If you think Las Vegas is just this one lonely spot in the middle of the desert -- well, you're probably right. But here's the good news. It's the perfect starting point for taking more than a few good road trips. So if you're getting bored of all the restaurants, nightclubs, and other fun stuff to do around town, fill up your gas tank (or charge your Tesla) and hit the road for some of the most interesting weekend getaways within a few hours’ drive.
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Best Quick Escape: Lake Mead, Nevada
Distance from Las Vegas: One hour Lake Mead is the closest body of water of any significance to Las Vegas, making it the first choice for swimming, boating, and jet skiing. It's more of a desert escape than a tropical oasis, so don't expect lush, vibrant scenery. The water levels are dropping fast -- due to a combination of climate change and supplying water to at least three states -- so enjoy Lake Mead while you still can.
Entry to the Lake Mead National Recreation is $25 per person (or $15 per person walking or bicycling) and good for seven days. A day pass for the Lake Mead Resort & Marina is $10 per vehicle, but if you plan on coming back, the yearly pass is a far better deal at $30. Hanging out here is more of a day trip, but if you want to make a weekend out of it, the Boulder Dam Hotel and Milos Inn (which happens to have its own wine bar) in Boulder City are your best options.
Best Cultural Getaway: Sedona, Arizona
Distance from Las Vegas: Four hours and 30 minutes If you want something a little less hectic while on vacation, Sedona is a great choice. The town has more than 300 miles of trails for hiking and biking, surrounded by green pine trees that contrast sharply with the deep red hues of buttes and canyon walls. Sedona has a large Native American community and is said to be in a vortex with the energy of nature especially strong in four locations: Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Boynton Canyon -- all of which are easy to reach without shelling out cash for a tour guide. So get in touch with your spirituality or, at the very least, bring a yoga mat and absorb the scenery in a way that works for you.
Sedona is also home to more than 80 art shops and galleries, showcasing the best local talent. If you want to stay a while, there is no shortage of hotels, cabins, and campgrounds, although the town is known for having a higher-than-average number of bed and breakfast accommodations. Some are quaint and charming, like the cabins at Briar Patch Inn. Others are quite luxurious, like the resort and spa L’Auberge de Sedona. Count your pennies now.
Best Riverside Getaway: Laughlin, Nevada
Distance from Las Vegas: One hour and 30 minutes Laughlin is unfairly known as a “mini Las Vegas” and was the basis for a TV show a few years ago called Viva Laughlin that was so bad, it was cancelled after just three episodes. While its neon lights are no match for what you’ll find in Vegas, it does have a few things to offer, such as a sweet riverwalk, tons of outdoor activities, and the Laughlin River Run, a massive annual motorcycle event. You’ll be in hog heaven.
Take a river cruise or find a moment of zen at the Laughlin Labyrinths, a stone formation designed to inspire tranquility after a rough day at the casino. Looking for a place to stay? The Colorado Belle isn’t really a riverboat. It’s just a hotel and casino on the river made to look like one, but skip the tower rooms and get a “boat room” anyway. They are a little nicer and tend to have a better view.
Best Getaway for Hiking: Zion National Park, Utah
Distance from Las Vegas: Two hours and 30 minutes Hit the road and travel through Nevada, Arizona, and finally, Utah to Zion National Park, as the desert suddenly gets a lot more colorful and far more worthy of your Instagram feed. You’ll find yourself walking among trees, waterfalls, rocks, and nearly 20 different species of bats. The elevation takes the edge off the summer heat, but don't overlook the winter months -- peak “solitude season” with fewer crowds to go along with the sunsets and stargazing. Just bundle up at night.
Not all hiking trails are created equal. The infamous Angels Landing is a 2.5-mile hike with steep and narrow pathways. It even comes with a warning sign with the number of people who have died on the trail. You can rough the elements with camping or ranch resorts, but the civilization of St. George could serve as a good home base for anything you're up to in Southwest Utah.
Best Wine-Tasting Getaway: Pahrump, Nevada
Distance from Las Vegas: One hour and 15 minutes For a town of just 37,000 people, there’s a surprising amount of fun stuff going on in Pahrump, including legal firework sales, a couple impressive golf courses, and Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch -- where you can learn how to race a Corvette or fly above the lake in a water-powered jetpack. If you’re in a naughty mood, pay a visit to Sheri’s Ranch, the closest legal brothel to Las Vegas. Heck, even Vince Neil has a bar for you and your motley crew. The rough and tumble image of the city is perfect for the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute, considered one of the top weapons training and self-defense schools in the world.
Yet the best reason to visit? It's home to the only two wineries in Southern Nevada. Just outside of town, the Sanders Family Winery offers regular tours, live entertainment, and panoramic mountain views. Easier to reach is the Pahrump Valley Winery, a place that figured out which varietals grow best in the desert. (Answer: Zinfandel.) Take a tour, taste some wine, and if you want to stick around for a while, book an overnight stay at the Wine Ridge Cottages next door.
Best Getaway for Boating: Lake Havasu, Arizona
Distance from Las Vegas: Two hours and 30 minutes Lake Havasu is an island getaway on the Colorado River separating Arizona and California, and it definitely has a quirky side. The waterfront is decorated with scaled-down replicas of historic lighthouses from around the country, and the island connects to the mainland with a brick-by-brick restoration of the same London Bridge that crossed the River Thames in the late 1800s.
Overall, Lake Havasu has 400 miles of coastline and 60 miles of waterways for boats and kayaks to navigate. The white-sand beaches are home to a dozen campgrounds, perfect for docking houseboats or setting up a tent on the water. Switch things up with hiking trails, golfing, or off-roading over sand dunes and desert canyons.
Most Underrated Getaway: Death Valley, California
Distance from Las Vegas: Two hours and 30 minutes Death Valley is known for setting the highest recorded temperature in history (134 degrees if you're keeping track) and being the lowest and driest place in North America. But that doesn't mean it can't be fun. Tours will take you out to Badwater Basin (the lowest spot in the lower 48 at 279 feet below sea level), abandoned gold mines, ghost towns, and the "Devil’s Golf Course" with jagged salt formations left from a lake that evaporated thousands of years ago. Depending on the elevation, colorful wildflowers can be seen blooming between February and July.
In the middle of all this, you can book a room at the Oasis at Death Valley, a lavish resort that lives up to its name with palm trees, golf courses, a ranch, campground, and two hotels in one. Ask for a map of filming locations used for the desert planet Tatooine in Star Wars and Return of the Jedi. Otherwise, save a few dollars and book a room at the Amargosa Opera House & Hotel in Death Valley Junction. Take note -- Scotty’s Castle, a remote historic villa dating back to the 1920s, is a famous Death Valley landmark, but closed for flood repairs until at least 2021.
Best Modern Marvel Getaway: Hoover Dam, Nevada/Arizona
Distance from Las Vegas: 45 minutes The Hoover Dam may be the most intriguing slab of concrete in the world. Interstate travelers used to drive right over it, but traffic is now diverted to the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, which offers a cool view, but isn't quite the same. Tours run daily, ready to give a nuts-and-bolts look at how the whole thing operates, producing electricity for California, Nevada, and Arizona.
Boulder City is the closest town to the dam and has a small tourism industry based around the engineering masterpiece, the construction of which pretty much set the stage for modern Las Vegas. It's one of the few communities in the entire state where gambling is illegal. So if you need a fix, stop while driving down on US-93 and play a few slots at the Hoover Dam Lodge -- where you can also book a room if you don't feel like driving back to Vegas the same day. Make the most of your time and go four-wheeling and zip-lining at Bootleg Canyon and grabbing a beer at the Boulder Dam Brewing.
Best Old West Getaway: Searchlight, Nevada
Distance from Las Vegas: 50 minutes There's really only one reason to visit Searchlight. Eldorado Canyon & Gold Mine is the perfect example of an Old West ghost town, with an abandoned general store, gas pumps, and vehicles. It all sits above what was once the biggest, richest, and spookiest gold mine in Nevada. Bring a real camera. Not just your cell phone. Eldorado Canyon is known as one of the best spots you’ll find anywhere for a photography session. Point your lens anywhere and you’ll get a perfect shot.
Otherwise, feel free to pay a visit to Terrible's Road House, formerly known as the semi-historic Searchlight Nugget, for $1 beer and shot specials. If you need a place to stay, there's always the El Rey Motel, but you're better off chugging a Red Bull and gutting it out until you reach Laughlin.
Unlike Vegas, Flagstaff has four real seasons -- kinda rare in the Southwest -- and between the ski slopes of the Snowbowl resort and the desert rock of Walnut Canyon National Monument, you can sometimes experience all of them in one day. If that wasn't enough, you've got the Grand Canyon to the north and Sedona to the south -- each about 45 minutes away -- so go ahead and make this road trip even longer than it already is.
Most Colorful Desert Getaway: Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Distance from Las Vegas: One hour The sandstone formations at Valley of Fire date back to the dinosaurs and appear to actually be on fire when the sun reflects off ‘em just right. Hence the name. It also looks like Mars so much, parts of Total Recall were filmed here in the ’80s. Keep your eyes peeled for petroglyphs, which are drawings on stone walls by ancient civilizations -- basically old-school graffiti.
Hit the road from Vegas and cruise Mouse's Tank Road for one of the most scenic drives in the United States. If you want to turn a visit into more than a day trip, spend the night at either the Atlatl Rock or Arch Rock campgrounds. The park's $10 entrance fee can be applied toward the $20 camping charge.
Best Ski Getaway: Salt Lake City, Utah
Distance from Las Vegas: Four hours, 45 minutes Yeah, we're starting to push things a bit, but Salt Lake City is worth the drive, especially if you're looking for a snow-filled winter break. Utah's largest city is surrounded by nine major ski resorts, including a few near Park City to the east, an old mining town that's transformed into an upscale vacation community. Don't be surprised if you see a flock of hang gliders overhead when driving on the interstate through Draper. They're from the Flight Park State Recreation Area, where fliers of all levels can get off the ground.
Downtown SLC is pretty easy to navigate, but you can zip around quicker with the electric scooters littered throughout the city, which seem to have a love-or-hate relationship with the locals. The large Mormon population is balanced by a strong alternative subculture and a surprisingly large Utah Pride Festival every June. Despite common misconception, you can drink here just fine, although there are a few quirky rules -- like no booze served after 1am and the requirement of ordering food with a drink if an establishment is officially registered as a "restaurant." Speaking of which, the culinary scene is on the rise. Check out the Copper Onion for contemporary downtown eats or Log Haven for some all-natural ambiance in the middle of the Wasatch National Forest.
Most Awe-Inspiring Getaway: Grand Canyon, Arizona
Distance from Las Vegas: Four hours (45 minutes by helicopter) You know the deal. The Grand Canyon is the biggest hole in the ground in the United States, making it a prime destination for anyone in the Southwest. There are more than a few tours that originate from Las Vegas, including some by helicopter, which can be worth the extra expense to save some time and avoid a bumpy road trip.
The South Rim is the nicest part. It’s cleaner, has the best views, and is run by the National Park Service. The Hualapai Tribe runs the West Rim and operates the famous skywalk. It's also where you can glamp it up in your own cabin. Stay away from the ultra-remote North Rim, which is stunning, but a pain to reach. No matter where you end up, please don't fall down the canyon while trying to take a photo. It happens.
Best Big City Getaway: Los Angeles, California
Distance from Las Vegas: Four hours, 30 minutes When someone says “road trip” and “Las Vegas,” in the same sentence, nine times out of 10, they're talking about Southern California. So hop in your car and start driving on Interstate 15. You’ll hit Baker (stop for gas), Barstow (stop for Starbucks), San Bernardino (keep going), and finally, Los Angeles. But what makes the trip worth the drive is going all the way to Santa Monica so you can finally see the coast. Of course, you can always play tourist in Hollywood, check out the LA restaurant scene, or just see what's going on over the weekend.
Half the fun in driving to SoCal is seeing all the weird roadside attractions along the way, like the World's Tallest Thermometer in Baker and Calico Ghost Town. If you're feeling lucky, stop at the border at Primm, where a convenience store is just a few steps over the state line, strictly for the purpose of selling Powerball tickets -- legal in California, not in Nevada.
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Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas for Thrillist for more than six years. His work has also recently appeared in Travel + Leisure, Vegas Seven, David Magazine, Vegas Magazine, and Luxury Estates International's seasonal publication. He fills up the gas tank before crossing into California. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.