WORK IT OFF › Back home the leaves are gone, the days are getting cool and the nights are downright cold. Call it invigorating if you like, but there’s no hiding from the truth: Winter is coming. Soon, in many parts of the country, time spent outside will be measured in minutes or, worse, shovelfuls of snow. Days will be an unremarkable progression of gray skies and dirty slush. You’ll wear bulky clothing and ugly footwear and still be cold. You’ll have hat hair. These are the things Thanksgiving portends, and they are not pretty. I’ve lived in Minnesota. I know.
But in Las Vegas, Thanksgiving is not to be feared. In fact, it is welcomed; summer in the desert brings the real terror. Winter is a sunny respite from burning your hands on the steering wheel every time you get in the car.
The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve are among the slowest times of the year for tourism in Las Vegas, which makes winter the best time to visit. You’ll have thinner crowds on The Strip and fewer tourists soaking up the outdoor wonders that surround the city like a warm blanket. But you may have to fight locals for a space on the trails; we’ve endured our “100 days of 100 degrees” to get to this spot on the calendar, and we will not be denied.
Hiking is especially rewarding this time of year, and Las Vegas is one of the most diverse spots in the country to lace up your boots. You’ll find an 11,000-foot peak and the lowest spot in North America — Badwater Basin in Death Valley — within a couple hours’ drive. Stick to the lower elevations, though, because it will be getting cold up high by late November. (Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort in Lee Canyon on Mount Charleston aims to be open by Thanksgiving weekend; it opened its 2011 season in mid-November thanks to an early snowstorm.)
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, about 20 miles west of The Strip, has everything from casual nature walks to strenuous, daylong, off-trail adventures. It’s a stunning park, with tricolored sandstone mountains that look like fantastic creations from the mind of Dr. Seuss. The scenery is reason enough to visit, even if you just cruise around the 13-mile scenic loop and never leave your car.
Valley of Fire State Park, 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas, is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park and another first-rate hiking option. The name derives from the fire-red sandstone formations that rise from the brown desert like flickering flames. Go in the summer when the temperatures can hit 120 degrees, and you’ll be convinced the name refers to the fact that the park feels as if it were on fire. But during the fall, when sunny days are guaranteed and highs rarely get out of the 80s, the park’s nooks and crannies are inviting.
While you’re out there, stop by Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which borders Valley of Fire and is home to the Hoover Dam. There’s a lot of good hiking to do around the perimeter of the largest reservoir in the United States. The path to Arizona Hot Springs, for example, winds through dramatic slot canyons and ends at the Colorado River a few miles downstream of the Hoover Dam.
Speaking of the Colorado River, the best way for a Thanksgiving weekend warrior to experience its power and majesty is via a guided kayak tour. That’s because you can’t access the river directly below the Hoover Dam without a permit, and you can’t get a permit unless you’re with an outfitter. Boulder City River Riders offers an eight-hour tour that starts with coffee and pastries when the guide picks you up at your hotel. Then the experts put you on the river almost right underneath the soaring new Hoover Dam bypass bridge and lead you downriver, exploring caves, slot canyons, hot springs and waterfalls along the way. Bonus: They serve a succulent turkey sandwich for lunch along the way.