Show Me the Parks
|The Justified Superlative: Arizona's Grand Canyon (Corbis)|
Within a day's drive of Las Vegas' gambling and entertainment excess lie five of the country's most sublimely beautiful natural spaces. The bright lights and big city blaze off into a desert region that gives way to the mile-deep Grand Canyon, the great dammed expanse of Lake Powell, bizarre rock spires and pinnacles in Bryce Canyon, monolithic rock peaks in Zion Canyon, and some of the earth's highest temperatures and lowest elevations in Death Valley. In the best Vegas tradition of more is better, it's like an all-you-can-eat buffet of national parks.
Days 1-2: Las Vegas, Nevada, to Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona (275 Miles)
Operating full tilt around the clock, Las Vegas offers everything—and more—in terms of accommodations, dining, gaming, and entertainment. For families, you could ride a roller coaster atop the 1,149-foot Stratosphere Tower, interact with "Star Trek: The Experience" at the Hilton, or ride whitewater inside the Adventuredome, a five-acre indoor theme park at Circus Circus. But for real adventure, ditch Vegas' neon jungle and head east, where one of the first things you'll see is 726-foot-high Hoover Dam (702.494.2517; www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam). Completed in 1936, it holds back Lake Mead, which backs up 110 miles along the Colorado River toward the Grand Canyon.
Although Hoover Dam is only 140 miles, as the crow flies, from Grand Canyon National Park (928.638.7888; www.nps.gov/grca), the drive to the main visitor facilities at the South Rim is about double that distance,about 250 miles. Plan to spend the better part of a day on the road, then. After you arrive, you'll understand why the 277-mile-long, mile-deep, ten-mile-wide canyon got the name "Grand." The South Rim is accessible year-round, while the North Rim, which is much harder to reach, is open in summer only. The South Rim area offers more than enough tours and activities to fill a few days, though don't expect wilderness solitude unless you really delve off the beaten track. Some activity suggestions include bus, jeep, helicopter, or airplane tours; a mule trip; backpacking down into the canyon; or walking all or part of the 12-mile Rim Trail for an excursion away from the hubbub of Grand Canyon Village. Also recommended: Dine at El Tovar Hotel (928.638.2631), a classic 100-year-old hotel with jaw-dropping Canyon views.
The best choice for camping is the closest location to the rim, Mather Campground (800.365.2267; www.nps.gov/grca/pphtml/camping.html). It's inside the national park, only 0.5 miles from the rim, and offers the full services of the small city clustered at Grand Canyon Village, including restaurants, groceries, propane and gas, camping gear, gift and bookshops, laundry, and reservations for guided tours.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication