Hit the road and see a different side to the Las Vegas Strip
We take a road trip to the ghost towns and vast desert highways of Death Valley, which provide a welcome, low-octane counterpart to the city’s neon hedonism
Clapping eyes on our lavish hotel rooms, 28 floors high in The Bellagio, it’s obvious that any resistance to Sin City is futile. Our windows look out on to Vegas’s most famous sites: the resort’s 1,000ft dancing fountain, the world’s biggest Ferris wheel, a mini sparkling Eiffel Tower and an Egyptian pyramid with a laser shooting from it (naturally).
We’re not here for Las Vegas decadence – but just for one night, we’ll dip our toes in. It doesn’t get more quintessentially Vegas than sitting in a VIP suite at O by Cirque du Soleil, sipping Champagne and eating chocolate-covered strawberries as acrobats launch themselves on to a stage filled with 1.5 million gallons of water, and a chap lights himself on fire for almost five minutes. We have a fashionably late meal at the Art Deco Mayfair Supper Club, where sequinned dancers perform salacious routines and patrons tuck into bigger-than-their-heads lobster Thermidor and aged tomahawk steaks.
Since our arrival, we’ve barely experienced fresh air. But, from tomorrow, we’re about to get a whole load of it – we’re filling up the car and heading for Nevada’s epic empty roads, grand scenery and geological masterpieces. Buckle up and come along for the ride.
The neon glow of the city soon morphs into still, wide-open spaces as we drive west out of Vegas along Route 160. Just 20 miles from the Strip, imposing mountains soar into view. One of the best places to be introduced to these expansive desert scenes is at Sanders Family Winery, in the shadow of the Spring Mountains to the East, and the colourful Nopah Range to the West. It’s Nevada’s first winery, built in 1988 in Tuscan style. The tasting room looks straight out of Italy, complete with vine-draped grounds, turrets and a bell tower.
“Most people don’t realise that the best wines in the world are from dry climates,” says founder Jack Sanders, as we sip a sweet white wine. “This is an agricultural valley, so we can grow just about any kind of wine.” His success has inspired others in the area to take up the challenge. Pahrump’s Artesian Cellars opened just before the pandemic and sells a popular Chardonnay and Zinfandel (plus watermelon and mango Moscato slushies) in a buzzing, intimate tasting room.
On the road out of the medium-sized town of Pahrump, we spot a classic American institution in full swing – a local Saturday Swap Meet, packed with dozens of stalls, desert crafts and friendly locals. Chad Phillips creates pieces of art and jewellery from reclaimed wood, iron and deer antlers.
A local Saturday Swap Meet feels a million miles from the Strip’s anonymity
Family brand Tesoros de Oaxaca sells hand-embroidered wears from a converted yellow school bus. And, while we peruse Carol Sparacino’s stall of reclaimed goods, she offers us a shot of cinnamon whiskey – “a Swap Meet tradition,” she insists. It’s only 45 minutes out of Vegas, but it feels a million miles from the Strip’s anonymity.
Our next destination is set to truly turn down the tempo of Vegas. Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is the deserted ancestral land of the Nuwuvi peoples. This sleepy, unique wetland is home to rare wildlife, including five endangered species. It’s a silent place to decompress from the city, with boardwalks snaking around protected habitats, and benches to watch for pigmy blue butterflies, black-tailed jackrabbits and gopher snakes. We peer into the waterways and spot a rare, electric-blue pupfish flitting below the surface.
As dusk nears, the sun dips below Pyramid Peak and California’s Sierra Nevada to the west, setting it ablaze in pink light. Miles from the light pollution of Vegas, blackness draws in. The wilds of Nevada are home to the darkest skies in the Lower 48, an astral blanket stretching to infinity above. Our abode for the night is only four miles away and as close as you can get to the California border. Longstreet Inn and Casino, in the Amargosa Valley, is lost in time, scattered with antiques such as a 1960s barber chair, vintage typewriter, stuffed bison head and the original hat owned by gold mining con man Walter Edward Perry Scott.
Retro Jack’s Cafe serves suitably hearty biscuits, gravy, and fried steak to folks like us going on to Death Valley National Park, 25 miles away. Bellies full, we enter the park from the winding southeast along Route 190, stopping at Zabriskie Point’s hilly badlands. “The nearby hike from Golden Canyon up to Manly Beacon is our favourite in the park,” say California walkers Grace and Bill, as we snap photos of the maze of canyons and spectacular sandstone pleated hillsides, formed over thousands of years as a result of flash storms.
Further along the park’s main artery (Route 190) is Badwater Road, home to Badwater Basin – the lowest elevation in North America, sitting at a staggering 282ft below sea level. The ground crunches underfoot as we wander the beguiling 200-square-mile salt pan, which is seemingly devoid of life. The hottest temperature on earth was recorded only 20 miles away at Furnace Creek, clocking in at 57°C – hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement (although park officials have asked tourists to stop attempting it). On our visit (in late January), it’s a warm 23°C as the sun reflects off the wedding-cake-white land.
Next, we go in search of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, which are only two hours from Vegas but could be on another continent – with dramatic heaps of sand rising 100ft like those in the Sahara. A five-minute drive north is a geologist’s dream. Mosaic Canyon has smooth slot canyons, swirling rock formations, irregular shapes, compacted shards and dolomites transformed into marble by heat and pressure. On Route 374, the road snakes through arid mountainscapes before reaching the Death Valley National Park sign and a perfectly straight road sliced into the landscape, with views stretching as far as the eye can see over shrub-dotted desert. Cue Born to Be Wild.
Arriving in the derelict ghost town of Rhyolite in the Mojave Desert, an hour before sunset, temperatures have dropped by almost 20°C. This boom-and-bust town was home to thousands of gold prospectors at the beginning of the 20th century. There were 50 saloons here in its heyday, which was short-lived. All that’s left now are the eerie carcasses of a train depot, a casino and the shell of the Cook Bank – a once-opulent structure with a marble staircase and mahogany details. The Goldwell Open Air Museum gives the setting a new purpose, with sculptures including Ghost Rider – Alber Szukalski’s depiction of a white-sheeted ghoul with a bicycle.
Arriving in the pitch black to the tiny, one-square-mile town of Beatty, we almost hit a wild donkey as it darts into the road. Burros were left here by the original miners and have roamed here ever since. “They love dog biscuits and carrots,” local Patti Butler tells us at Happy Burro Chili & Beer, a rickety wooden saloon serving award-winning chili among historical photos and memorabilia. This teeny town of 1,000 people still has plenty of disseminated gold, but now it’s a base camp for Death Valley visitors. The spaceship-like Atomic Inn pays homage to nearby Area 51 (America’s most famous top-secret military base), with green neon lights and little green men dotted around outside.
Dizzy from sleeping in the arid desert, we wake to ski resort-like scenes, with snow and ice covering the car and freshly capped peaks. We set off on Route 95 before looping around Vegas and turning off into the dazzling El Dorado Mountains. A historic settlement, with a population of just three people, comes into view. The ghost town’s barn is a cavernous shrine to the past – featuring knickknacks and peculiar oddities (old soda tins, an unidentified creature in a glass box, alien costumes and more).
“My parents are hoarders,” says Shauna Scott, daughter of the owners Tony and Bobbie Werly, who run Techatticup mine tours. “They’re trying to keep the past alive. They’ve always been intrigued by old areas and their history.”
Outside are old buses, customised VW campervans and even a life-sized crashed plane. This bird of the sky met its end in Kevin Costner’s 3000 Miles to Graceland, the movie that put this place on the tourist map. Since its 2001 release, everyone from Eminem and Beyoncé to Bear Grylls has filmed here.
The real treasure of El Dorado City is the mines below ground. Three miles of tunnels were hand-carved here by miners, who made their prospectors millions of dollars of gold and silver between 1861 to 1964, until the mines were flooded. We descend into a section of tunnels, dropping 500ft in places, to get a harrowing glimpse into the perilous job of a miner. Men would use candles to light their way in the darkness and many lost their lives hand-detonating explosives and getting crystals in their lungs. El Dorado is “an immersive history experience,” explains Bobbie.
After three days of decompression, we drive back to the madness of the state’s fluorescent epicentre to catch our flights, but not our breath. The flashing lights of the slot machines try to draw us in one last time. The party never stopped, but we’re not sure we’re ready to join it again just yet.
Take off to Las
British Airways resumes direct flights to Las Vegas from London Gatwick from 26 March 2023.
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