Las Vegas Off the Strip Activities

Cathedral Rock at Lake Mead, seen by helicopter. Kurt Jacobson photos.
Cathedral Rock at Lake Mead, seen by helicopter. Kurt Jacobson photos.

Going Blazing Fast or Desert Tortoise Slow

By Kurt JacobsonA woman digs a trench with an excavator at Dig This, in Las Vegas.A female guest digs a trench with an excavator at Dig This, in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is legendary for the diversity of activities both intense and tame. On my latest trip I went searching for the best off-strip attractions and activities and was surprised with what I found. There were plenty of fun and exciting options on the famous Las Vegas Strip, but it was time to look elsewhere for new and different attractions that would appeal to a broad range of readers.

Getting down and dirty

First stop was to check out Dig This, a brilliant business started by Ed Mumm. While living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Ed discovered it was great fun to play with heavy equipment. He cleared scrub oak, dug a foundation and created a pond on his property all the while enjoying running heavy metal dirt moving monsters. Ed got the idea to share this big toy play time with the world and eventually opened Dig This in the middle of Las Vegas in May 2011. Since then, thousands have come to dig it up on their five acre lot with a bull dozer, excavator, or smaller equipment like a skid steer and mini excavator.

Guests get ten to fifteen minutes of training in the office then go to the dirt playground where an instructor follows you on foot and communicates by headset. The whole time Kurt in a Dig This excavator!Kurt in a Dig This excavator!

you are in the cab of these air conditioned dirt moving monsters, your instructor is issuing easy-to-follow tips on how to proceed.

With the excavator, guests dig a hole, unstack and re-stack huge tires, and play with a basketball. In the cab of a bulldozer, you can take out your aggressions by plowing up large swaths of dirt and calmly smoothing it back over as if you’re burying your troubles away.

Got a “pain in the ass” boss? Imagine digging a hole and burying him in it if it gives you a moment of happiness. Just don’t actually do it when you get home.

Not just for guys

One of my biggest surprises from my Dig This visit was when I asked the operations manager Walt Logan who their typical clients are. He told me, “You might think this is just for guys but almost half of our guests are women.”

Walt also said corporations are a big part of their clientele and come for team building exercises. He said that “I. T. workers are our #1 customer base worldwide.”

I guess if you work in front of a computer for hours on end, playing in the dirt with a dinosaur sized hunk of dirt-moving metal appeals greatly. Another surprise was when Janice in the front office said:

“We are the #1 attraction on tripadvisor.com.” They have slid to #4 since my visit but it’s still very high ranking. Their guests come in all sizes and nationalities too. “The youngest so far was eight years old and the oldest was ninety.”

High above VegasNext up on my off-strip activities was to investigate Lee Canyon Ski area. Visitors coming to Vegas see the towering mountains to the west of the city, but who goes there? I had to ski it to find out. The drive to Lee Canyon takes about an hour from the center of Vegas and the route passes Jurassic age and older mountains in the Mars-like landscape until turning off highway 95 towards The terrain park at Lee Canyon ski area, near Las Vegas Nevada.The terrain park at Lee Canyon ski area, near Las Vegas NevadaLee Peak. The desert and cactus give way to juniper then ponderosa pines as you arrive at this sub-alpine destination.

While queuing up to get my ski rental equipment, I struck up a conversation with six Brazilians in line with me. This was their first adventure into snow sports and they all were excited to play in the chilly white stuff. I asked Jim Seely, Lee Canyon marketing director, where their guests come from and he said, “Most of our guests come from the US 65% and the rest are mostly from Mexico, Brazil, and China. Many of these people have never seen snow!”

Red Rock canyonRed Rock canyonWith three lifts accessing thirty trails, Lee Canyon has plenty to offer newbies and experienced guests alike. The rental shop provides all the equipment and clothing needed in a package deal for those that come with only street clothes.

Lee Canyon helps attract newbies with free coaching, a rarity in ski areas, to help them learn the basics without breaking the bank. This free service is geared to the thirteen and older guests on the bunny slope.

I watched the bunny slope beginners from small to large getting guidance with these free lessons and all seemed to be having a ball on this sunny day high above Vegas.

The ski trails are a mix of mostly blue and black runs with double diamond terrain available for experts to hike above the lift served area. There is also a tubing hill (not to be confused with the off-site one before the ski area) with a lift to haul you and the tube uphill for less than $20. They have a size limit of thirty-six inches or taller to qualify for tubing and the season runs from November to April.

During the summer, Lee Canyon offers beat-the-heat activities in the cooler mountain climate. The base area is at 8,510 and is usually twenty-five degrees cooler than Vegas. Summer activities include mountain biking the six mile long Bristlecone Loop Trail, hiking, and mountain climbing.Wedding bookings are increasing with fourteen scheduled for 2016. The restaurant/bar onsite is open for both summer and winter seasons offering food and libations after your high-altitude exertions.

On butterfly wings

Papillion has an Airbus helicopter to talk guests on aerial tours of the majestic Grand Canyon and Vegas from the air.
Papillion has Airbus helicopters to talk guests on aerial tours of the majestic Grand Canyon and Vegas from the air.

Papillon Helicopters in Boulder City sounded like high-flying fun to check out next. Their free shuttle bus picked me up at Excalibur for the twenty five minute ride to the airfield. After viewing a short video, five of us boarded the sparkling clean Airbus helicopter. We were given Bose headsets for ear protection as well as clear communication with the pilot during the flight.

We held on for a thrilling seventy minute flight over Hover Dam, Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon for a ride of a lifetime. Our pilot Issac provided detailed commentary about the highlights of the tour and pointed out rock formations thought to be two billion years old, the oldest known on our planet!

We marveled at the Hoover Dam and the Black Canyon from high above looking through the clean glass cockpit while we took beautiful photos of the canyons and lake. The colors in the Grand Canyon walls are magical and hypnotic. The colors seemed to change often when we were deep in the canyon, like a dancing reddish rainbow of Southwest beauty lit by the sun.

When we made our u-turn to base, I felt some sadness to be leaving so soon. Papillon offers several tours of the area like the seven hour Grand Voyager, which includes a helicopter ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon followed by a pontoon boat ride. This package retails for $554 per person, but can be as low as $409 if purchased on their website ahead of time.

You can jump in and race this Lamborghini at SpeedVegas!You can jump in and race this Lamborghini at Speed Vegas!Going unbelievably fast

Other off-strip attractions that caught my attention were Speed Vegas, Flightlinez, and Red Rock Canyon. Speed Vegas owner Aaron Fessler picked me up in an orange “Speed Vegas” embossed Lamborghini for the ten minute drive to the track. It is still under construction and due to open mid-April. When it does guests can drive several different high-powered cars on this custom race track.

Try out a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Porsche or other head spinning fast machines with a racing coach in the passenger seat to keep things safe. Aaron told me, “Guests could hit up to 100 miles per hour on the straightaway before entering the 15° banked turn.” This is going to be huge fun for speed enthusiasts and will cost between $49 per lap for a Shelby or up to $89 per lap for a Ferrari 458 Italia!

Speaking of speed, why not zip-line over a canyon at up to sixty miles per hour for adrenalin lovers? At FlightLinez in Bootleg Canyon, guests ride high above the canyon on four different courses during two hours in a seat-like harness whooping and hollering all the way. This attraction is near Boulder City. They have a free shuttle service to pick you up and drop off at Excalibur Hotel and Casino if needed.

Slow down and enjoy the viewIf you want to take it slower, take a hike at Red Rock Natural Conservation Area on the far west side of Vegas. Drive on out If you have your own transportation to see this desert wonderland of colorful rock formations and strange Joshua Trees. Stop at the visitor center to get oriented and check out the dessert tortoise enclosure out back. Then follow the thirteen mile scenic loop and pull off to explore on foot one of many trailheads. The trails vary from a few minutes to several hours and can be easy, moderate, or can even be death-defying mountain climbing.

Over 1.2 million visitors enjoy this park every year. Consider going in the morning to beat the heat and the crowds of peak season. Tours of the park and canyon leave daily from Las Vegas for those without a car. Prices range from $85-$95 lasting three hours or more depending on who you book with and tour type.

The Hoover dam from the air.The Hoover dam from the air.It’s impressive how Las Vegas keeps adding attractions and activities to keep a steady flow of visitors coming. There is so much see and do off-strip and I hope you get a chance to try some of the great options listed here. It beats dropping a load of your hard earned wages in the casinos where the house usually wins and you have nothing to show for your trip. With the activities listed above you’ll get photos and memories to last a lifetime.

Where to stay

For budget accommodations it’s hard to beat Excalibur. They recently renovated most of the rooms and it shows. I usually pay around $50 per night-including resort fees, for a clean and comfortable room.

For midrange lodging off-strip Tahiti Village condo-hotel type rooms range from $150-$175 for up to four or more guests. The rooms come with a full kitchen, living room, and bathrooms have steam showers as well as jetted tubs. Some rooms offer excellent views of the strip and their free shuttle is great.

When it comes to luxury accommodations on the strip Bellagio is my favorite. It has all the action nearby and great restaurant choices onsite. It will cost you about $225 and above to stay here, but worth it if you can afford the splurge.Links to attractions:

Dig This:

Lee Canyon Ski Area

Papillon Helicopters

SpeedVegas:

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area:

Las Vegas lodging

The black line shows Jurassic period in the Grand Canyon.
The black line shows Jurassic period in the Grand Canyon.

Excalibur Hotel and Casino
Tahiti Village:

Bellagio

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Kurt Jacobson
Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.