Photo by Kirk Marshall

No doubt Vegas in on the list of your weekend getaways; only six hours drive from Salt Lake City, abundant lodging, great shows, amazing eateries, gaming galore, and superb people watching. But once you tire of the glitz and glamour, noise, crowds, and lack of fresh air, drive just 20 miles west of the Strip and find yourself in a desert wilderness just asking to be explored. This is entertainment of a different nature.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, operated by the BLM, is the Mojave Desert made accessible. With a 13-mile scenic loop drive, over 30 miles of hiking trails, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, observation points and picnic facilities, it is the jackpot of outdoor activities, the antidote to artifice.

Photo by Kirk Marshall.

Once you have paid your $7 entrance fee or flashed a national Parks Pass, first stop is the state-of-the-art, LEED gold-certified visitor’s center. Take time to peruse the innovative outdoor exhibits. Divided thematically into the four elements of the desert, earth, air, fire and water, the displays are instructive, eye catching and a great introduction to the canyon.

Follow the 13-mile drive stopping often for photos. Use the list of hiking trails to select one of the 23 trails accessible from the scenic drive and get out and stretch your legs. Stop at an overlook and spy climbers defying gravity on one of the rock faces. The loop is enjoyable on a bike too, as it is a one-way road. Your breath will be taken away by short steep grades and views of the Calico Hills. I recommend going at sunrise for great light. The gate opens at 6 a.m., the visitor center at 8 a.m.

Photo by Kirk Marshall.

At the loop road exit, take a right toward Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. Once owned by Howard Hughes, the park is a 520-acre oasis that was part working ranch and part sumptuous desert retreat. The park offers Super Summer Theater and Living History Programs, ranger and self-led hikes, tours of the ranch house, picnic sites and great expanses of grass for romping. The eponymous natural springs feed an abundance of flora that attracts wild burros, remnants of the area’s mining past.

Another mile down the road is Bonnie Springs Ranch, a Wild West Town with plenty of amenities. Originally built in 1843 as a supply station for wagon trains heading to California on the Old Spanish Trail, the ranch has been a tourist attraction since 1952. With a petting zoo, miniature train, riding stables, shops, gunfights, pony rides, restaurants and Pink Jeep Tours, this is a great stop if you have children in tow.

Photo by Kirk Marshall.

Directions: Driving on I-215 take exit 26 to Charleston Blvd. Driving west on Charleston Blvd continue 5.5 miles for Red Rocks, 8.5 for Spring Mountain and 9.5 for Bonnie Springs Ranch.