Beyond the Strip: Where Vegas luxury meets the Wild West

Denise Westerfield / Wikimedia The majestic Red Rock National Conservation Area is a must-see for visitors to Summerlin.

Photo: Denise Westerfield / Wikimedia
The majestic Red Rock National Conservation Area is a must-see for visitors to Summerlin.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Summerlin is a relatively new neighborhood beyond the Vegas strip and one of the fastest growing planned communities in the U.S. It is embraced by the Spring Mountains and Red Rocks. My aunt and uncle moved there about a year and a half ago and its desert terrain was a very pleasant and welcome change from the humid urban port city in which I live. I would recommend it to those who wish to see the other Vegas—the place where locals inhabit. Looking east, the Disney of the Desert is still visible, but far removed in tone and taste.

The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is a must. It lies in the easternmost part of the Mojave Desert. It is comprised of 195,819 acres and contains a plethora of flora, over 600 species. It can boast being one of only seven national conservation areas in the country. It is hard to believe that this arid desert topography was once submerged under water.

The mission of the Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association is “to enhance the recreational, educational, and interpretive programs of the Bureau of Land Management by providing materials and services to the public which promote an understanding, and appreciation of, the natural history, cultural history, and sciences of Southern Nevada and specifically, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.”

As soon we park outside the Visitors Center, the line between the man made and the natural blurs. As my aunt and I set on the path to the entrance, a jack rabbit bounces by.

Upon opening the door of the center one is immediately drawn to a panoramic view of the Red Rocks. This perfectly cropped image is created in a simple, but brilliant manner—a huge horizontal window offering a CinemaScopic view. It draws you in and shrinks you at the same time, a humbling experience as you realize the small part you play in the magnitude of our planet.

Inside the center, there is also an informational film, some small displays, an Artists-in-Residence Artwork Gallery, and a wonderful souvenir shop.

The outside space is wonderfully designed and organized into four sections, depicting natural elements: earth, air, fire, and water. It presents information about the geology, flora, fauna, and humans that inhabited the area. I found the section about the Native Americans who lived and still live here the most fascinating, as I had little knowledge about these peoples. Their adaptation to this challenging environment is ingenious. I especially liked the agave roasting pit that showed how they cooked. There is also a walkway on the other side of the center that allows you to get as close as one can to the cacti without harming them.

If you wish to go into the wild and explore on your own, there are plenty of opportunities, with 19 self-guided trails to follow. For the less agile or less adventurous there is a 13-mile scenic tour one can drive through. Other interesting experiences include a full moon hike, the opportunity to stargaze, and the chance to see fossils and petroglyphs in situ.

To experience the area in a totally different vein, I suggest you head to Bonnie Springs Ranch & Spa, built in 1843 along the Old Spanish Trail on land that was once home to the Paiute Indians. On weekends and holidays a charming old style miniature train takes you to their Old Nevada Town, a recreated, western ghost town built from recycled wood. Being a little bedraggled and dusty just adds to its charm.

Photo: rickpilot_2000 / Flickr The miniature train at Bonnie Springs Ranch will transport you to the old-fashioned ghost town.

Photo: rickpilot_2000 / Flickr
The miniature train at Bonnie Springs Ranch will transport you to the old-fashioned ghost town.

I then headed to the Saloon to see a Melodrama performed. This was the type of theatre that would have been performed in the 1800s when families from miles around would gather to watch.

This was followed by a bank robbery and a hangin’ outside the saloon. The best part of the event was the location, nestled in the Red Rock Canyon nearly touching the craggy mountains.

They also offer stage coach rides and horseback riding, which will certainly add to your cowpoke fantasy. One can go to their small petting zoo and stay overnight in the hotel, which has some Western-themed rooms.

Since you are in Vegas, you may wish to gamble. In that case I recommend the Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa. It has all the thrills of the strip—albeit it is a lot more laid back. The lobby is dominated by red and is a great throw back to the 60s. At the epicenter are four white couches, curved to fit just like human bodes touching. Suspended above is an opulent crystal chandelier a story long.

Almost all the shapes in the casino refer to the natural formations found in the surrounding environment of Red Rock canyon, but most of the materials utilized are manmade, shiny, and slick.

Photo: Downtown Summerlin / Wikimedia Downtown Summerlin provides an authentic Vegas experience away from the strip.

Photo: Downtown Summerlin / Wikimedia
Downtown Summerlin provides an authentic Vegas experience away from the strip.

Of course the bare necessities, such as food, have not been forgotten. A food court aims to please a variety of tastes. And of course there is a buffet. Lucille’s Spoke House is across the way, providing a Memphis vibe with smoked pork, rock, and blues. The Yard House provides craft beers onsite. On the more expensive side is the award winning T-Bone Chop House, the rock star of the dining spots.

By now you will probably need to decompress. I can recommend their spa. My aunt treated me to a hot stone massage, which seemed appropriate in this location. I was melting in tranquility and almost fell asleep. The staff is professional, giving you just the right amount of attention without imposing. There is a whirlpool, sauna, and steam room at your disposal.

As for a Scandinavian connection, I did find a few Viking-named things. The Viking Villas are located along the Viking Road in Summerlin, a very ironic name for a landlocked state. There is also the Valley High School, which has a basketball and football team called the Vikings. At first, I could not uncover the origin or reason for the word Viking being used so extensively.

However, several days later, I found a website called “House of Names,” with the following tidbit: “Summerlin is an ancient Scottish-Viking name for the old Norse word sumarlithi, which means mariner, Viking, summer, wanderer, or sailor.” Puzzle solved?

Whatever the reason, the Viking urge to explore should not be dampened. Instead, one should forge ahead and be open to all manner of experiences, dangers, and adventures that one can discover beyond the Vegas strip.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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