Las Vegas – Gamble on an Adventure
Las Vegas is a masterpiece of illusion, built on two man-made artifices – impounded water and gaming laws. Las Vegas itself is a neon oasis, where robust life is possible only because of dam-stored water and the 1931 Nevada state law allowing gambling.
Both the glitter of Las Vegas and the outdoor wonders of southern Nevada first appear before the visitor as a mirage in the desert. The pervasiveness of the desert impresses a visitor flying into the region.
Without water, life would be extremely fragile here and the human population would be low, as it was when the Paiute and earlier pueblo Indians survived here. The water was first pumped from aquifers below the city. Then Colorado River water was trapped by the Hoover Dam.
The main natural attractions around Las Vegas also contain elements of illusion and imagination. The two major parks nearby, Red Rock Canyon to the west and the Valley of Fire to the east, exhibit a flaming red appearance, due to iron oxide in the soil. Fingers of rock reach skyward, as if on fire.
The major man-made creation in the area, Hoover Dam, is so immense and so effective in controlling the Colorado River that it ranks as one of the major engineering feats of the human animal. While floating on a houseboat on Lake Mead, which extends 105 miles behind Hoover Dam, one can’t help but feel surrounded by a mammoth body of man-controlled water, a mere mirage in the minds of all but a few visionaries until the late 1930s. It could be said that Lake Mead reduces the odds of drought and a thirsty demise here to near zero. Until Hoover Dam was built, the cycle of annual flood or drought from the river was risky, a precarious throw of nature’s dice.
Illusion, mirage, imagination, and artifice play on the senses of all travelers to Las Vegas. The feeling of artifice, without any pejorative connotations, is more complete in Las Vegas than in Reno, the other major Nevada city.
Visitors to Las Vegas traditionally have fallen into two groups. Some immerse themselves in gambling and entertainment. Others commune with nature and the outdoors in the parks and on Lake Mead. Whether you fall into one group, or find parts of yourself in both, Las Vegas has much to offer.
There is one further attraction of Las Vegas not yet mentioned. Las Vegas is a major “weather escape.” The visitor who nearly rusts to death in Portland or Seattle due to interminable winter rain longs for the bright sun that Las Vegas is selling. The Toronto or Chicago resident, suffering from a wind-chill factor, looks for relief in the assured warmth of Las Vegas in winter.
From the beginning there was an important element of illusion and fantasy for travel to Las Vegas. The first casino on the strip, called El Rancho and done in western dude ranch motifs, used to send a stage coach to the airport to pick up deplaning passengers at the dawn of the mass air-transport era. Conditions of travel to Las Vegas have improved measurably since Major John Wesley Powell floated his dory down the silt-laden red river, the Rio Colorado, in 1869.
Within the region, travel to the natural wonders requires either a car or a tour, offered at some hotels, emphasizing Hoover Dam or the parks. A car provides maximum flexibility.
The summer sun can burn exposed skin in minutes. Summer temperatures are so high that air conditioned transport and lodging become a necessity and are taken for granted at hotels, shops, restaurants, and rental car agencies. The other way to cool off is by immersing yourself in Lake Mead, but you would most likely do this from a rented houseboat, itself air conditioned so you can sleep at night.
The shoulder seasons of April-May and September-October are among the most comfortable months here, but that is more relevant to the outdoors enthusiast than to the casino patron, who may care little about the month and even less about the hour of the day while mesmerized in front of the slots at 4 AM.
Lake Mead is the mammoth aquatic playground and fishery located a half-hour south of Las Vegas. From marinas at Callville Bay and Echo Bay you can rent houseboats for leisurely trips on the lake. The closest rental to Las Vegas is at Callville Bay Marina. Houseboats at Callvile come equipped with two motors, which gives the novice added assurance of returning safely to port if a motor fails. The boats rent for three-days-to-a-week.
Houseboating on Lake Mead is a special experience. No other houseboating ambiance, such as Lake Shasta or the Delta in California, approaches the size of Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the U.S. The 550-mile shoreline can accommodate a large number of boaters. Terrain around the lake offers both a desert and mountainous shores with some sandy beaches. The Callville people can review a nautical map with you and propose some suitable destinations.
Summers are the hottest and busiest months, with April-May and September-October as attractive, alternative times. The water has fully warmed for swimming and the air becomes pleasantly cool in September-October. Rental houseboats sleep up to 12 people, but more than six adults is likely to strain the psychological carrying capacity of the boat unless said adults have particularly cozy feelings about each other. The houseboats come fully equipped, including linen and blankets. All you need to bring are clothes, swim suits, sun screen, fishing gear, food, and drink. An ice machine at the docks can cool down your beverage of choice. All houseboats have refrigerator-freezers and a large picnic cooler on deck.
At your houseboat site the main pursuits are relaxing and unwinding, eating, drinking, enjoying the conviviality of your comrades, reading, perusing the flora or geology of the shore, sunning, swimming, and fishing. One special night activity here is star gazing, with the stars showing brightly against a dark sky, far from the star-obscuring urban lights that restrict the sky-watching pleasures of most people.
The two prize species of fish in Lake Mead are striped bass, called stripers, and largemouth bass. Fishing is legal year round and all marinas sell appropriate licenses. (Trout were also planted and were abundant for a few years, but the stripers ate the trout.) Both types of bass are introduced fish that have flourished here, feeding on a smaller introduced fish, called the threadfin shad, which in turn feeds on the zooplankton that bloom in the lake.
The bass fishing is best in summer when the warm water stimulates the stripers to move out of deep, cool water and begin their frenzied feeding on shad, causing the water to assume a boiling appearance. Stripers have an ability to herd schools of shad into a ball, then plunge through them quickly and stun the small fish with a thrashing tail. Stripers then consume the slow-moving, groggy shad. If you witness the phenomenon of stripers herding the shad, the experience and noise can be primordial. The largest striper taken from the lake with rod and reel was 52 pounds. Informed locals doubt that larger fish will be caught because the trend in the lake is to more numerous, smaller fish. Largemouth bass always remain close to shore, within 30 feet of lake bottom, but the stripers are sometimes taken in deeper, open water.
Hoover Dam is a major attraction at the west end of Lake Mead, a half-hour by car south from Las Vegas. As you approach the dam, stop in at the Alan Bible Visitor Center to see a 15-minute film on the construction of the dam and to peruse the area literature available. The Alan Bible Center is not a theological institution, but a park service interpretive center honoring a Nevada senator named Bible. As at other ranger stations in the area, the landscape decor, amounting to labeled local flora, is instructive.
The name for the dam is bound to cause confusion. Originally it was named by statute the Hoover Dam, after Herbert Hoover, largely for his skillful work in negotiating with the seven states in the watershed how the impounded water would be divided. Without this agreement, the dam could never have been built. This negotiation was Hoover’s most triumphant political accomplishment and occurred while he was Secretary of the Interior. However, the dam was dedicated by Franklin Roosevelt, who was no friend of Republicans in general and Hoover in particular. Roosevelt referred to the dam as the Boulder Canyon Dam. (Actually, the dam is in Black Canyon, not upstream Boulder Canyon). In 1947 a Congressional Act resolved the issue and restored the name Hoover Dam to the structure, but in local parlance both the Hoover and Boulder names continue to flourish and cause confusion to this day.
After seeing the Dam, you can cruise on Lake Mead in an excursion boat that leaves several times daily from the Lake Mead Marina near Boulder Beach.
The Visitor Bureau at nearby Boulder City plays continuously a 28-minute movie about “The Story of Hoover Dam.” The Visitor Center is opposite the historic Boulder City Hotel, which is on the National Register. Boulder City was built as the residence town for the 5,000 dam workers who toiled here during the four-year construction period in the 1930s.
Below the dam, it is possible to do a rafting or kayaking trip to experience the Colorado up close. This is quiet, slack-water rafting on huge pontoon boats, accessible to everyone. Local adventure travel guides offer the trips. The water is chilly for swimming, but the scenery is intriguing, with waterfalls, caves, and an abundance of flora and fauna. Mountain sheep are usually seen near the water.
Red Rock Canyon Park
The two major parks near Las Vegas are exhilarating places to visit, but be forewarned that the heat of summer makes them enjoyable after mid-day only from an air-conditioned vehicle. Early morning hikes are a worthy strategy, especially in the heat of summer.
Red Rock Canyon, a half-hour west of Las Vegas on Charleston Road, is a remarkable series of rock formations colored by the red iron oxide in the sandstone. The red oxide not only colors the stone; it also binds the stone together. Stop at the Visitor Center to see the interpretive exhibits and then drive the 13-mile one-way road that loops through the park. The most attractive view is at the stop called Calico Hills.
Along the route, in spring, there are excellent places to see wildflowers, such as white yucca, blue indigo, and red mallow. Hiking in the area reminds you of what life must have been like for the Indians and early whites who lived here in the era before roads. Occasional springs, such as at Willow Springs, bubble up life-sustaining water. Willow Springs is a good picnic stop, resting place, and hiking option. Rock scrambling and climbing are popular. After you make the loop drive, a panoramic vista turnoff on the main highway synopsizes the experience.
Valley of Fire Park
Valley of Fire State Park, an hour-and-a-half east of Las Vegas, offers similar but more extensive red rock and grey limestone formations, plus Indian petroglyphs and petrified wood.
The valley does indeed look as if it were on fire if you see the rocks in a certain light. Stop in at the Visitor Center to orient yourself to the park, which offers extensive spring flowering of desert plants, such as prickly pear cactus, brittlebush, and creosote bush. In the coolness of spring and autumn, the campsites here, set amidst the rock, are attractive, but the summer is searing. Day-use picnic areas make good lunch or rest stops.
As you tour the park, four interesting stops are Mouse’s Tank, Atlatl Rock, the Beehives, and Petrified Rock Turnoff.
Mouse’s Tank consists of a half-mile walk down a canyon to a rock depression, called a tank that collected precious run-off water. Paiute hunters who lived in this area were able to survive because of their knowledge of these water sources. One such Indian, nicknamed Mouse, fought back against white encroachment in the late 19th century, eluding his pursuers in this rocky area. At the head of the trail, pick up the excellent self-guiding trail brochure describing the flora and the petroglyphs that you’ll see. The Mouse’s Tank trail passes many well-preserved Indian petroglyphs. The petroglyphs are scratchings done through a black manganese-iron oxide coating that forms on the red rock, over time, as water evaporates from the rock. Lichens may assist in making the black oxides endure. Colloquially, the oxides are called “desert varnish.”
Beyond the road to Mouse’s Tank is a promontory called Rainbow Vista, one of the most appealing views in the area because of the miles of multicolored rock.
Atlatl Point offers another interesting collection of petroglyphs.
The Beehives is another named stop, referring to red stone sculpted by water and wind into shapes that look like round European reed beehives.
Petrified Rock Turnoff displays four specimens of the ossified trees, now mercifully protected from misguided collectors by steel fences. The fallen trees are from ancient forests of the region whose trunk cells were gradually replaced with silica until the entire organism became one large stone.
The Lost City Museum
To complement your trip to Valley of Fire State Park, continue on to the Lake Mead road and turn north to Overton, a Mormon farming community. At Overton, visit the Lost City Museum, a major collection of artifacts from southern Nevada Indians. The museum celebrates an extensive pueblo culture, called the Basketmakers by archaeologists, where the Virgin and Muddy rivers empty into the Colorado. Indians flourished here from 300 B.C. to 1150 A.D. before abandoning the area for reasons not yet clearly understood.
If you venture beyond the urban attractions of Las Vegas, the possible outdoor adventures are of jackpot quality.