There’s More Than Glitter to Las Vegas
Story and Photos by Gerald Burke
We go there to hear the tinkle of coins in a slot machine or to see the big-name shows. But there’s more to the Las Vegas area than the glitter of the casinos. The Colorado River with all its scenic canyons, lakes, backwaters, and recreation possibilities runs north and south from Las Vegas, and the big Lake Mead National Recreation Area is there too, stretching from Overton on the north to Laughlin on the south, with lots of things to do.
In an area twice the size of the state of Rhode Island, the Lake Mead National Recreation Area is a surprising contrast of desert, flowing water, back country, mountains and canyons. With six developed campgrounds spotted around the lake, it’s not hard to find a camping spot that fits your requirements or to find other accommodations with the many suitable and affordable hotels and motels everywhere you look.
Lake Mead and the Colorado River provide boating, rafting, fishing, swimming, and picnicking, and the surrounding area has loads of scenery, places to hike where you can see sights you’ll never see by car or boat. But if boating is your thing, this 290 square mile lake has enough surface that, at times, you may have to look hard to even spot other boaters.
Water skiing and sail boarding add to the fun in some of the wide basins. There are six marinas on the lake, offering a full list of services for boaters with free launch ramps and parking areas. Concession-operated boat tours are available and there are special water sport events scheduled each year.
For fishermen, Lake Mead offers fishing year around, and catches of large-mouth bass, trout, striped bass, catfish, bluegill and crappie are made regularly, including some record sizes.
The campgrounds of the recreation area are located all along the western side of the lake. Boulder Beach may be the most popular, and it and Echo Bay are the two largest, drawing many campers; Temple Bar and Overton Beach are the farthest away from the action in the city.
We camped at another last time, Las Vegas Bay, about the closest one to the city, but still one that doesn’t seem to get as much action as some. We’ve camped at the others from time to time, but this one is still is high on our list of favorite places. Unfortunately we were there in mid-summer, not the best time to be anywhere in the Las Vegas area except in an air-conditioned casino, and the temperature was over 100 during the day and dropped to 90 around midnight. But it’s different, and while we saw some tent campers, most were in RVs and their air conditioning made it livable.
The best time to visit is fall, winter and spring. Temperatures get down to the low 70s in the fall and spring, can even get lower in the winter, and nights are often cool. But spring brings astonishing sights of wildflowers in the desert, fall has moderate enough temperatures to make hiking attractive, and there are good short hikes as well as longer ones. You can head for the Redstone Picnic area along Northshore Road and see colorful sandstone formations. There are others that can take you to see petroglyphs on canyon walls, and park naturalists lead hikes on weekends.
If hiking isn’t to your liking, there are scenic drives on paved roads that lead through stark mountains and vertical walled canyons, especially along Lakeshore and Northshore Drive. There you can see panoramic and sweeping views of the lake against a backdrop of the colorful desert mountains as well as areas of red boulders and other exotic rock formations.
Or if you’re camping, you can just sit in your campsite and watch the desert wildlife and your neighbors. Most campers find this a good way to end the day or start it in the early morning, when the sunlight at a low angle enhances the view, and also makes for good photos. Las Vegas Bay, where we camped was a perfect place to sit outside and have dinner, socialize with our neighbors, and watch the wildlife start to forage here and there as dusk approached in the evening.
Las Vegas Bay has 89 paved campsites, many with shade, most back-in, with tables, and good clean restrooms, water available, no showers, a camp host on duty, and a dump station for RVs. The other five campgrounds all have amenities pretty much the same as Las Vegas Bay, and some have groceries available and limited RV supplies, most have dump stations, and all are fairly close to the lake and the boating facilities.
If you opt for Las Vegas Bay campground, and come in from the south, you can cut off onto Highway 140 off I-15, go through Henderson and take Highway 147, Lake Mead Drive, to get to Las Vegas Bay and miss the traffic in the city of Las Vegas. From this campground you can go either north or south along good paved roads that take you south to Boulder Beach, the Lakeview Overlook, and on to Hoover Dam, well worth seeing if you haven’t been there before. Going north you can follow Northshore Scenic Drive to access Callville Bay, Echo Bay and Overton Beach, and there are several picnic sites along the way.
The Alan Bible Visitor Center is just south of Boulder Beach and it’s a good idea to stop there and get up to date information on all the facilities and things to do and see. You can get a brochure that details all the campgrounds, picnic areas and scenic roads and trails. You can view a movie, see some exhibits and you can also get nautical charts. There are other ranger stations at each campground.
IF YOU GO
Hotels, motels and other upscale living, as well as information on shows, tours, dinner reservations and more can be obtained on the internet by accessing www.VEGAS.com and the site also provides an up-to-date calendar of local events.
The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce has a website at www.lvchamber.com, that provides more information, and especially useful is the Visitor Guide on the site. The Lake Mead National Recreation Area, part of the National Park Service, has a website at www.nps.gov/lame/ and that site provides you with information on activities available, campgrounds, things for kids to do and see, nature and science as well as a history of the area, and you can click on “Plan Your Visit” for more information, maps and details on short trips in the area.