Escaping the Bright Lights of Las Vegas
Think sin city is all about the sex, booze, and gambling? Well, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, it is. But step away from the glitz and glam of the Las Vegas strip and you will find an abundance of resources for the outdoor enthusiast, all within a 45-minute drive in just about any direction. Go east and you can play in the waters of Lake Mead, Hoover Dam, and the Colorado River; head northwest and you can hit the slopes of 11,000-foot Mount Charleston; if you’re a hiker, Valley of Fire to the north and Red Rock Canyon to the west are sure to quench your appetite for stunning rock formations and authentic desert hiking.
Because all of these places are such a short distance from the center of the city, it actually means Las Vegas is an excellent starting point for a wide variety of amazing day trips and overnights that can be taken by bike!
Leaving Las Vegas: Jasper tests out his ride.
While there are plenty of local bike shops that will rent road or mountain bikes for day trips, finding a touring bike rental that's set up for panniers or a trailer is uncommon. But don't let this hold you back from exploring some of the spectacular riding Las Vegas has to offer. The Las Vegas Bicycling Community Website has great resources to start your research on where to ride, what to expect, and how to find local rentals or tour guides.
Here I'm going to focus on a recent Bike Overnight that can be ridden entirely on a bike path, all the way from the Vegas Strip: Red Rock Canyon.
From my doorstep, it’s approximately 9 miles to the Red Rock Canyon Campground west of town. I left late on a Saturday evening, with my dog Jasper hitching a ride is his trailer. I was thinking it wouldn’t take me long to get out there, and I could surely make it before it got dark at 8 p.m. But somehow, in the two years it’s been since I last rode a loaded bike across the country, toting around 40 pounds of dog and gear proved that my legs weren’t as strong as my mind seemed to think they still were. All told, it took me nearly two hours to travel that short distance, and I arrived at the campground well after dark.
The sun was hiding behind some rare clouds when I left home, so the weather was nearly perfect for riding, except for that nagging headwind. I meandered through the neighborhood roads and made my way to the dedicated pedestrian/bike trail that hugs Highway 215 before stopping at the gas station on the edge of town to pick up dinner and breakfast for the morning.
By that point, it was already dusk, and I knew I still had another 5 or so miles to go. The entire ride out there is a gentle uphill grade, and I’d ridden it many times before, but with the headwind and the ever-fading daylight, I knew the final leg was going to be different this time.
Once I turned off onto State Route 159, the twilight had set in and covered the desert in a blanket of deep blues and purples. The shadows from the desert brush gave what was normally familiar scenery a creepy, moonlike essence. It felt like I was riding in a dream. To have the fresh air flowing through my lungs was invigorating; it made me feel carefree, as if I'd been transported back in time two years and was back on the TransAm Trail. The traffic, usually a steady stream of city folks driving out for a day hike, had all but disappeared, but nonetheless I had every blinkytronic on my bike flashing at a furious pace. There are no streetlights out there, and other than my overabundance of flashing technology, the only light came from the glow of the always-bright city behind me. It was peaceful — it was making my legs burn, but most of all it was making me come alive again.
I arrived at the campground knowing very well that at this time of year it could be full and I might have to turn around and go home for a lack of available campsites. No reservations are accepted for the individual camp area. But I pushed my bike and trailer through the gravel and eventually found a spot near the back of the campground. There were no shade trees, unlike the camping I did in the Midwest as a child. It’s definitely a desert: Lots of sand, rocks, desert shrubbery, and Joshua trees.
I set up my tent and inhaled my dinner while Jasper made himself comfortable in the sand. The campground itself is in a small valley between two lines of mountains. On the east side the city lights highlighted the silhouettes of the dark mountaintops, while the top of taller mountains to the west reflected the light back. There was no moon, and the stars were sparkling brilliantly in the black sky, something you don't often see in the city due to all the light pollution.
Desert camping is not without its own set of perils. On two separate occasions that night I saw black widow spiders that could have hurt me or my dog. Be sure to carefully inspect your campsite, especially if you are wild camping — which is permitted only above 5,000 feet out here — but even if your campsite is an established area. Dangerous critters like spiders, scorpions, and snakes make their homes everywhere and do not discern between public lands and campgrounds. And don’t forget to shake out your shoes before you put them on in the morning!
This campground offers single-sort recycling, vault toilets, potable water spigots, tent pads, covered picnic tables, grills, fire pits, and firewood, which can be purchased from the camp hosts on site. (During extremely dry periods fires can be banned, even in established fire pits, so follow the rules that the camp hosts have put in place during your stay.)
I was lulled asleep by my tent blowing in the wind, and awoke the next morning to Jasper staring me in the face at 6 a.m. as the sun rose and started to warm up the tent. I could hear the campground coming alive with other campers getting ready for a day of hiking or climbing. The campground is graded on a slope, and my site was at a good vantage point to see that most of the spots were full. I realized how lucky I'd been to find a site.
Once I hit the road toward home later that morning — downhill all the way, I might add — I passed the scores of weekend warriors out on their ultra-efficient road bikes, working hard to get the miles under their belt before the next big event. I thought back to when I was once a part of their ranks and realized that now, for me, there is nothing better than a loaded bike, the companionship of my favorite doggy, and the possibilities of the open road. My 12-hour journey was all I needed to reinvigorate my senses, and it gave me just enough time away from the city to make me feel human again.
Tips for this adventure: This is an excellent trip for anyone who wants to escape the city for a bit, but remain close enough to have the option of enjoying the playground that Las Vegas is. It offers authentic desert riding, with plenty of hiking and climbing opportunities nearby, as well. It’s not too remote, and you won’t feel isolated as there are always plenty of other adventure seekers taking advantage of its proximity to the city — like-minded folks enjoying all the natural beauty. Getting there, from the center of town: Use the Alta Road bike paths to get through the city before connecting with State Route 159 to Red Rock Canyon. The campground will be on the left, approximately 4.5 miles after the last stoplight. There is a grocery store, a bank, and some restaurants at the edge of town that make good stockup/refueling locations. This can also be ridden as a part of a loop connecting to the southwestern part of town (see the Las Vegas Bike Map). Bring lots of water and sunscreen. The elevation is approximately 3,500 feet above sea level; the weather can change quickly, from extremely hot and dry during the day to brisk in the evening. Prepare for all kinds of weather, and watch for flash flooding. Red Rock Canyon Campground closes during the summer months (June through August) due to the extreme heat, and note that it can still be extremely hot in May and September. Snow is possible in the winter months. Payment is cash only.
Favorite local bike shop: Las Vegas Cyclery just built a new energy-efficient store. They have full services, bike rentals, a large inventory of parts and bikes, and showers available.