By Matt Villano, on April 7, 2015

Las Vegas, mountain style

Hiking. Mountain biking. Skiing. Snowshoeing. If you told 100 people these activities were less than a one-hour drive from the Las Vegas Strip, at least 98 of them would call you crazy, laugh in your face, or say you’d had one-too-many free whiskey sours.

Still, the two who believed you would be right.

Far to the north and west, off the 95 toward Fallon and Reno, sits the 316,000-acre Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, one of the region’s true gems.

Locals know this part of the Las Vegas Valley as “Mount Charleston,” the name of the tallest peak (for the record, it’s 11,918 feet). Although the area usually plays second fiddle to the Red Rock National Conservation Area to the immediate south, it’s a natural wonderland in its own right, with something for just about every kind of outdoors lover.

This part of the area also is making news—a brand new $10-million, 4,300-square-foot visitor center, dubbed the Spring Mountains Visitor Gateway—was slated to open on Kyle Canyon Road in April 2015. The new facility is part of a $20 million infrastructure investment project that will refresh five campgrounds, three picnic sites and five trails by the end of this year.

On a recent visit to Las Vegas, I took a day to explore Mount Charleston. In the process, I experienced a natural, unfiltered Vegas few others get to see; a Vegas I undoubtedly will seek out again on future visits into town.

Viewfinder Tip: Head to Mount Charleston on particularly hot days; the canyons always are about 20 degrees cooler than it is on the Las Vegas Strip.

What makes Mount Charleston special

In terms of scenery, Mount Charleston is most definitely NOT your typical Vegas. Water comes from underground springs. Instead of sand, there is mud and snow; instead of cacti there are Bristlecone pines (which some believe to be the world’s oldest living organisms). The naturally occurring walls of Lee and Kyle canyons are so steep that everything appears against the backdrop of granite. In a word, it’s dramatic, with a capital D.

The climate is very different, too. Because of the way the Spring Mountains sit, the inside of the National Recreation Area is almost always hidden from the sun, making most of the region 10-20 degrees cooler than the rest of the Valley on any given day. In summer, this means it’s only 90 here when it’s 110 on the Strip. In winter and spring, it means there’s regularly enough snow to go sledding down tiny hills and skiing at a ski resort—yes, a ski resort!—at the heights.

For years, locals have come back here on particularly hot days to escape the heat. With the Visitor Gateway, the U.S. Forest Service is hoping to attract tourists to the area, as well.

Each science-kit backpack contains a lesson for the day

The modern Gateway overlooks a ravine into which Forest Service rangers have cut new interpretive trails. Inside the structure, visitors will find exhibits about the flora and fauna of the area, as well as a small gift shop and a slew of science-kit backpacks that families can rent for the day. Outside, the 90-acre site boasts a network of trails, two amphitheaters, an education building, and picnic structures, and interpretive signage.

Outdoor sports galore

Did somebody say hike in the woods? Perhaps the biggest attraction of the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area is the opportunity for exploring nature.

The open space boasts hundreds of miles of hiking (and biking) trails—everything from the easy out-and-back tromps to the epic North Loop Trail that summits Charleston Peak. A forest fire in 2013 charred hundreds of thousands of acres south of Mount Charleston proper, but much of the area is still open to the public.

During my visit in February 2015, a buddy and I hiked the four-mile out-and-back trail to Mary Jane Falls. Typically, the falls drop about 300 feet from the top of the canyon; due to draught-like conditions when we visited, they were nothing more than a trickle.

That didn’t stop us from being wowed by the sights of snow-covered mountaintops across the bowl, as well as fascinating, bubble-like lichens growing right on the rock.

Lichens on rock near Mary Jane Falls

Back near the falls, we also enjoyed a natural echo chamber, and spent a good 20 minutes making high-pitched animal sounds, then listening to them reverberate off the rock walls. If you want Instagram audio and video of this spectacle, be sure not to drink any liquids before clicking here.

Winter sports fans also love the skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing at Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort, a resort out near the end of Lee Canyon that is open all year round. The resort promises snow from December through April; after that trails become suitable for mountain bikes. It also has a restaurant and a bar.

Heck, there’s even a hotel on the mountain: the lodge-style Resort on Mount Charleston.

Even if you don’t spend the night here, make time to stop, grab a drink in the old-timey bar, and check out the vintage slot machines (which no longer work). This might be the only spot in Las Vegas where the only one-armed bandits are just for show. That’s precisely what makes it so refreshing.

What are your favorite ways to spend a visit to Las Vegas?