Cooler temps open door for outdoor adventure near Vegas

By JoAnna Haugen
During Las Vegas' stifling hot summer months, few people venture beyond air-conditioned casinos and oversize swimming pools.

But once temperatures begin to drop, the adventurous side of Las Vegas begins to show itself with myriad outdoor adventures that can be comfortably enjoyed with even just a few free hours in a busy travel schedule.

Though Las Vegas itself is urban, it is surrounded by miles of desert landscape and a few noteworthy destinations just beyond the city limits, the most well-known of which are Red Rock Canyon and the Valley of Fire.

Pink Jeep Tours, which is considered one of the most reputable tour companies in Las Vegas due to its certification standards and personable guides, offers more than a dozen experiences, including the Red Rock Canyon Signature Tour.

"It's a small-group experience with only 10 people, so it's a personal experience," said Richard Scown, general manager of Pink Jeep Tours Las Vegas.

The four-hour tour offers morning and afternoon departures to nearby Red Rock National Conservation Area, which features a 13-mile scenic drive that has served as a backdrop for movies and commercials. Red Rock Canyon Las VegasDuring the experience, travelers can hop off the famous pink Jeep for a bit of hiking past Native American pictographs and desert wildflowers (especially abundant in the springtime), and although this tour is available year round, the mild daytime temperatures from October through April make it much more enjoyable.

For a longer journey (generally six hours when booked with a tour company), travelers can visit Valley of Fire State Park, which is located north of Las Vegas. Hiking is popular in this area, as well, and photographers seek out the Valley of Fire for its colorful rock formations.

Despite the fact that the city is located in the desert, visiting snow bunnies can get their full-blown winter fix at Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort. The resort's average annual snowfall is 240 inches across the 445 acres of terrain. Right now there are 30 trails at Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort, 14 that are new for the 2012-13 season. A terrain park offers tabletop jumps, rails and a variety of features for snowboarders and skiers. Travelers who don't have their own vehicles can reach the ski resort via daily pickups at Town Square (on the south end of the Strip) or Santa Fe Station Casino (in the northwest part of the city).

Flightlinez Mojave DesertHeading south out of Las Vegas toward Lake Mead is Boulder City, where there are different opportunities for adventure activities. Bootleg Canyon Park is hopping with activity outside the summer months with 36 miles of mountain biking trails, but one of the most popular draws for tourists is Flightlinez Bootleg Canyon.

This desert ziplining experience consists of four long cables high above the Mojave Desert, which give visitors the chance to fly over the barren landscape at speeds up to 60 mph. Transportation is available to and from Excalibur on the Strip.

Beyond half-day experiences, there are several full-day trips throughout the Southwestern U.S. that embrace the cooler weather.

"A lot of people don't realize that we're centrally located to many of the national parks," Scown said. "One in particular, which I guess you could say is a winter park, is Death Valley. It's a very scenic place to visit and a popular tour for us, but we only operate that tour from Sept. 1 through May 31 because the extreme heat makes it too dangerous in the summer."

Death Valley, about three hours west of Las Vegas by car, is a world of extremes as one of the driest, lowest and hottest places on Earth. Short hikes throughout the park reveal a juxtaposition of otherworldly landscapes and colorful mining history.

The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular day trip destinations from Las Vegas; it is located about five hours east of the city. Visiting during the winter months can be a drastically different experience than going during the summer.

Maverick Aviation Grand Canyon"The West Rim is very similar to the weather in Las Vegas, whereas the weather on the South Rim is very different because it's at such a higher elevation," said Bryan Kroten, vice president of marketing for the Maverick Aviation Group, which runs several helicopter tours from Las Vegas. "You definitely get the wintertime look and feel."

It would be possible to spend days at the Grand Canyon and not see enough of it, but for those without a car, a guided experience either overland or by helicopter offers a chance to do a bit of exploring and whet the appetite for a longer trip in the future.

"If you're visiting the Grand Canyon, dress appropriately," Kroten said, "and don't forget to bring your camera."

Photographers also flock to Zion National Park in the fall and winter for its scenic beauty.

"I think Zion National Park is awesome, especially around this time of year," said Marko Greisen, co-founder and CEO of Galavantier.com, an online travel company that creates experience packages.

Located in southern Utah, about a three-hour drive from the Strip, this park also offers plentiful hiking opportunities. While many tour companies offer a scenic drive packaged with some on-foot exploration others, such as Adventure Photo Tours, place an emphasis on scouting out specific locations.

"I think one of the amazing things about visiting Zion National Park is capturing those iconic images in photography," Greisen said.

Pink Jeep Death ValleyDue to the mild temperatures in the fall and winter, outdoor activities can be more enjoyable and comfortable than other times of the year, but travelers should be prepared for the cooler weather.

"A light jacket would be good, and walking shoes or mild hiking boots are always preferable," Scown said. "Most places we go, the trails are uneven because we like to take people to see the natural sides of Las Vegas."

Regardless of the time of year travelers take advantage of adventure activities while visiting Las Vegas, it's important to keep in mind that most excursions start early in the morning.

"It's Las Vegas, it's a 24-hour city," Greisen said. "But these tours often leave at 6:30 or 7 in the morning. People should keep that in mind in order to fully enjoy their experience."
 

Urban adventures

For those who can't or don't want to get away from the city center, there are still plenty of thrills in Las Vegas. Urban adventures abound on the Strip, in the heart of downtown and in nearby areas that can be easily reached by taxi or rental car. Here are a few thrills to be had practically within reach of a slot machine arm:

New York New York roller coaster
New York New York's roller coaster is as much a spectator's delight as it is a rider's thrill. Lifting people up 203 feet and dropping them 144 feet at speeds up to 67 mph, this roller coaster runs all year long, late into the night. Go to www.newyorknewyork.com/attractions/the-roller-coaster.aspx.  

Vegas Indoor Skydiving
America's first indoor skydiving facility is still a popular attraction for visitors. This simulated skydiving experience is similar to the real thing with the addition of a vertical wind tunnel, mesh trampoline floor and foam padded walls. A brief training class, suiting up and the actual "jump" take about an hour. Visit www.vegasindoorskydiving.com.

Fremont Street ziplines
As if the Fremont Street Experience isn't wild enough, visitors can up the ante by ziplining down its spine. Four lines run for 800 feet up to 30 mph through the famous glittering downtown lights. See http://flightlinezfremont.com.
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