Long-distance travel not in the cards for the family this year? Then consider Las Vegas. It offers plenty of new adventures and off-the-beaten-track sights to see far from the crowds of The Strip.
In general, Las Vegas attractions have been opening up as COVID-19 restrictions ease. That said, it’s wise to double-check the status of specific locations and make reservations, where appropriate, prior to visiting.
Dam, but not the dam (Great escapes in Boulder City)
For those who have never been, Hoover Dam should be at the top of the list. A tour of and walk across this Depression-era engineering marvel is an experience to remember. Most dam experiences were closed at this writing, but things change. Check here for updated information.
Twenty-eight miles southeast of the Las Vegas Strip, via I-215 and I-11, lies Boulder City. Far away from the bright lights of the gambling mecca and family friendly, this burg was home to the workers who built the Hoover Dam in 1931.
Alan Bible Visitor Center, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 10 Lakeshore Road, Boulder City; 702-293-8990
This 7.5-mile round-trip route follows the grade of the last segment of a 30-mile railroad line built to carry construction materials to the dam. Visitors pass through five 300-foot railroad tunnels along the trail which is open to dogs, strollers and cyclists. The walk offers views of Lake Mead, remnants of dam construction and historic markers along the way. Pay attention to heat warnings, keep an eye out for critters, wear comfortable shoes and carry water.
Ride the rails
Nevada State Railroad Museum, 601 Yucca St., Boulder City; 702-486-5933
Rail Explorers; 877-833-8588
If just walking through tunnels isn’t enough, there’s the nearby railroad museum, where visitors can inspect some of the powerful engines and locomotives that drove the development of the West. Visitors up for a little adventure can take a 90-minute ride in a Rail Explorer, a pedal-powered vehicle. Ride times and options vary; advance booking is recommended. Ticket price includes museum entry.
Get a brew
Boulder Dam Brewing Co. 453 Nevada Highway, Boulder City; 702-243-2739
This is a comfy place to grab pub food and a draft and catch a few minutes of a game. If you’re up for an adventure, forget the root beer float and try a real beer float. The Golden Cream serves up a pint of Oaked Black Canyon Stout with a scoop of premium vanilla ice cream. A bit wild? Yes. Worth the trip? A hearty yes! Downtown, you’ll also find a nearby park, shops, art and coffee spots as well as the typical collection of service businesses, including the trusty hardware store.
Catch some cool
Chilly Jilly’z 1680 Boulder City Parkway, Boulder City; 702-293-2373
What’s better than a frozen treat on a hot day? As someone who views Dole Whip as a rare treasure, Jilly’z is a gold mine of sweetness with frozen custard, malts, shakes, frappes and shave ice as well as a full menu of family friendly options. Because Jilly’z is located on the north side of Boulder City Parkway just before it converts to a divided highway, we found it easier to visit on our return trip to Las Vegas. At this writing, patio dining was available.
Atomic, historic, organic
A day after spending four to five hours in the car, perhaps the easier choice is to stay close to downtown Las Vegas. Fear not, you don’t have to hang out at the adult-oriented pool or an indoor shooting range to find non-gambling fun. A few options:
Witness the birth of the nuclear age
National Atomic Testing Museum 755 E. Flamingo Road, Las Vegas; 702-409-7366
Step back in time to witness the earth-shaking vibrations of an A-bomb blast in the Ground Zero Theater and walk through a fascinating and frightening collection of atomic and nuclear devices and memorabilia. Just 1.7 miles from the Strip, this Smithsonian affiliate gives visitors a wide perspective on technology, radiation, weaponry and the culture of the early atomic era. Displays are eye-catching and interactive with deeply detailed written support. While teens and adults could easily spend hours here, little ones are likely to move through the museum quickly. (Don’t forget to pick up a shot glass sporting the classic atomic energy symbol.)
Get sprung for the Springs
Springs Preserve 333 S. Valley View Blvd., Las Vegas; 702-822-7700
Nevada State Museum 702-486-5205
(Visitors are advised to check the attractions’ status and buy timed-entry tickets in advance. As of mid-April, the Nevada State Museum had re-opened, but indoor attractions at Springs Preserve, including the Origen Museum and Divine Café, were still closed.)
Two attractions plus a comfortable café with a sweeping view of the gardens share adjoining spaces at this stop suitable for all ages. Located just 5 miles north of the Strip, the 189-acre Springs Preserve features a living desert center, botanic garden, butterfly habitat, amphitheater and the Origen (an abbreviation of Original Generations) Museum, which highlights the history of the Las Vegas basin (geologic and cultural) with kinetic water sculptures, flash flood and live animal exhibits.
Nearby on the same site, the Nevada State Museum serves a suitable counterpart with its mammoth and dinosaur fossil models, gambling artifacts, showgirl costumes and collection of historic items which look like they were pulled from Las Vegas’ attic. Need a break? Check out the Divine Café. Its menus feature wholesome adult choices as well as meals sure to please even the pickiest tots. A large, shaded dining deck overlooks the Preserve grounds.
Hey, Ethel, got a sweet tooth?
Ethel M Chocolates Factory and Cactus Garden 2 Cactus Garden Drive, Henderson
If Hershey, Penn., Ghirardelli Square and See’s Candy shops are on the family must-see, must-eat list, don’t miss Las Vegas’ own home-grown chocolate goodness at Ethel M Chocolates. The “M,” of course, stands for Mars.
Ethel M Chocolates is named for the mother of M&M and Mars candy founder Forrest Mars Sr. And true to the family legacy, the chocolates, tasting and factory tours don’t disappoint. For those who need to wind down from a sugar rush, the adjoining 3-acre cactus garden awaits.
Grab a bite away from the bright lights
PublicUs, 1126 E. Fremont St., Las Vegas; 702-331-5500
This hip, friendly coffee and breakfast/brunch/lunch spot offers wonderfully crafted light fare in a canteen-style setting. Looking for vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free options for delicious scrambles; breakfast burritos; fruit-, syrup- and cream-drenched waffles; baked goods and assorted goodies? This is the spot. We’re drawn to breakfast here, but lunch is also an option. No reservations, walk-ins only.
Big Dog’s Brewing Co, 4543 N. Rancho Drive, Las Vegas; 702-645-1404
Another escape from the Strip, Big Dog’s styles itself as Las Vegas’ original brewery. Head here for hearty portions, great brews and – in addition to the eclectic mix of pizza, pulled pork, pot roast, meat loaf and poutine – find some Wisconsin tributes including beer cheese soup, bratwurst and smoky brat mac and cheese. The assortment of house brews is worth any beer lover’s admiration. We quickly zeroed in on the Dirty Dog IPA, but also tempting were the Black Lab Stout and the Red Hydrant Brown Ale.
Want more? Dig in or head farther afield …
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Visitor Center, 3205 State Highway 159, Las Vegas; 702-515-5350
Some 17 miles west of downtown, the canyon’s visitor center is a 20- to 25-minute drive depending on your route and traffic. The canyon is a great place to rock hop, hike, bike or stroll or – if you are up for a longer, air-conditioned adventure – consider the 13-mile scenic drive. One aside, you may encounter wildlife, especially burros – don’t feed them, they are likely to bite or kick!
Dig This Las Vegas, 800 W. Roban Ave., Las Vegas; 702-222-4344
For every kid who loved moving dirt with a yellow Tonka truck but found a desk job in real life, there’s Dig This. After safety instruction, visitors can slide into the operator’s seat and crank up a full-size 10-ton bulldozer, 20-ton hydraulic excavator (think modern day steam shovel) or skid steer loader. Depending on the specific equipment, even youngsters can get into the action. Dig This even offers birthday parties and rides for small children.
Valley of Fire State Park, 29450 Valley of Fire Hwy, Overton; 702-397-2088
More of a day trip than a quick jaunt, Valley of Fire is about 1 hour northeast of downtown Las Vegas via the I-15 and the Valley of Fire Highway. But the stunning red Aztec sandstone outcroppings, amazing rock formations, petrified trees and the petroglyphs at Atlatl Rock are more than worth the mileage. As always, the Visitor Center is a good first place to stop. Additional park and trail descriptions can be found at theunendingjourney.com/valley-of-fire-state-park-guide and alltrails.com. Take water, good walking shoes and an awareness of the day’s expected temperatures.