By Matt Villano, on October 23, 2013

Gambling-free fun in Vegas

So what if there are hundreds of thousands of slot machines, blackjack tables, and poker tables in Las Vegas? You don’t need to gamble in Sin City to have a good time. Over the years some of my best visits to the Gambling Capital of the World haven’t involved gambling of any kind. Here’s a rundown on three of the destinations and activities I enjoyed most (and therefore recommend most highly).

Las Vegas Springs Preserve

I like to think of the Las Vegas Springs Preserve as a “Magic Kingdom” of Vegas history. The place sits on the site of the first settlement in the Las Vegas Valley, and pays homage to the past in a variety of ways. Specifically, it comprises four main attractions: the Origen Museum, which looks at the geologic history of the Valley; the Nevada State Museum, which covers the pre-history, history, and natural history of the area; the Desert Living Center, a pavilion where visitors can learn about sustainability and conservation; and 110 acres of botanical gardens. All of the attractions are worth a closer look.

My favorite of the bunch is the Origen because of the way it mixes science and reality. One of the exhibits recreates a flash flood to show visitors what it can be like during torrential rain around the Valley. Another spotlights the role of water in the development of Las Vegas. There’s even a live animal section; one of the critters here is the relict leopard frog, a species once thought to be extinct. Call me a nerd but that kind of discovery is a real jackpot.

The train at Bonnie Springs Ranch


River Mountains Loop Trail

You don’t have to be an avid cyclist to complete the 35-mile trail that rings around the River Mountains in the southeast quadrant of the Las Vegas Valley. Heck, you don’t even have to be particularly fast. You do, however, have to start early in the day to take it all in. And drink lots of water. 

I recommend renting a bike and starting and ending the journey in Boulder City, then heading counter-clockwise around the loop. This strategy works for two reasons: a) The first five miles are relatively downhill, and b) You can fuel up beforehand at the Coffee Cup Cafe, a greasy spoon that serves omelets the size of a grown man’s forearm.

The trail itself is moderately difficult. The 10-mile stretch that runs alongside Lake Mead is almost completely flat. The 10-mile stretch that follows is hilly, with three consecutive peaks (dubbed the “Three Sisters”), presenting the most formidable challenges.

For me, the highpoint of the ride is a 4-mile spur trail inside the Lake Mead National Historical Area; the trail runs through four old railroad tunnels that were hand-carved for the trails that eventually built the Hoover Dam. The ride – and the history you’ll see – are worth the extra time in the saddle.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Far to the west, where the suburbs meet the brick-red Spring Mountains, lies Sin City’s biggest and most popular playground: the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. This open space measures nearly 200,000 acres and offers activities for every kind of adventurer, including rock climbing, mountain biking, bouldering, horseback riding, and hiking.

Viewfinder Tip: Extend your trip on the River Mountains Loop Trail to include a detour at the Hoover Dam.

A 13-mile, one-way loop road provides auto access to many of the region’s best attractions and has been the basis of most of my trips into the area. There’s also a small visitor center run by volunteers. The southern end of Red Rock is home to one of my favorite old-timey destinations in Vegas: Bonnie Springs Ranch. This attraction incorporates a host of family-friendly activities from a petting zoo and a scenic railroad to a riding stable and a replica of an old western town. Time your trip correctly and you can even stick around at Bonnie Springs for dinner. No, it’s not gambling, but the experience is a sure bet for fun.


What are some of your favorite non-gambling activities in Las Vegas?