Our top 10 day trips from Las Vegas for gay travellers

Of twinkling renown and endless entertainment, Las Vegas is the city of choice for those looking to be dazzled by America at her most extravagant. Beyond the neon-lit city limits, however, Sin City turns sublime with access to the attractions of Nevada Desert, Death Valley and more, where the country’s national parks span out in all directions to offer a unique sun-cracked appeal. Travel the open road with us for a Cage-less version of Leaving Las Vegas, veering past world-famous canyons, reservoirs and high mountain plateaus that’ll have you yelling ‘Hoover Dam!’

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Red Rock Canyon, Nevada | Photo: Daniel Halseth

1. Red Rock Canyon

Right around the corner from downtown Las Vegas, Red Rock Canyon brings the very best of Nevada’s natural landscapes right to your doorstep. Join a guided tour or drive yourself (along I-159 west, 25 minutes to the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Centre), stopping for views over Red Rock at Calico Hills and for close-ups of ancient petroglyph rock art at Willow Springs. The nearby Spring Mountain State Park is one spot for hiking, but the canyon’s conservation area also has its fair share of trails through the Mojave, accessible on foot, bicycle or on horseback. Come in spring for desert wildflowers, though bird watching tours, tortoise nesting and art project events can keep visitors amused much of the year.

2. Lake Mead

One of the Las Vegas day trips also needing less than an afternoon is found within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, based 30 minutes outside of Las Vegas on the skirts of the Colorado River. The largest man-made lake reservoir in America by capacity, Lake Mead is perfect for boating, jet skiing and water skiing adventures, though reclining with a picnic lakeside is just as appealing. Besides alfresco lunching, many weekend visitors opt to stay the whole weekend on rural camping retreats in view of lava hills, red sandstone formations and bighorn sheep. The restaurants and modern amenities dotted around the lake mean you can shower and eat well before exploring more of the area on day two, following the 5-kilometre historic railway to Hoover Dam or tackling the Black Canyon Water Trail by hike or river raft if feeling adventurous. While Lake Mead in the north is the closest section of the Recreation Area to Vegas, Lake Mojave along the Arizona-Nevada border is another contender, allowing for upstream hikes along the gorge to Grapevine Canyon and more spectacular desert views.

Lake Mead | Photo: David Mark

Photo: Alex Radelich

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The Valley of Fire State Park may sound ominous but arrive here to find inspiring natural surrounds studded with native American rock carvings said to date back over 3,000 years

3. Valley of Fire State Park

Moving slightly further out, this time we head to the oldest state park in Nevada, just 10 kilometres from Lake Mead and 70 kilometres from Las Vegas. The Valley of Fire State Park may sound ominous but arrive here to find inspiring natural surrounds studded with native American rock carvings said to date back over 3,000 years. The valley gets its name from the petrified trees and fiery red sandstone layering the site, eroded to form intriguing formations. Explore the 40,000-acre site solo, or get help at the Visitor Centre beforehand, marking must-see attractions such as the Silica and White Domes, Rainbow Vista and Fire Canyon, all named for their unique geological features. Come prepared for brutally hot daytime weather, finding some relief come nightfall alongside opportunities for stargazing expeditions or primitive camping experiences (limited capacity at $20 per night).

Valley of Fire State Park | Photo: Cara Fuller

4. Hoover Dam

Walkable from Lake Mead and as little as 60 kilometres from downtown Las Vegas is everyone’s favourite church-approved curse word (and iconic attraction no less); Hoover Dam. While there are no shortage of natural wonders in the region, Hoover Dam makes its own mark as one of America’s greatest architectural feats, containing 28.9 million acre-feet of water captured from crashing falls off of the Colorado River to produce 4.5 billion kilowatt-hours of energy per year. A see the spectacle up close, go behind-the-scenes on the Hoover Dam Express Bus Tour to be guided by experts through the facility and neighbouring power plant, learning of the Depression-era history and notable men and women who made the 221-metre-high construction possible. Alternatively, rise over the complex in a helicopter to see the art deco structure in all its majesty.

Hoover Dam | Photo: Christiane Wilden

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Besides skiing and snowboarding in winter, Mount Charleston offers up an array of ‘green season’ activities, including hiking, biking, horse-riding and camping, made all the more special with seasonal apple or pumpkin picking in Gilcrease Orchard

5. Mount Charleston

Making the impossible possible, just 67 kilometres from Las Vegas, is the impressive Mount Charleston, where skiing holidays in the desert become a reality. The 3630-metre peak lies far west of the Las Vegas valley within the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, standing as one of the best outdoor Vegas day trips any time of year. Besides skiing and snowboarding in winter, Mount Charleston offers up an array of ‘green season’ activities, including hiking, biking, horse-riding and camping, made all the more special with seasonal apple or pumpkin picking in Gilcrease Orchard. Hiking enthusiasts can reach the peak along the 26-kilometre South Loop Trail starting from Cathedral Rock picnic area, though those looking for a simpler round trip can take the Cathedral Rock Trail for equally delightful canyon views. If camping seems like a hassle, base yourself in the ski resort or Mount Charleston village for rural local life amid pine and mahogany forests.

Mount Charleston, NV | Photo: Neonbrand

Photo: Alasdair Elmes

6. Death Valley National Park

The furthest we’ve ventured so far, at 200 kilometres from Las Vegas, to where Nevada meets California, we find the vast Death Valley National Park. Once serving as the setting for Tatooine, the desert planet in Star Wars, Death Valley has more than one claim to fame. In addition to the epic desert scenery (at its best within the salty Badwater Basin and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes), the park also surprises with its canyons, volcanic craters, dappled oases and stark mountains covering 130,000 square kilometres of sun-scorched land. Despite the seemingly unliveable heat, charting the hottest temperature ever recorded in the US at 57° Celsius (!), Death Valley has plenty of endemic wildlife, best seen on ranger-led tours of higher regions and the oasis of Grapevine Canyon.

Before venturing out, find the park’s main visitor centre within the commercial hub of Furnace Creek where you can buy a 7-day entry permit for you and your car for just $30. If driving yourself, preparing for the brutal heat on trips out across the plains, stopping at Badwater, Zabriskie Point and the Gold Rush town of Rhyolite, now a spooky ghost town. Any Jurassic Park fans can also take the palaeontology tour for dinosaur fossils galore.

Death Valley National Park | Photo: Suzanne Rushton

7. Zion National Park

Leaving Nevada for a brief jaunt in Utah, we travel the 255 kilometres to Zion National Park in under three hours’ drive from Las Vegas. Somewhat greener and more agreeable than Nevada’s desert plains, Zion offers up a whole load of flora and fauna across its tranquil landscape of deep gorges and gushing rivers. For the ultimate Las Vegas to Zion National Park day trip, aim for the Zion-Mount Carmel highway for unmissable views high above the valley, following the shuttle bus as it winds past many of the top attractions and viewpoints. Those looking for a short hike can stop at the Canyon Overlook Trail, while more experienced trekkers can try the 12-kilometre Observation Point Trail for epic vistas over Angel’s Landing and the Virgin River. Other than hiking, Emerald Pools is a great spot for its cascading waterfalls amidst the forest, though also recommended is to sign up to any of the ranger-led tours across the park, including wildlife watching excursions, museum talks, guided walks and more.

Zion National Park | Photo: Alex Donnachie

Bryce Canyon | Photo: David Mark

8. Bryce Canyon

Another of the day trips from Vegas out in the friendly state of Utah is to visit nearby Bryce Canyon, known for its red rock formations and ancient geological history among otherworldly landscapes and lofty plateaus. Combine your trip to Bryce Canyon with Zion National Park or simply enjoy yourself on a standalone trip, hiking in Bryce’s evergreen forest and discovering its famed ‘hoodoos’; eroded rock pinnacles rising from the earth like sandcastles. For the best look at these pinnacles, tour the 28-kilometre Paunsaugunt Plateau and any of the countless high-mountain desert trails surrounding for views over the region and the huge amphitheatres below.

When you feel the need to stretch your legs, Bryce Canyon offers up its many opportunities for hiking, camping and snowshoeing all year round, with juniper-laden trails and active wildlife, such as pronghorn deer, prairie dogs and mountain lions. Though tours operate all year round, align your trip with the annual geology festival in July or the astronomy festival in late June for insights into the area’s scientific importance (and endless fossils and stargazing).

9. Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend

Now for the Antelope Canyon tour from Las Vegas which takes us 436 kilometres from Las Vegas to Arizona in just four hours direct. Antelope Canyon, located on the Navajo Reservation near the city of Page, Arizona, is one of the world’s most famous slot canyons, accessible by guided tour only. The benefit of taking a guided tour is that you’ll be given easy access to the best hiking trails, viewpoints and wildlife-watching areas within the reservation, though a nice alternative is to travel the Horseshoe Bend around the canyon for dramatic cliffs that overlook the river 300-metres below. If opting for this route, try the 2-kilometre round-trip walk around the edge, keeping your distance from the treacherous cliff edge (there are no guardrails!). Whether self-driving or touring, know that lighting is best mid-morning between the months of April and September, though crowds may be considerably larger.

Horseshoe Bend | Photo: Olivia Hutcherson

10. Grand Canyon National Park

Leaving the most famous of them all until last, we take our final day trip to Grand Canyon from Las Vegas, to see one of the most spectacular natural lookouts in the world first-hand. To make the most of your Grand Canyon day trip from Vegas, rise early and take the epic 440-kilometre road trip in sections, stopping by top Mojave attractions such as Lake Mead and Hoover Dam along the way. For a more accessible trip, book an organised bus tour to take you there and back, stopping at key points on Route 66, such as Seligman, Arizona, along the way.

At 445 kilometres long, 29 kilometres wide and 1,600 metres deep, the Grand Canyon is hard to fathom. To view the whole thing in its entirety stop at various lookouts along the Canyon Rim, or level up with a helicopter flight over the whole park. Upwards of six million visitors descend on the park each year making crowding inevitable in certain areas, particularly on the more developed South Rim where the Grand Canyon Village and the popular Bright Angel Trail can be found. For a more tranquil visit, consider camping in the backwoods areas of the North Rim with its myriad wilderness trails perfect for advanced hikers.

Grand Canyon National Park | Photo: Ross Joyner

Antelope Canyon | Photo: Ameer Basheer

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Valley of Fire State Park | Photo: Jannes Glas

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