Taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming to share some photos from our Las Vegas vacation this summer.  All photos are by me (Jen) except Lehman Caves.

Climbing around Red Rocks NP

Climbing around Red Rocks NP

If you are in Las Vegas, you owe yourself a trip to Red Rocks.  Got to be one of my top ten favorite places in the nation, and it is easily accessible from most anywhere in the valley thanks to the Summerlin Parkway and Highway 215.    I like to just get myself a Red Rocks pass (if you have a National Parks pass, you can use that), so that I can drop in on the park anytime, on the way to or from errands and what have you.

This is an excellent winter hiking destination, but we managed to enjoy the outdoors even in July & August.  You can see above, the rock wall along the north-eastern edge of the park is still in the shade in the early mornings — this was probably taken about 9 AM.  We scrambled down the short trail (part of Calico Hills), and then played in the shade for an hour or so.

Due to potentially wet weather (I know, I know!  But I don’t do flash floods), we had to turn around early on our hike up Icebox Canyon.  But that’s another great summer hike.

The key to summer hiking in Las Vegas is to get up early early (the sun will be up, you are on the far eastern edge of the time zone).  Coming from the East Coast, that wasn’t too hard for us.  The other trick we used when hiking in non-shaded areas was to carry a lightweight umbrella.  Instant shade anytime you want to stop for a drink or a rest break.  Very handy when desert-hiking with preschoolers.

I’m sure there are other places, but we were able to get some nice area and regional maps from REI in Summerlin, not ten minutes from the park.   (Get directions, and the REI is sort of hidden in it’s shopping center, so don’t expect to see the store from the road.)

The View from Robbers Roost, Mt. Charleston, Nevada

The View from Robber's Roost, Mt. Charleston, Nevada

For cooler weather, Mt. Charleston is just an hour outside the city.   By an ‘hour’ I mean that I leave my sister’s house in the suburbs, and an hour later I’m at the trailhead.   Much of that drive is on the mountain itself, winding through spectacular desert canyons.

This photo above is from the Robber’s Roost hike, which is short and offers a nice view and picnic spot at the top.  I think my three-year-old wanted a little help on the way up, but did the whole descent herself with no trouble.   It is an up-one-way, down-the-other hike.  You need to be able to manage rocky terrain for this one.

We also hiked the Mary Jane Falls trail another day, and were caught in a hailstorm!  Pack for inclement weather — Evelyn was thanking me profusely for putting a raincoat in her pack.  (MJ is longer,  up-and-back, and again you need to be in decent hiking shape to pull it off.  Also note the altitude for both hikes — about 8,000 feet or so.)

One last plug for the Mt. Charleston area:  In the winter, we leave balmy Las Vegas, ride up the mountain to play in several feet of snow (great sledding!), and then come back down to sit out and watch soccer practice in 70-degree weather again.  Just a fabulous place to know about, because you can get your fix of cool weather in the summer when you’ve reached your limit on LV heat, and in the winter, snow for those of us who don’t normally get to see much of the stuff.

Upper Lehmnan Campground, Great Basin National Park

Upper Lehmnan Campground, Great Basin National Park

We went to Great Basin National Park for the first time this trip.  It’s about a five-hour drive north of Las Vegas, and scenic the whole way.  I’d love to go back and make the drive over two or three days, as there are some historic towns, a wildlife refuge, and a state park along the way that all look promising.  We did stop at Baker Archeological Site on the way home (just outside the park), and that was really neat for we who are hopeless history fanatics, though I think my nephew was scratching his head a little.

Up on the mountain, days were pleasant – 70’s and 80’s — and nights were cool.  After two weeks in the desert of Las Vegas, barbequeing in the evenings when it got ‘down to’ 110 degrees, we definitely needed decent sleeping bags or blankets and a nice warm sweater in the evenings.  I’d guess lows were in the 50’s at night for us, and we were at the middle of the three camping areas elevation-wise.

In the campground animals were around (saw some deer, and a mouse, among others), but not nearly the concerns you have at other national parks.  We confidently slept under the stars several nights so that we could wake up in the middle of the night to see the Milky Way after moonset, without having to get out of bed.  Spectacular.  They aren’t kidding about the stargazing at Great Basin.

Just a lovely campground, too.  Pit toilets but well maintained, and decent options for handicap accessibility.   On that point, the park is not a paradise of accessible features, but there are a number of nicely-done options for wheelchair access, including a nature trail that I didn’t go on but looked really nice from the trailhead.

Inside Lehman Caves - Photo by Evelyn Fitz

Inside Lehman Caves - Photo by Evelyn Fitz

The main room of Lehman Caves is wheelchair accessible with assistance (long steep grade); the rest of the caves are fine for anyone who can handle a certain amount of stairs, bending, and standing around.  I took the 60-minute tour with my five-year-old, and we had a fabulous time.  Our ranger was a former kindergarten teacher, who knew how to make a cave tour fun, interesting, and not at all spooky.

Our 6-and-ups took the 90-minute-tour, led by a ranger who told lots of troll stories.  Not for those who get scared of the dark!  I forgot the camera on my tour, but Evelyn took some nice photos on the longer tour.

Highly recommended.  I didn’t think I would really be that interested in the cave tour, but it was very cool and just beautiful.  [Literally cool, too — wear long clothes.   We wore long pants, sweaters and a fuzzy hat and were just right.]

Lake Stella, Great Basin National Park

Lake Stella, Great Basin National Park

The most spectacular hike of our vacation was the lake loop at Great Basin.  This is up at about 10,000 feet, so you’ve got to give yourself time to get used to the altitude before you try this.  We had come from the East Coast, spent two weeks in LV (about 4,000 feet), done two hikes at Mt. Charleston (approx 8,000-9,000 feet) and spent a couple days camping and pottering around Great Basin NP at the ‘lower’ elevations (7,000 feet, give or take), before we tried this hike.  On that plan, we were just fine.

The lake loop is a few miles and not a huge elevation gain, but you do all your uphill in one long stretch at the beginning.  My five-year-old needed a sturdy pep talk through that section.  We passed through stunning hillside alpine meadows (think “Sound of Music”), in addition to the expected high-desert offering of rock-garden and twisted-pine alleys.   Unbeleivable approach to the second lake — from the trail above you descend on a mountain stream so planted with green grass and giant blooming flowers that you’d think it was somebody’s formal garden.  Just beautiful beautiful.

Trail was well-maintained, but you need to be in modest hiking shape.  My five-year-old did the whole loop, my three-year-old needed to be carried the last mile or so.    The weak-kneed made good use of hiking poles, though I wouldn’t say the trail was overly-rugged.   Very well-traveled.

–> If your group is mixed-abilities, the very accessible nature loop starts from the same trailhead.  So you could divide up as appropriate, and just plan for the short-loop hikers to relax and enjoy the scenery while waiting for the others.  Picnic potential in these parts is off the meter.

BTW, yes that white stuff is snow.   And yes, some very brave girls (I think there must have been a bet involved) went swimming in that lake.