In near silence, we watch as an American bald eagle swoops vertically up the cliff face, gently alighting on its edge. As the wind rolls over the water’s surface, native coots and cormorants scatter and re-form in groups along the sandy banks among the cacti and creosote.
Looking back, the Hoover dam, austere and resplendent, towers over us. Its vast strength resisting a mammoth weight of water.
“The Hoover dam was the first of its kind in the world,” explains Kathleen, our guide from Hoover Dam Rafting Adventures, as she expertly pilots our floating raft down the Colorado river. “More than 200m thick at the base, it took five thousand men five years to build. One of them was my great grandpa.”
The roots run deep in Nevada, I reflect.
The tranquillity of the river separating Nevada and Arizona is a world away from the noise and lights of central Las Vegas.
But the strip that once earned notoriety as a den of iniquity has moved on in modern times. Yes, slot machines continue to whirr and dice roll across roulette tables, but a new – dare I say it – healthier side to Vegas is emerging.
Adventure tour companies offer a variety of excursions, hotels have first class spas, while restaurants and street food stalls serve vegan dishes alongside old favourites, as I discover on a Savors of the Strip excursion from Lip Smacking Foodie Tours.
For pure variety, try the Wicked Spoon brunch at the Cosmopolitan, which offers a dizzying selection of foods, from crab (for breakfast? Yes!) through to Kobi beef and shrimp with grits (a favourite for Americans from the southern states).
Hitting the trail again, this time on four wheels with Pink Jeep Adventure Tours, our friendly guide Steve takes us to the Red Rock Canyon. “The unique colour of these rocks stems from the ferrous oxide contained within them,” he explains.
Following the road via the visitor centre, which offers excellent insights into the history of these ancient hills and mountains, we climb quickly to over 2000m, the surroundings becoming first barren and then fully snow-covered. Eventually, we leave the road completely.
“These trails were used by the early frontiersmen heading west or prospectors looking for silver and gold. And before that by native Americans – evidence of their presence here is demonstrated on rocks in the form of petroglyphs and handprints, visible on exposed rock along our route,” says Steve.
If the lunar-style scenery isn’t breathtaking enough, then Steve’s driving certainly is. We charge over bumps and rocks strewn along our path.
Once back in the outskirts of Las Vegas, we re-enter civilisation and the ever-growing suburbs of the city, much of which was owned by the famous industrialist Howard Hughes. Las Vegas is already one of the fastest growing cities in the US and it’s easy to see why. With a booming tourist trade and low land costs, the average price of property is nearly half that of neighbouring California.
Fortuitously, my visit coincides with the Rock ‘n’ Roll 10k and half marathon run, which shuts off the whole of central Las Vegas to traffic. I have done relatively little running over the past year owing to a foot operation at the end of 2022, but cheering crowds lining the strip make me determined to reach the finish line.
Running down the Las Vegas strip around the iconic Welcome to Las Vegas sign as the sun sets and music blares is a memory that will stay with me forever. Being offered a can of wine after crossing the finish line feels like a very Vegas way to complete a truly unique experience.
So, it turns out Vegas has so much more than blackjack tables and roulette to offer the discerning traveller. Beyond the big windfalls, the real prize is breaking out of the glitz and glamour of the strip and experiencing the natural wonders that surround the city.
Have you visited Las Vegas? Is it on your destination wish list? Let us know in the comments section below.
– With PA