Skip the Strip: The Non-Gambler’s Guide to Las Vegas

Skip the Strip: The Non-Gambler’s Guide to Las Vegas

    If you’re looking for an adults-only version of Disneyworld, the Las Vegas Strip is about as close as you can get. Wall-to-wall in luxury hotels and glittering casinos, it’s a fun place to explore. But after a day or two on those streets, I want a looooooong shower and a break from the chaos.

    And that’s when most people leave town – after all, Hunter S. Thompson once referred to Vegas as a “48 hour city.” But don’t hit the gas just yet. 

    There’s so much more to Las Vegas than just the Strip. 

    I’ve ended up in Vegas at least once every year or two since I was a kid, and every trip is a completely different adventure. Detoxing from the Strip can include everything from petroglyph hunting and sand dune hiking, to chocolate tasting and learning dirty mafia secrets. 

    The towering hotels often overshadow the rest of the city. So I’m here to shine a light on the less Vegas-y side of Vegas, with all the stops that keep drawing this non-gambler back to town.

    So without further ado, here’s why you should definitely book that flight, even if you hate casinos (or have little ones in tow).

    Best Things to Do in Vegas with Kids

    Winner: Springs Preserve

    CC image courtesy of Renee Grayson on Flickr

    When it comes to one-stop, “I’m not getting the kids in and out of the car more than once today” attractions, you can’t get much better than Springs Preserve.

    Like the name suggests, you’ll find nature trails looping through joshua trees, wetlands, and animal hideaways. The longest is a little over two miles, and it’s wheelchair/stroller accessible. Do be wary of the heat (there’s next to no shade on the trail) but it’s a great place to get a little taste of desert wildlife only a few miles from downtown.

    And it’s much more than a preserve – it’s also the Nevada State Museum, a tortoise exhibit, a botanical garden, a butterfly habitat, splash park, historical re-creation, and more. 

    Got a kid that likes trains? Springs Preserve is your spot. Your teenager’s super into fashion? They’ve got that too. Toddler that needs to burn off some energy? Yep, there’s a playground!

    Plan ahead and you can also catch live shows and supervised activities like animal encounters and geode cracking.

    This spot simply has to be my number one rec for families, because unlike other kid-friendly spots in Vegas (cough cough Circus Circus), there’s plenty here for teens and adults too.

    Visitors up to age 17 qualify for children’s tickets, so if you have multiple teenagers, you can also save some serious cash compared to other attractions that charge teens as adults.

    Runner-Up: Discovery Children’s Museum

    “Museum” doesn’t quite do this place justice. This is a child’s dream world. 

    Kids can do science experiments, solve mysteries, put on plays, climb a castle and pirate ship, do arts and crafts projects, build race car tracks – if a six-year-old thinks it’s cool, it’s here. And I’m not talking about “one corner for this, one little area for that.” This place is three floors high, with entire rooms dedicated to each of these activities. 

    You can check it out with their virtual tour, which includes the 3-story labyrinthine play place where I got lost for about ten minutes while “researching” (whoops).

    Honorable Mention: Ethel M Chocolate Factory

    CC image courtesy of Brian Whitmarsh on Flickr

    Also a Mars chocolate hub like its cousin on the Strip, Ethel M focuses more on craftsmanship and gourmet quality. Visitors can tour their factory to learn every part of the candy-making process from expert chocolatiers. 

    Older kids who are into baking or engineering will probably get the most out of it, but younger ones will likely enjoy watching the big mixers of melted chocolate and network of conveyor belts going round and round..

    Randomly, they’ve also got the largest cactus garden in Nevada, so the kids can run around while learning about the local flora — just make sure they watch their step!

    Best Hiking Trails in Vegas

    Winner: Red Rock Canyon

    26 separate hiking trails, only 16 miles from the city center, and included in an NPS annual pass? Check, check, and check.

    Red Rock (the canyon, not the stadium in Colorado) is another winner that earned its crown by having variety. Trails range from a flat loop less than a mile long to an uphill trek with nearly 2,000 feet of elevation over five miles. It’s truly a choose-your-own-adventure. 

    The crowd favorite is Calico Tanks Trail, named for its natural pools (yes, water is scarce enough here that a whole trail is named for a pond). You’ll clamber up and over sandstone cliffsides to catch a view of Vegas surrounded by desert. 

    You might even catch another Vegas rarity – ice! Don’t pack your skates, but the pond sometimes freezes over in winter.

    The Lost Creek Trail is the path for families and anyone looking for an easy hike. The trailhead is right off the main road, so it’s a good quick stop if you want to stretch your legs during your scenic drive. It’s especially nice in springtime, when wildflowers bloom and the waterfall is in full force.

    For a challenge, experienced hikers can test their limits with Turtlehead Peak. This arduous mountain trail straddles the line between hiking and straight up bouldering. It’s poorly marked, very steep, and absolutely, stunningly worth it once you reach the top.

    Runner-Up: Valley of Fire

    This one loses a few points because its distance from Vegas (45 miles) makes it more of a day trip than a local hike, but I think you’ll understand why I put it in this category.

    The highlights are aptly named, with Elephant Rock (rock that looks like an elephant, who’d have guessed?), Pink Canyon (yep, a canyon that is pink), and Petrified Logs Loop (surprise, surprise, a looping trail past petrified logs). This article does an excellent job going through all of these in more detail.

    It’s also possibly the easiest place in the Vegas area to see petroglyphs. These carvings were made by local civilizations some 2,500 years ago, and you can view them at Atlatl Rock right next to the parking lot.

    While it might be a bit of a drive if you’re only in town for a couple days, it’s definitely worth a stop for hikers (and photographers).

    Honorable Mention: Sloan Canyon 

    Sloan doesn’t have quite the same stature or desert-themed calendar views as the previous parks. On the plus side, that means it’s a little sleepier, so you’re less likely to share the trail with a crowd.

    Unlike the red rocky areas, Sloan Canyon is volcanic and covered in black and gray sands. The sights don’t have a ton of variation but there’s lots of petroglyphs to spot, and bighorn sheep are frequently chilling nearby.

    The most notable thing about these trails is that they’re long. The larger loops are over 16 miles, and the shortest by far is still 2.6 miles. Some require scrambling over cliffsides, but you can also keep to the sandy trails.

    It’s not the most glamorous park, but if you’re the type of hiker who likes to disappear into the quiet wilderness for a whole day and become one with the coyotes, look no further.

    Best Day Trips From Vegas

    Winner: Death Valley

    Death Valley? Isn’t that just an empty wasteland?

    Oh no, dear reader, oh no. 

    Maybe my SoCal soul is biased, but Death Valley is a magical place. When I first visited, I was caught off-guard by the sheer variety of landscapes it contained. 

    The salt flats are probably what you picture when you think of Death Valley – and they are indeed a sight to behold.  Badwater Basin stretches out into the valley as a great white plain and visitors are invited to wander across as they please, making for some striking photographs.

    The basin is where the literal hotspot broke the North American records for the lowest and driest place, as well as the world record for hottest at 134º F (56.7° C). Not only can you fry an egg on the sidewalk there, so many people did it that the park had to ask them to stop.

    Zabriskie Point is the park’s Badlands, and I always think it looks like fabric dropped onto the floor in a heap. Then there’s Artist’s Palette, where the hillside is splashed with green and blue among the red. 

    Lastly, there are the dunes dotting the valley, the best being Mesquite Flats – so otherwordly you might think you’ve gotten woefully lost and ended up in the Sahara.

    The park is about 150 miles from downtown Vegas and takes about two hours to drive there. You can break up the trip by stopping in the ghost town of Rhyolite, or if you’re road-tripping through the Mojave, you can do what I did and stop in Beatty, NV to hang with the burros.

    Runner-Up: Lake Mead

    This is the classic day trip from Vegas. It’s only about 30 miles from the city center, and in a seemingly endless dry desert, it’s a bit of an oasis.

    It’s got every outdoor activity covered: hiking, swimming, camping, boating, you name it. What this region lacks in foliage, it makes up for in sheer space. You could easily spend a week here exploring every craggy peak and shore. 

    It also includes the Hoover Dam, which isn’t exactly an exciting place to visit (I’m pretty sure everyone who’s been here went because their dad dragged them as a kid) but the scale of the structure is pretty impressive.

    If you’re looking for a one-stop outdoor adventure without sitting in the car for hours, Lake Mead is your place.

    Honorable Mention: Grand Canyon West

    The Grand Canyon is one of those things that everyone should experience at least once in their life. It’s not just a “big hole in the ground”; it’s so massive that it’s hard to believe it’s real when you’re looking right at it.

    If the main spots were more accessible from Vegas, this would easily win this category. It still deserves a mention because the West Rim is way, way closer than the more popular viewpoints (125 miles from Vegas versus 290) while also providing some pretty sweet canyon views.

    The West Rim’s unique attraction is the Skywalk, a glass-floored lookout point allowing you to peer deep into the abyss of the canyon (and your soul). 

    Best Places for a Taste of Vegas Culture & History

    Winner: Arts District

    CC image courtesy of Jason Rosenberg on Flickr

    The Arts District website bills themselves as “the least Vegas neighborhood in Vegas,” but I’m inclined to disagree. I think this is the most Vegas neighborhood in Vegas, it’s just not the Vegas that people usually picture.

    Beneath all the glitz and chaos of the Strip and its hordes of tourists, Vegas is still an isolated town in the middle of the Mojave desert. And like most isolated towns in the Mojave, there’s a culture that celebrates weirdness, artsiness, and a give-no-damns attitude. If you’ve ever been to Joshua Tree or Slab City, you know what I’m talking about.

    The Arts District is void of casinos and towering glimmering hotels; in their place, you’ll find art galleries, antique shops, and an array of hipster-style coffee and cuisine. Technicolor murals adorn the streets, and unless you visit during one of their First Friday festivities, you’ll likely find those streets pretty quiet. 

    Other quirky stops include the Burlesque Hall of Fame and local icon Koolsville Tattoo, known for their $10 flash sheets.

    The Arts District has to be my number one spot for Vegas culture, because it’s the best place to get an authentic sense of the city. Over half a million people live in Vegas and most of them don’t hang out on the Strip. This is a place to chill, explore, and chat with the folks who live in the shadows of all that chaos. 

    Runner-Up: Mob Museum

    The origins of Las Vegas are part of its mystique. You won’t find the real tea on their official travel sites, but it’s an open secret that the mafia built the city into what it is today. 

    The Mob Museum doesn’t shy away from this notoriety. A local Uber driver even once told me that it was the only place to learn the real history of Vegas. 

    The collection includes more than just relics from the Vegas mafia, stretching their attention across the entire national network of mafiosos. The museum’s crown jewel is the wall from the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, where you can see the actual bullet holes from guns fired by Al Capone’s men.

    Their more local memorabilia includes an authentic Nevada gas chamber chair and several items owned by gangsters who used to kick around the Strip. It’s definitely not the cheeriest stop, but dark tourism enthusiasts and history fans should prepare for a wild ride.

    Honorable Mention: Neon Museum

    The Neon Museum deserves a mention for preserving a piece of Vegas history that we’d otherwise only see in vintage photos. They collect old neon signs from hotels and casinos that have long since closed, and they’ve gathered them in a “boneyard” you can explore (and photograph) at your own pace. 

    Highlights include the massive and iconic Stardust hotel sign, as well as pieces from Sahara, Lady Luck, and the Golden Nugget.

    It’s definitely a bit of an Instagram trap (with prices to match – nighttime tickets to see the signs lit up can put you out $45), but it’s a pretty neat thing to witness first-hand. Next time you watch a movie set in Vegas Past, you might catch yourself recognizing a few familiar signs.

    Honorable Mention: Meow Wolf

    I’ve got to give this category an extra honorable mention, because Meow Wolf requires a quick shout-out. I won’t go into too much detail because it’s better without spoilers, but suffice it to say that you haven’t experienced an art exhibit quite like this.

    The main attraction at the Vegas location is Omega Mart, where you can peruse an incredibly detailed dreamscape shop offering products like “Who Told You This Was Butter?” and “Shredded Zalg.” 

    While ticket prices seem crazy at first glance ($49), when you consider the amount of meticulous attention and originality that went into its construction, it’s hard to argue. 

    Best Spots in Vegas for Nightlife

    Winner: Downtown

    CC image courtesy of Andrew on Flickr

    The Vegas Strip is one of the biggest nightlife hubs in the world, but honestly… it kind of sucks. Sorry! I love the Strip for what it is, but when it comes to clubbing and bar-hopping, I find it pretty overrated. Massive lines and painful cover charges are unavoidable there.

    While downtown Vegas technically includes the following two neighborhoods, I’m counting it as the winner. It’s the only real non-Strip party central, and it’d be a shame to dismiss the gems outside the trendy sections below. 

    Here are a few highlights in downtown that don’t fit into the next categories:

    Runner-Up: Arts District

    A repeat awardee! 

    In addition to being a neat place to kick around during the day, the Arts District is also known for its nightlife. Like its stores and coffee shops, bars around here tend to lean into hipster territory – that means craft brews, specialty cocktails, and house-made ingredients.

    Despite those common through-lines, you can find quite the variety of vibes here. There’s the gothic mainstay Artifice, the German-inspired Berlin, international beer hub Servehzah, the pink floral veranda of Velveteen Rabbit, and the classy, upscale wine room Garagiste, among many others.

    If bar-hopping through a diverse crowd of watering holes sounds like your kind of night out, this is your destination.

    Honorable Mention: Fremont Street

    Ah, Fremont Street. I’ve spent several nights out here and I’m told I had a very good time.

    I’ll be real with you: this is not an upscale place. It’s not quite as bad as Time Square-in-the-70s, but it’s not a modern-day-Monaco either. But that’s actually what I like about it.

    The Vegas Strip used to be grimy before the corporate hotels moved in and cleaned it up. In most ways that’s a good thing, because it definitely feels safer and less dirty than when I was kid, but there’s just something about the old school, seedy underbelly of Vegas that calls to me.

    Fremont Street feels like the last remnant of that culture. Where the Strip has celebrity chefs and chandeliers, Fremont Street has dive bars and hole-in-the-wall lounges and burlesque clubs.

    I’m sure within the next decade it’ll be cleaned up entirely, but in the meantime, it’s worth a mention for those who want to truly feel that “what happens in Vegas” mentality in their bones.

    While every city claims to be “a city like no other,” Las Vegas has a pretty solid hold on that label.

     Hopefully, I’ve given you a pretty good idea of what the area has to offer besides kitschy hotels and smoky casinos. It’s a strange place that often gets buried in its own reputation, but at its core, it’s a quirky, artsy, anything-goes town in the gorgeous American Southwest.

    So the next time JFC drops those dirt-cheap flights to LAS in your inbox, you know what to do :-)