5 Days in Nevada, 1 Epic Road Trip
Mr. Nerd and I just (like just people, we're still wiping the airline germs from our hands) got back from an epic five day, its-a-long-weekend-so-why-not trip to Nevada. We'd been craving the desert sun for a while now, so after some nagging on my part, Mr. Nerd caved—much to my utter delight (I was starting to get withdrawal shakes)—and planned our trip
Yes, he planned our trip. This has never happened before. I'm so impressed!
We decided to fly into Las Vegas, one of those places everyone talks about but somehow I'd never seen before, and landed late late late on a Wednesday night to the smell of cigarette smoke and whirling casino machines. (On a side note: they have casino machines IN THE AIRPORT?! What is this?!)
The next five days were filled with a whirlwind of sight-seeing, sun-burning, road-tripping, alien-scouting fun that won't soon be forgotten. But as always, we wanted to pass on the crazy times to YOU, our readers! So if you're looking for an awesome 5 day getaway to the desert and need a little help in your planning, here's a loose itinerary (with some incredible photos) to get your wanderlust buzzing ... straight from the mind of Mr. Nerd.
Yes, I'm still impressed. Can you tell?
5 Day Epic Road Trip through Nevada
Locations: Las Vegas, Rachel, Pioche, Great Basin National Park (BONUS: Zion National Park in Utah)
Highlights: Drinking tons of alcohol (or not), gambling (or not), sight-seeing
Necessities: Good walking shoes, sun screen, and lots of water
Unless you live near Las Vegas already, most flights into this city of sin are in the evening. We arrived from Minnesota around 1 a.m., where we grabbed our bags (carry-ons forever!!!) and took a one-way shuttle to our room at the LINQ. After a tedious wait for our check-in, we rode the elevator 12 stories and collapsed onto our queen-sized bed like the beauty it was.
You, dear reader, have a few options. You can be lame like us and go to bed early OR you can embrace this crazy place that never sleeps. Throngs of people storm the sidewalks as if it were noon, clutching bottles of alcoholic slush the length of their arms and singing at the top of their lungs. It's a scene straight out of Hangover. Starring you, traveler extraordinaire.
Otherwise, if you live nearby, we suggest driving into Las Vegas early in the morning for a full day of Vegas fun or approaching in the evening after 6 p.m. Any other time, and traffic might be an issue for you.
Also, just FYI, be cautious on the roads. Drivers in Las Vegas be crazy—at least to a deathly pale Minnesotan like me.
Day #1 is technically your full first day in Las Vegas, so let's continue with the fun.
When morning hit, we were greeted with a beautiful view of Vegas and the High Roller (a London Eye-esque ferris wheel with moderately decent prices). From there, we did what normal people do and sought out breakfast at the first place we could find, namely the Hash House a Go Go. If you've never witnessed a pancake the size of a silver platter... This is where to find it.
This or any other breakfast buffet (we assume) can kickstart your day of debauchery with a few strong drinks, so of course we started early. Hash House has some delicious cold brews spiked with Irish cream. *hint hint*
After breakfast, we sauntered outside and were greeted by grueling 102 degree weather. YIKES.
Whatever you do, pack sunscreen. Lots and lots of sunscreen.
So. Let's talk hotels. In our personal opinion, the hotels we visited in Las Vegas all ended up feeling the same after the initial "oohs" and "aahs" wore off. They do have a weird sort of charm mixed with the smell of smoke and grease, though, so here are the ones we recommend.
If you want to be transported to Venice for some shopping but can't afford the plane ticket, the Venetian is the next best option. Step inside, and you'll find yourself in a magical world with cloudy blue skies, shops that look like they were pulled straight from a Candyland board game, mimes dressed as white statues, fresh gelato, and best of all—gondola rides down a live canal.
We wanted to try the gondola but were sadly on a budget, even in Vegas! Still, if you're so inclined, a shared gondola is $29 (for four people) and a private gondola is $116 (for two people). Personally, we had a great time watching people glide by and hearing the gondolier sing in Italian. For free!
The shops are interesting enough. They're brand name and expensive but continue the "immersive" feel of Venice. So even if you don't spend any money, you can waste hours here, which is frankly a great way to beat the heat. Plus, did we mention they have gelato? <3
The Mirage is a slice of tropical paradise. Palm trees and an exploding water volcano (at 7 and 8 PM, 9 PM too on weekends) greet you out front. There's an incredible pool out back that we drooled over (you can only enter if you're a guest at the Mirage, but we were able to see it from a distance). And when you walk inside, you can't miss the tall glass atrium that surrounds you with live rainforest flora. Insta love!
Past the atrium, we found an open bar, a couple steak houses, and tons of slot machines. The vibe is classy. The registration desk has a huge aquarium behind it with hundreds of fish, and we spotted filming consent signs posted in the halls (a movie, we think? We never figured out what they were working on), which made our visit even more exciting. There's also a secret garden with tigers, lions, and dolphins here, which we declined to visit for humane reasons.
Despite these highlights, the shopping is average, with nothing crazy to differentiate it from a regular mall. If you are in Vegas to shop, they do have some great selections. We're just not the shopping type—and moved on after twenty minutes of enjoying the AC.
Despite being one of the most popular hotels on the Vegas Strip and home to the Cirque Du Soleil show O, the real highlight of the Bellagio is the Art of Richard MacDonald gallery just past the main ticket counter. We stumbled across it by accident as we wandered through shops and sparkling casino machines—and it quickly became our favorite Vegas experience.
The gallery is free, containing dozens of bronze sculptures of Cirque Du Soleil performers in various poses and expressions. We could see the small details MacDonald lovingly put into figures of all sizes, from four feet to ten (or more), and were awed by the movement captured in metal.
TIP: The gallery curators are extremely friendly and have deep knowledge of every sculpture. Don't be afraid to approach them for information about what you see!
If you like art or just want to see something unique, we highly recommend stopping here. Just two other people were in the gallery with us when we visited; once they left, we were alone. So if you visit during daytime hours, chances are you'll have MacDonald's art to yourself. A rare find indeed in a crowded place like Las Vegas.
After visiting these hotels (make sure you do the Bellagio last), head outside to the Strip. You should be able to see a few things here: Paris Las Vegas, which sports the mini-Eiffel Tower everyone raves about, and the Fountains of Bellagio.
We didn't stick around for the water show at the fountains, but if you walk around to the street, there's several great places to relax in the shade and look out over the "lake" at the shops (which include Le Cirque and Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant and Lounge if you're hungry) and a commanding view of the Bellagio itself.
We were pretty overheated by this point, so by 3 p.m. we headed back to the LINQ for some drinks and relaxation at the hotel pool. You could do the same to end your day, go out to eat at a fancy restaurant (we opted for the ever-faithful deliciousness of an In-N-Out burger and fries), catch a show—there were many incredible deals for entertainment while we were there—or purchase a drink and ride package at the High Roller.
But we're pretty lame, so after the pool, we retired with a movie and went to sleep to prepare for the start of our awesome four day road trip.
Highlights: Picking up the car rental, driving to Rachel, visiting Little A'Le'Inn & Area 51
Necessities: Camping gear (tent and sleeping bags), good camera
We woke up on day two, packed up our belongings, and checked out of our hotel around 10:30 a.m.. Our car rental wouldn't be available until noon, so we opted to walk to the Bellagio for a light breakfast at Palio, a French cafe. I've heard the buffets at Vegas hotels are pretty good, too, so that might suit you better. Whatever whets your appetite!
You can rent cars from a lot of places in Vegas. We booked ours for under $300 from Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Flamingo Las Vegas, which we were able to walk to in 15 minutes. From the Flamingo (in our shiny 2017 SUV, woot!), we headed north on US-93 and soon left the pizzaz of Las Vegas far behind us.
TIP: If you haven't already, stop by a grocery store and pick up enough water (jugs and bottles) for your trip, as well as some sunscreen and snacks. It's cheaper to do it now than to find it in small towns.
The journey to Rachel is a little over 2 hours from Vegas, first on US-93 and then on Extraterrestrial Highway. It's an incredible drive. Be sure to have your camera ready, because you'll more than likely want to stop whenever possible to take stunning shots of the Nevada landscape.
You'll know you're close to Rachel when you start to see alien paraphernalia outside your window: ET Fresh Jerky on the corner of US-93 and Extraterrestrial Highway, the Alien Research Center right after that, and the famous Extraterrestrial Highway sign which we very sadly did not stop to get a picture of (but you should)!
Another 20 miles and you'll reach Rachel, a tiny town of around 60 people. The only point of interest here, besides the stunning countryside, is Little A'Le'Inn, a hotel/restaurant/alien-enthusiasts-paradise that offers food, alien-themed cocktails, and oh-so-coveted maps to Area 51. Rooms (basically alien-themed trailers with shared bathrooms) are really cheap; you can often find them same day for under $50. They also have free camping right outside. We opted to camp in our tent on Bureau Land Management (BLM) property, which is public ... which means you can pretty much camp anywhere. At least, as long as it's legal. If you see PRIVATE LAND signs, stay off.
Dinner and a drink at Little A'Le'Inn will cost you around $14 per person, but the information the staff can give you is absolutely worth a hamburger and sip or two of "Beam Me Up, Scotty." Make sure you sit at the bar! Hundreds of dollar bills hang from the ceiling, all with funny messages written on them from travelers around the world, and the knick-knacks littering the wall will definitely make you laugh.
Outside, a UFO dangles from the back of a tow truck, and you can visit the famous time capsule from the 1996 movie Independence Day.
This is your final stop for day two, so plan to stay at Little A'Le'Inn or camp wherever you decide. If you want to stay in their trailers, we recommend making a reservation in advance just in case they're booked the day you arrive. Or you can wing it if you're feeling lucky.
While it's still daylight, get back in the car and head east, then take a right on the first dirt road you see. If you purchased a 35 cent map from Little A'Le'Inn, follow that. But otherwise, the road is hard to miss. Then, once you're on it, drive a good 5-7 minutes toward the mountains until you hit pavement. Another two minutes and ... you're at the back gate of Area 51!
We were so nervous before we visited Area 51. I wasn't sure if we should, despite Mr. Nerd's enthusiasm, and worried that we'd get arrested. But the waitress at the restaurant reassured us that we'd be fine as long as we didn't dick around or sneak past the gate. The land before the gate is public property. If we stayed at least five feet from the signs, we wouldn't be in any legal trouble.
Are you as jittery as I was? Never fear—Mr. Nerd and I saw the entrance to Area 51 with our own eyes and survived. If we can do it, you can too! And seriously, it's an exhilarating experience when you're not glancing anxiously down the road for signs of snipers or government troops.
In fact, we enjoyed our experience by Area 51 so much (after Mrs. Nerd got over the nauseating paranoia that spies were watching us) that we decided to set up camp for the night right off the back road, just a mile away from the gate. We mainly did this because we wanted a quiet place to sleep (the Little A'Le'Inn campground was right next to the highway). And we weren't wrong. Our makeshift campsite was utterly noiseless. We heard the sound of pure ... nothing. No cars, no white noise, no animals, no wind.
At least, until we were interrupted by the airplane-like noise of a white security truck SCREAMING down the road on a perimeter check. They didn't bother us, but the hellish roar of the engine and dust plume that lingered in the air each time they drove by was enough to make us bleary eyed at our 6 a.m. wakeup call (aka the sunrise). So if you're adventurous enough to camp near Area 51 and have an off-road SUV, drive a bit more inland than we did. Your ears and body will thank you.
Just in case we've just convinced you not to follow in our footsteps, a positive of camping where we did is that you'll see the beauty of an unadulterated sunset ... and get an amazing eyefull of the Milky Way. Just make sure to set your alarm for 2 a.m. so you wake up to see it.
And yes, we know what you're thinking. Did we see aliens as we were taking photos? Well... We're sworn to secrecy.
Highlights: Stopping in Pioche (Nevada's ghost town) for breakfast, more scenic driving, visiting Great Basin National Park
Necessities: Snacks for the drive and an ability to roll-with-the-punches
Get ready for an early morning on day three, as you'll want to be in the car and backtracking to US-93 by 6:30 a.m. Unless you're taking this trip alone (solo travelers unite!), we suggest the person who got the most sleep drive. 6:30 a.m. can be brutal when you're camping unless you have something to put under your neck all night, like a pillow or scrunched up sweater. And if you're about to look at me like, "Anna, why would you want a sweater in the DESERT where it's 106 degrees?!" just trust me. It gets cold at night. You'll want one.
Your end game for day #3 is Great Basin National Park, right outside of Baker, Nevada. It's a good 3 1/2 hour drive, hence getting up at the crack of dawn. What's the rush, you ask? Well, the campgrounds at Great Basin National Park are nothing short of amazing, and thus, they're first come, first serve. Make it there by noon, or they'll likely be full (but if that's the case, don't panic. You have options).
About halfway into your morning drive, you'll reach the quaint "silver mining boomtown" of Pioche. This is an excellent place to a) fill up on gas if you need it (which you probably will) and b) fill up on human fuel. By this, we mean—they have damn good eats here.
We stumbled on Historic Silver Cafe pretty much by accident. It's your typical mom 'n pop diner; when you walk in, there's a few seats at the counter, and the rest are tables occupied by people that look like they've lived in Pioche forever. They cook up standard American fare, breakfast burritos, eggs and toast, omelets, and their coffee is nice and strong. You can't go wrong here.
If, after eating, you have some time to waste, Pioche is very much the classic "wild wild west" town portrayed in children's stories. Most of the buildings are from the 1800s, which leaves room for a LOT of character and a LOT of lingering history. For example, if you look closely as you drive through, you'll catch a glimpse of the Pioche Aerial Tramway (easily mistaken as a ski lift), a shuttle that once carried silver ore down the mountain. You can also find cute western paraphernalia like these wagon wheels.
Sure does bring back memories of playing Oregon Trail, am I right?
Once you're on the road again, you'll stay there until you reach Baker, Nevada. Baker is really easy to find; just look for the towering mountain range to your right and signs for Great Basin National Park campgrounds. If you're so inclined, you can take a moment to stop by the Visitor Center for a map of the park and a beautiful view of all the mountain peaks above.
But the volunteers here can't tell you for certain whether or not the campgrounds are full, unfortunately, so we suggest skipping the Center and heading up the mountain right away. (There are maps available by the payment box at each campground if you're worried about not grabbing one from the Center.)
Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park has seven available drive-in campgrounds to choose from. Lower Lehman Creek, Upper Lehman Creek, and Wheeler Peak Campgrounds are the easiest ones to reach; they're all on the same road heading up the mountain. Expect a 20 minute drive to the top, where Wheeler Peak Campground is located. On the flip side, Baker Creek and Grey Cliffs Campgrounds are closer to Lehman Caves and require less driving, but they often fill up first.
Snake Creek and Strawberry Creek Campgrounds are free (with no water access), good avenues to explore if the main campgrounds are full for the night. However, as of the writing of this post (July 2017), Strawberry Creek is closed due to wildfire damage. If you head over there, be warned ... it's entirely eerie driving through the blackened husks of once powerful trees. We had no idea it was closed until we drove right into a cemetery. Chills.
To avoid taking up too much space in this post with campground rambling, you can learn more about Great Basin National Park campgrounds here and decide which one is best for you. They're all pretty cool.
Minus the dead trees. Because ... dead trees, man.
If you can secure a spot up on the mountain, plan on paying $12 a night for the next two nights. The price is worth the stunning views, intense night skies, and hiking trails. As a bonus, any firewood you can scrounge up around you is free to use (within reason, of course)—otherwise, you can purchase firewood in Baker for $5 a bundle.
IF YOU CAN'T FIND A SPOT FOR THE NIGHT...
Check-out at Great Basin National Park is 11 a.m. If you're running a little late and the campgrounds are full, there's no need to panic.
Sacramento Pass: If you backtrack toward Ely, Nevada about 10 miles, you'll find a campsite on the left called Sacramento Pass. This area is FREE (woo-hoo) and first come, first serve, with bathrooms, shelters, picnic tables, fire pits, a small lake, and a connected hiking trail that takes about 2 hours to complete. It's drive in and has ample space for an RV or tent. Just be warned, the ground is pretty hard. Staking your tent may be difficult. We ended up staying here night #3 as GBNP campgrounds were full.
Whispering Elms Campground: This is a pretty rugged site behind a motel and bar right outside of Baker. According to their website, tent camping and showers are available for $17 a night. RV hookups are also available for $25-30 a day. If you're running out of options, this may be a good one. You could also stay at the motel ($67 a night) if you're craving a real bed.
Bureau Land Management: BLM land is available for public use. If you're completely out of options and don't mind some rugged sleeping, we were told it's legal (and FREE!) to camp anywhere we can find—unless, of course, it's marked as private. So you can pretty much pull over wherever you feel safe and camp on the side of the road.
After you find a place to camp, head to Kerouac's Restaurant in Baker for dinner and a drink. It's a tiny establishment with organic food, the best coffee we drank the entire trip, and some strong cocktails. We really enjoyed the breakfast and dinner we ate here. Also, are you sweaty and dirty from camping so far? Don't worry, you're in good company. I think most diners at Kerouac's arrived directly after a 4-6 hour hike. No one cares what you look like. They're all focused on the amazing cooking.
Highlights: Good ol' homestyle camping, hiking in Great Basin National Park, (optionally) a tour of Lehman Caves, (optionally) stargazing
Necessities: Hiking shoes, light-weight hiking clothes, snacks, a good sense of stamina
If you had to camp or sleep somewhere other than Great Basin National Park yesterday, today is a good day to get up early, pack your things, and head back up the mountain to snag a spot. This is what we did. We stopped by Kerouac's for a nice breakfast, then hit the campgrounds around 9:30 a.m. Luck must have been with us—we found a spot at Wheeler Peak Campground immediately. Hurrah!
If you're already in Great Basin National Park, perfect. We won't tell you how to spend your time camping, but morning is a beautiful time to start a fire, make a strong cup of joe, eat oatmeal out of a prepackaged bag... Just breathe in that fresh mountain air.
Since you'll be in the park all day today, you can choose to do a couple fun things here.
Hike to Wheeler Peak
We'll be writing a post about how to day hike Wheeler Peak, but it's a decent 4-6 hour trek (depending on your pace) with a LOT to see. I think we took 5 hours to hike it due to the many times we stopped for a photo op. Summer is the best season for this, to see deer, mountain flowers, leafy trees, but we've heard winter is incredibly quiet and serene. (Lower Lehman Campground is open during the winter months.)
Keep an eye out for our how-to hiking guide (coming soon), but until then, here are some photos from our adventure up the mountain.
ETA: Here's the post! Hiking to Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park
Take a Tour of Lehman Caves
We didn't end up doing this, but if hiking isn't your thing or you want to do both, we heard from many of our fellow campers that the Lehman Caves tour is completely worthwhile. Tours are very affordable—anywhere between $8 and $10 for adults and $4 and $5 for kids—with three to choose from. One is wheelchair accessible.
You can expect to spend 30-90 minutes down in the caves, where you'll visit several different parts of the caves. Fun, right? Can you think of a better way to beat the desert heat? :) Just remember to follow their rules carefully and book in advance!
Gaze into the Heart of the Milky Way
If you're not exhausted by the time night rolls around, set an alarm for 2 a.m. so you don't miss the night sky. Great Basin National Park is known for being one of the best places to see the Milky Way. Light pollution is little to none, which is why the park was designated International Dark Sky Park last year. They even offer summer Full Moon hikes with a ranger! So that's pretty cool (I really wish we would've known about this in hindsight).
Just make sure to bring the right camera equipment. This is very important. You're definitely not getting good photos of the stars with an iPhone.
Booooo. The arrival of day #5 means our epic road trip is coming to an end. But before you feel sad, we have a surprise twist. You can choose to backtrack to Las Vegas for a late flight home OR you can drive back through Utah along incredible stretches of empty road and stop by Zion National Park.
Which did you decide? Zion National Park? I knew I liked you for a reason. :)
Your path back to Las Vegas will take 6 hours and lies just beyond Baker. Here's a helpful Google maps to orient yourself with.
TIP: When you cross over into Utah, you'll move into Mountain Daylight Time. Add an hour to your clock.
The drive through Utah is worth paying attention to, so try not to drive on auto pilot! You'll pass through craggy mountain ranges, speed along endless stretches of roads without passing a single car, and see cows. Lots and lots of cows.
When you reach Zion National Park, you can either drive in and park in the official parking lots OR you can park in Springdale and take the free shuttle to the park entrance. It's $15 a person or $30 a car to get inside, but once you have the pass, you're good for 7 days (so if you wanted to extend your trip, now would be the time)!
We had three hours to spare before we had to get going again. So we did what we always do; we went hiking! There are several short trails close to the entrance (here's a list if you want to plan in advance). The one we took, Pa'rus Trail at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, was 3.5 miles roundtrip and took us 2 hours to complete.
We'll be sure to write a post for this hike too. Keep an eye out!
There are some cool gift shops and restaurants at Zion National Park if you're interested, but we found them mainly overpriced. Still, spend as long as you want at this amazing national park before hitting the road again. Just make sure you stick to your schedule. You still have a few hours left to drive before reaching Las Vegas.
Unless you drove here from a different state—in which case, you have all the time in the world.
Safe journey home!