Without a doubt, Las Vegas serves a certain function. It’s a place to let your hair down, roll some dice, and blow line after line off a stripper’s bare bottom (if that’s your thing). It’s fun, at first. Then you come to know how the city works and what to expect. The thrill becomes monotonous, like a favorite roller coaster you’ve ridden one too many times
Or maybe neon lights and chain-smoking geriatrics with dollar signs and desperation in their eyes was never your thing. To each her own.
All I’m saying is don’t give up on the region and don’t give up on the infamous Vegas road trip, as exploring the outskirts of the City of Sin can prove as fruitful as a trip up the California coastline or a dune buggy ride through Baja.
From a West World-like motel (sans sexy robots) to the best pancakes in the world, here’s my top five favorite things to do in the region, in no particular order.
Stay at the Bonnie Springs Ranch
To be perfectly honest, I don’t want to tell you about the Bonnie Springs Ranch. I don’t want you coming here. I’m perfectly content to keep this gem to myself, because, like Gollum with his ring, she’s precious to me. She’s beautiful, odd, affordable, fun, and only twenty minutes from the Vegas strip.
I’m actually at the Bonnie Springs Ranch right now, sitting in front of the pool with a cold beer within easy reach. There’s a trio of iridescent peacocks roosting in a nearby tree, and on the not-too-distant horizon, blood red mountains jut into the bright blue sky.
The ranch is located in the heart of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (another favorite on the list), and everything about this place is gaudy and kitsch and wonderful—particularly, the themed rooms at the Bonnie Springs Ranch Motel.
Choose from one of five: the Spanish Room, the Indian (i.e. Native American) Room, the Peacock Room, the Covered Wagon Room, or the 1890s-themed Room. Each comes with an enormous Jacuzzi tub (advertised as a “luv tub”) and each tub is surrounded by mirrors. There are mirrors on the ceiling above the bed, as well. And they give you complimentary champagne when you check-in.
Which is to say, this place screams sex. Kinky sex. Hilarious sex. It’s the perfect destination for a weekend fling or a tongue-in-cheek getaway with an old beau.
The adjacent Old Nevada Western Town, a replica of an 1880s mining town, is worth visiting at least once. Head there in the afternoon if you want to see a “good ol’ fashioned town hanging,” or check out the petting zoo if you want to see the saddest wolf in the world and the happiest miniature pony.
Better yet, skip the mining town and head straight for the restaurant-bar. That’s where the gold is. Every Friday night, ancient crooners in silver-tipped boots and Stetsons sing cowboy karaoke while the fireplace crackles in the corner. Locals hang out and shoot the shit. Dollar bills hang from the ceiling. And their burgers are decent.
The ranch also offers guided horseback rides, if you’re into horses. But even more amazing is the Bonnie Springs Zombie Paintball Express, in which you board an old train car and kill live zombies (i.e. sad suckers dressed up as zombies).
Come, you’ll love it! Or don’t come. Forget I mentioned anything. We’d happily keep this place to ourselves, as one of its greatest charms is that it somehow feels undiscovered.
Hike or drive Red Rock Canyon at dawn
Half an hour from Vegas and a stone’s throw from the Bonnie Spring’s Ranch, the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation is astoundingly beautiful.
In fact, writing about it seems almost silly—in the way that writing about a rainbow in no way gives justice to the beauty of light and water mixing to create a multi-colored arc in the sky. Just look at the photo. Now imagine winding through those red rocks on a skinny two-lane highway, or walking to the top of them on a thin trail. The canyon engulfs you like a warm hug. Your neck starts to hurt from peering toward their peeks.
The Red Rock Scenic Drive is a thirteen mile loop that’ll give you access to any trail you might want to hike. Thing is, you’ll want to get on the trail early as it gets hot in the middle of the day. Plus, that’s when the colors shine brightest.
Better yet, head to the Valley of Fire
If I had to choose between the Red Rock Canyon and the Valley of Fire, I’d try and do both. But if I could really only do one, I’d go Valley of Fire all the way. Not only does it have the red sandstone formations and great hikes of Red Rock Canyon, it also offers views of prehistoric petroglyphs and sherbet-colored rock formation that may very well be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.
It’s no wonder they shot the Mars scenes from Total Recall there. The place is otherworldly. I mean, seriously — there’s a rock that looks like a giant wooly mammoth, an arch swept smooth by relentless wind, and a rock formation called the “Fire Wave” that’s hard to put into words (think enormous swirl of orange and white soft-serve).
As with Red Rock, the whole place glows in the early mornings and late afternoons.
If you’re eager to get out of the city and looking to cool down in the middle of the day, the Ringbolt Hot Springs trail is the way to go. And yes, I realize I just suggested you go to a hot springs in order to cool down.
That’s because the springs are only one of the features on this hike. There’s also the freezing cold Colorado River, which mixes with spring water to create a perfectly tepid wading pool. Move toward the springs to heat up. Move toward the river to cool down. Or strip off your clothes, leap into the crystal-clear water, crawl onto a rock, and bask in the sun.
Just make sure to bring drinking water and plenty of snacks. The hike is a six-mile loop that carves through a canyon, past a trickle of a waterfall, down boulders, until finally arriving at the river, where you’ll want to hang out and munch until you’re ready to head back.
Route 66 Detour
Speaking of heading back, eventually you’ll probably need to leave the Vegas area—unless you live there, in which case you should be writing this list and adding to it—and if you happen to be heading to Los Angeles, there’s a few more things you need to know about.
Ostriches, America’s greatest pancakes, and the Antique Station.
All of these gems can be found on a quick detour that veers you off Highway 15 around Barstow and reconnects you in Victorville (which adds only ten minutes to your journey, not including your pancake break), and bonus: they’re all on the historic Route 66.
The Bird’s the Word Ostrich Farm is the most difficult to find, but is worth the search. Even if you don’t care about the world’s largest fowl, the place is worth visiting. Because it’s weird—like, really really weird. Ostriches (i.e. gigantic relatives of dinosaurs) fluff their feathers and side-eye you as you approach. Trains rumbles past behind you. Both times we’ve visited, we’ve also met the keepers of these animals: one a soft-spoken man happy to speak to any human as he’d been surrounded by birds for far too long, the other a tobacco-chewing senior straight out of a Steinbeck novel. Stop here, it’s definitely worth it.
Then cruise over to the Antique Station, which presents room after room of trinkets and treasures. Retro cameras. Old-school advertisements. Vintage clothes. Vintage furniture. The place feels as if every cool thing from Route 66’s classic past has been caught and trapped in the walls of these 30+ vendors.
Finally, grab a meal at Emma Jean’s Holland Burger Café—a Route 66 icon that’s been around since 1947.
This place is the real deal, not some tourist trap living off its storied past and definitely not a Denny’s. Locals sit at the Formica tabletops sipping coffee and reading the paper. The pancakes, made from a secret family recipe that’s been around longer than the café itself, are the fluffiest I’ve ever had. It’s tiny as a time machine and by far the best food you’ll find on the drive back to L.A.
There you have it – a guide to Vegas for people who hate Vegas. Follow this itinerary and I bet you’ll find a sweet spot for the City of Sin, too.