As an airline pilot, I frequently find myself with short layovers in all sorts of cool places. Recently, I was able to make the most out of a short day in the fascinating city of Las Vegas.
To me, there’s so much more to Vegas than casinos and gambling. There might be money to lose, but there are memories to make – especially when it comes to exploring.
Somewhere between 6 to 9 hours is just the right amount of time to explore some of the amazing nature you’d be surprised to see so close to this desert utopia.
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Should I rent a car to explore Las Vegas?
It depends on how long of a layover you have and just where you intend to explore.
If you have closer to 9 hours and only plan to head downtown, the bus is a cheap and convenient way to get right to the strip. Anything shorter and I’d considering taking an uber/lyft downtown. They tend to run about $15-20 each way from the airport.
Those with aspirations to explore the magnificent surrounding nature will find renting a car most convenient. There’s a massive rental car center which is just a short free bus ride from the airport – or just 12 minutes from the strip.
Pro Tip: Rates are high and lines are long. It pays to become a member of a rental car company, such as a Hertz Gold member, to skip the line and go straight to your car – while saving money.
Las Vegas: The Incredible Nature of the Wild West
Though it might surprise you, Vegas is sitting in one of the most incredible valleys in all the United States.
There’s the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead on one side, Red Rock Canyon and Mt Washington on the other. Go just a touch further and there are the world famous National Parks of Arches, Zion, and Bryce Canyon. All within arms reach!
So the gamble I’d take on a short Vegas layover would be getting out and trying to see as much as I can!
Lake Mead & the Hoover Dam
At only 40 minutes from the heart of downtown, Lake Mead makes an amazing place to spend a short layover. There are a ton of activities for any length of time, including:
- Hiking (1+ hour)
- Kayaking/canoeing, motorboating and jetskiing (2+ hours)
- Horseback riding (2+ hours)
- Hunting, fishing, and even scuba diving (3+ hours)
- Or just enjoying the gorgeous roads around the lake (1+ hour)
The Hoover Dam, known for TikTok videos of balls enjoying the principles of Bernouilli (i.e. appearing to hover off the dam while falling hundreds of feet) is only a touch further!
Including time to/from the airport and renting a car, you can easily fit one of the above activities in a 6 to 9 hour layover and still have enough time to make it back.
Red Rock Canyon and short hikes
At only 25 minutes from the airport, the Red Rock Canyon is staggeringly beautiful. It’s hard to believe it’s so close to town.
There’s a ”scenic drive” road – part of a National Park (annual passes available for $85, day passes for $15-25) – with a ton of great hikes of all lengths.
Some of the best shorter hikes include the Calico Hills, which you’ll see as soon as you enter the drive. The Calico area features amazing canyon hikes in the heart of the red rock areas, with spectacular views all around.
The Ice Box canyon is also a great hike. You can see the canyon from miles away; it’s very enticing. I couldn’t help myself but hike it last time I was in Vegas. Do note that it’s about an hour each way without much shade for the most part.
Thanks to its proximity to the city, you can spend more time hiking, exploring, or enjoying the Red Rock Canyon national park than other parks in Vegas- including Mt. Washington, which I’ll talk about next.
Mount Washington and surrounding canyon roads
Do you enjoy amazing drives on curvy roads with epic views? I sure do.
One of my favorite drives of all time is from Las Vegas to Mt. Washington. At just about an hour each way, I’d reserve it only for those longer layovers (8+ hours). It’s a hike, but it’s worth it.
The drive itself is epic, and there are a lot of epic hikes you can start from the top. A shorter and more accessible hike for those short on time is Cathedral Rocks, which you can see basically as soon as you get to Mt. Washington.
A huge benefit is the cooler weather you’ll encounter at the top of the mountain.
Make sure to stop for lunch at the Retreat on Mt. Charleston. If you have even more time, there are a couple great restaurants at the top of Lee Canyon – about 30 minutes further of a drive.
If you have an extra hour on the way back, there is a fabulous pit stop at the Desert View Spot for epic views and history on/about the Las Vegas valley. It has views on the millions of years of formations and even glimpses at downtown! Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
Pro Tip: Consider renting a convertible to have an epic time on the sweeping, curvy canyon roads up and down!
Less Nature; More Gambling
For those who want to see Vegas, well for what Vegas is known for, don’t worry; I haven’t forgotten about you either.
The world-famous Las Vegas Strip, known for its extravagance and Elvis Presley impersonators, is only a 30 minute bus ride (or 15-20 minute uber) from the airport – and of course offers way more to do than you could ever accomplish in 6 to 9 hours.
It’s still worth it though, even if you have less time.
Some of the must sees include:
- Bellagio Fountain and Mall
- MGM Grand Pools
- The Great Pyramid, Eiffel Tower, and roller coaster in the heart of downtown
- The Strip
- Pinball Hall of Fame
- Gold & Silver Pawn Shop (where Pawn Stars is filmed)
There are slot machines right at the gate for those who can’t get enough! Just don’t miss your flight.
Luggage Storage in Las Vegas
One huge advantage to renting a car is the ease of leaving your luggage in the trunk.
For those looking to store your bags somewhere before going out and exploring, many hotels and casinos do offer a concierge service.
Otherwise, Bounce is a great tool to search for official luggage storage companies in Vegas.