Travel

Head Out Of Vegas For These Scenic Road Trips

Get your tires checked. You're driving through the desert.

After all this social distancing we’ve been doing lately, it's about time for a change of scenery. Feel like trudging through an airport and packing yourself inside a plane with other passengers? Me neither. So fill up on gas and hit the highway for a road trip. Las Vegas is just a few hours away from a variety of compelling destinations. So take a break from whatever’s going on this weekend and fill up your gas tank (or charge your Tesla) for a drive to one of the most intriguing getaways in and around Nevada.  

yoga in Sedona
Arizona Office of Tourism

Sedona, Arizona

Distance from Vegas: 4 hours, 30 minutes
Sedona is a perfect change of pace. 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. Yet Sedona is also known for its sense of mysticism. It’s 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 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. If you want to stay a while, there’s no shortage of hotels, cabins, and campgrounds, although the town seems to have a higher-than-average number of bed and breakfast accommodations. Some are quaint and charming. Others are luxurious.

Laughlin Nevada
Joe Buglewicz/Las Vegas News Bureau

Laughlin, Nevada

Distance from Vegas: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Describing Laughlin as a mini-Vegas on a river isn't entirely off base. Both towns -- less than a hundred miles apart -- are known for casinos, entertainment, and bright neon lights. But Laughlin is less chaotic with a small town feel and employees who actually do recognize regulars by name year after year. The dining and nightlife is low key and low pressure. Yet the character of the town is best shaped by its location along the Colorado River, which separates Nevada from Arizona. Take a dinner cruise, rent a jetski, or just casino hop with an inexpensive and convenient water taxi. When you're done playing slots, explore the great outdoors with a hike at Grapevine Canyon or mingle with the burros who hang out on the streets of Oatman, a ghost town with cowboys who role-play shootouts in the middle of main street.

Zion National Park
Visit Utah

Zion National Park, Utah

Distance from Vegas: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Zion National Park marks the point where Southern Utah suddenly becomes a lot more colorful. In between the towering red sandstone cliffs, you’ll find waterfalls, rock formations, 20 species of bats, and a $1 shuttle bus. Not all trails are created equal. The infamous Angels Landing is a 2.5-mile hike with steep and narrow pathways. It comes with a warning sign that mentions the number of people who have died on the trail. If you need something a level above an RV or DIY tent, find a hotel in nearby St. George. But if you're feeling ambitious, continue a couple more hours to Escalante, where Yonder is opening in September. It’s an elevated form of glamping with fancy cabins, customized airstreams, RV parking, and -- wait for it -- drive-in movies. 

Pahrump, Nevada
Jetpack America

Pahrump, Nevada

Distance from Vegas: 1 hour, 10 minutes
For a town of just 37,000 people, there’s a lot going on in Pahrump, including 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. If you’re in a motley mood, grab a drink at Vince Neil’s bar. However, the best reason to make the one-hour-ish drive from Vegas is the wine. 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.) Book an overnight stay at the Wine Ridge Cottages next door and stick around a while.

Lake Havasu, Arizona
Arizona Office of Tourism

Lake Havasu, Arizona

Distance from Vegas: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Breaking up the Colorado River between Arizona and California, the vacation town 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. Lake Havasu has miles of coastline and waterways for boats and kayaks to navigate, and the beachside campgrounds are perfect for docking houseboats or setting up a tent on the water. Switch things up with hiking trails, golfing, or some off-roading between sand dunes and desert canyons.

Death Valley, California

Distance from Vegas: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Don’t let the name fool you. Death Valley is actually a lot of fun. You’ve got two ways to get there from Vegas. The more direct route is through Pahrump. Otherwise, detour through Beatty, which is close to the ghost town ruins of Rhyolite and the weirdness of the Goldwell Open Air Museum. Death Valley is known for setting the highest recorded temperature in history (134 degrees, if you’re keeping track) and is the lowest, driest, hottest place in North America. Drive through the national park in the summer, and you’ll enjoy a dusty, windy, hellish kinda feeling. Don’t worry too much. The two sister resorts that form the Oasis at Death Valley, each have a pool to take the edge off that triple-digit heat. Both are close to Badwater Basin (the lowest spot in the U.S. at 279 feet below sea level), Devil’s Golf Course (salt formations left behind from a lake that evaporated thousands of years ago), and Jubilee Pass, where wildflowers bloom between February and July. Ask the hotel for a map of filming locations used for the desert planet Tatooine in Star Wars and Return of the Jedi

flagstaff arizona
Courtesy of Visit Arizona

Flagstaff, Arizona

Distance from Vegas: 4 hours
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. It’s also home to Northern Arizona University and the college town feel is reinforced with a fair share of breweries and art galleries. The Lowell Observatory is another fun perk. It discovered Pluto and mapped the surface of the moon for the Apollo 11 astronauts. Flagstaff takes pride in its “lunar legacy” and has light restrictions in place to maximize stargazing. 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.

salt lake city
Courtesy of Douglas Pulsipher/Visit Utah

Salt Lake City, Utah

Distance from Vegas: 6 hours
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 upscale Park City to the east. 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 LGBTQ+ community. Despite common misconception, you can drink here just fine, although there are a few odd 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.

grand canyon
Courtesy of Roger Stumbo/Visit Arizona

Grand Canyon, Arizona

Distance from Vegas: 4 hours
You know the deal. The Grand Canyon is the biggest hole in the United States, making it a prime destination for planning a tour from Las Vegas. Taking a helicopter saves time, but going for a road trip with your own bumpy drive saves money. 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 is in charge of the West Rim and operates the famous skywalk -- a bridge with a see-through bottom that hangs over the edge of the canyon. It’s also where you can glamp it up in your own cabin. Stay away from the remote ultra-remote North Rim, which is stunning, but a pain to reach.

thermometer
Courtesy of Rob Kachelriess

Los Angeles, California

Distance from Vegas: 4 hours
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 southwest 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 to 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. 

Boulder City, Nevada
Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

Boulder City, Nevada

Distance from Vegas: 45 minutes
Boulder City is the closest town to the Hoover Dam and has a small tourism industry based around the engineering masterpiece. (Tours are on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, so check in for the latest details.) Boulder City is also one of the few communities in the entire state where gambling is illegal. So if you need a fix, stop while driving down on U.S. 93 and play a few slots at the Hoover Dam Lodge. However, the casino-free Boulder Dam Hotel (with a Hoover Dam museum in the lobby) offers a more satisfying sense of history. Boulder City is a great homebase for hitting the water at Lake Mead, zip-lining at Bootleg Canyon, or just hanging out with the bighorn sheep that visit Hemenway Park.  

Whitney Peak Hotel
Whitney Peak Hotel

Reno, Nevada

Distance from Vegas: 7 hours
Who needs an interstate? The desert drive between Vegas and Reno on Route 95 is dubbed the Nevada Electric Highway due to all the electric car chargers along the way. So if you want to test the limits of your Tesla, this is the best way to do it. Zip by historic towns like Beatty, Hawthorne, or Tonopah, which has an infamous creepy clown motel. Once you get to Reno, float the Truckee River, tour the city’s street art, and check out all the other cool things to do. The dining scene isn’t too shabby either. Skip the casino resorts (which pale compared to Vegas) and stay at one of two smaller, stylish boutique hotels: The Jesse, which has a cool agave spirits bar, or the Whitney Peak Hotel, which has an outdoor rock climbing wall overlooking the Reno Arch. The nightly wine tastings in the concierge lounge are a nice touch and don't skimp on the good stuff.

Mesquite, Nevada
Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

Mesquite, Nevada

Distance from Vegas: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Mesquite tends to market itself as a more laid-back alternative to Sin City, but it’s really a casino town for the party animals who live right across the border in Utah. A vintage vibe is felt in the tableside food presentations at Katherine’s Steakhouse or the seven golf courses squeezed within a few miles of each other. The annual hot-air balloon festival and Fourth of July celebrations are good excuses to visit. So is Camel Safari, a park where you can interact with exotic animals, and live it up in glitzy new glamping accommodations. Yet half the fun of a road trip to Mesquite is getting there. Detour off Interstate 15 and take one of America’s most scenic drives through the Valley of Fire State Park before reconnecting later. The bright, dramatic sandstone formations almost appear to be on fire when the sun hits just right. The red sand at Rainbow Vista creates a life-on-Mars feel, so it’s no wonder parts of Total Recall were filmed there. Keep your eyes peeled for petroglyphs -- drawings on stone walls left behind by Native American tribes hundred of years ago.

Ely, Nevada

Distance from Vegas: 4 hours
Ely may be small, but it’s rich in history and Old West character, plus the mountain community has some of the best fishing and hunting in the state. To truly experience the outdoors, head to Great Basin National Park, one of the least visited (and thus, more quiet) national parks in the country. With that being said, book a tour of the Lehman Caves early. Sell-outs happen often and an escort by a ranger is required to enter. Downtown Ely is popular for gambling, but way more laid back than Vegas. The best accommodations are the historic Hotel Nevada, the tallest building in the state when it opened in 1929, and the Prospector, a quirky, contemporary retreat with playful lobby decorations and a pet-friendly casino. Don't leave Ely without a ride onboard a vintage coal-fired train at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum.

Lake Tahoe
Rob Kachelriess

Lake Tahoe

Distance from Vegas: 7 hours
Lake Tahoe is often connected to Reno tourism, but the largest alpine lake in North America deserves an exclusive road trip on its own. With clear blue water, miles of pine trees, and tall surrounding mountains, it offers the unique possibility of being able to ski through the snow and sunbathe on the beach the same day. South Lake Tahoe is tourist-oriented with ample resorts, sunset cruises, and water sports. The Nevada side (officially the town of Stateline) has four casino resorts, but the Hard Rock is easily the most contemporary and appealing. By comparison, North Lake Tahoe is more residential, especially Incline Village, where exclusivity is part of the charm. It’s quiet and serene without intrusive attractions designed for mass appeal. Book a room at the Hyatt Regency, which feels like the world's largest log cabin and has its own private beach with cabanas and the Lone Eagle Grill, the town’s best restaurant. You can also roast marshmallows at fire pits near the pool and rent bikes for checking out the luxe real estate on a stretch modestly known as Billionaire's Row.   

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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.