshua Tree National Park
Distance from The Strip: 200 miles (to the west entrance)
Time to Drive: 3 ½ hours (to the west entrance)
The Drive: South on Interstate-15, then right smack through the dramatic desert scenery of Mojave National Preserve.
Even further from Las Vegas, Joshua Tree is a hard place to visit in a single day if you want to see all of it, but if you just want to see its most famous scenery (or just its namesake trees) and take one or two short hikes, Vegas is a great launching point.
When you drive into Joshua Tree through Mojave National Preserve, you will be closest to the park’s Park Boulevard Loop, which stretches between the West and Twentynine Palms entrances and takes you past a lot of the noteworthy sites.
Other sites can be accessed in short drives off the Park Boulevard loop without much trekking involved, making Joshua Tree an excellent national park to visit by car.
Las Vegas may not be known as an outdoorsy destination, but when your plane comes in for a landing or you look out at the mountainous landscape that surrounds the valley, it’s impossible not to notice you are in a very special and unique place.
While you’ll surely find plenty to do and see right on The Strip, much of Vegas’s true beauty lies beyond its city limits, along its back roads and in the state and national parks that surround it. If you come by car, or can rent one, you’ll find some single-day road trips from Vegas you’ll never forget.