Q: I am heading to Las Vegas in October and want to escape the neon and glitter and get active outdoors. What can you recommend?
Henry Adderley, Bermuda
A: It never fails to amaze me how many people are unaware that the real show in Las Vegas lies just 17 miles west of the Strip in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (www.redrockcanyon.blm.gov). Here, among the 2,000-foot-high towers of red, yellow, and black sandstone, you'll find numerous opportunities to camp, rock climb, cycle, hike, and trail run. Lucky for you, there are few better times to go than October: Days will still be pleasantly warm instead of brutally hot, yet you won't freeze at night.
To get there, just head west on West Charleston Boulevard, working your way out of the city, past the sprawling neighborhoods, and eventually into the desert. About five miles after the last stoplight, you'll pass Thirteen Mile Campground, a desperately bleak area with toilets, tables, and potable water where sites run $10 a night, reservations not accepted. Continuing about a mile past that you'll turn right into the park. There you'll have to fork over $5 for a one-day pass. Unless you're so preoccupied ogling the sandstone escarpment, you can't miss the turn-off as it's well marked.
A 13-mile one-way loop popular with cyclists begins just past the visitor center and takes you past numerous pullouts where trails wind through cholla cacti and mesquite into various canyons. Those near the First and Second pullouts next to the bubbly looking blobs of sandstone are great places for short hikes if you only have an hour or so. Some of the area's best sport-climbing routes are also located here. Farther along the road in other canyons, hundreds of longer climbing routes await, including multipitch classics like Cat in the Hat (5.6), Levitation 29 (5.11), and Crimson Chrysalis (5.8+). Stop by Desert Rock Sports almost out of the city at 8201 West Charleston Boulevard (702-254-1143; www.desertrocksports.com) for tips on where to go.
Continuing around the loop you'll come to other worthy stops, like Icebox Canyon, a shady slot that actually is quite cooler than the rest of the park. If you have a vehicle with high clearance (recommended but not necessary), be sure to check out Black Velvet Canyon outside the main loop road off Highway 160, too, where more hiking and climbing await.
Red Rock rangers gladly enforce the park's closing time5 P.M. in the winter, 8 P.M. in the summerbut you can avoid coming back to your car to find a $50 fine slipped under the wiper blades by simply calling the ranger station (702-515-5050) to announce you'll be leaving a little late. They won't keep the lights on for you, though. They leave that to Vegas.