Natural Las Vegas

THERE'S NOTHING ELSE ON EARTH quite like the artificial splendor of the Las Vegas landscape. It's a place where extreme design has taken root, transforming a seemingly barren desert landscape into a multitude of highly individualized small cities. These mega-resorts all sport everything under a single roof. Gambling, fine dining, shopping, entertainment, meeting facilities and more are all on site, so it's very possible to enter the building upon arrival and never get a glimpse of the Great Outdoors until the ride back to the airport. Getting out on the water at Lake Mead Recreation Area is a refreshing respite from the desert heat

But sticking with man-made excess belies the true Las Vegas story. Believe it or not, but some of Mother Nature's greatest hits are out there just past the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas Strip. OK, some of these natural wonders have actually been tweaked by human ingenuity, but it's still a great respite from the city's over-the-top excess and makes for a refreshing, balanced getaway.

Nearby highlights include Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead, Mount Charleston and Valley of Fire. The Grand Canyon is a little farther away, but makes for a special day or side trip. Much of Mount Charleston's six million acres are suitable for family hiking

Of course, seeing past the neon will require a car, but fortunately 54 percent of all visitors arrive by ground transportation, says the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. For those without a car, most of the hotels and casinos rent them on site. That makes getting a vehicle for a day trip or longer as easy as calling the concierge, or booking it for your client through traditional channels.

Red Rock Canyon

Located just 17 miles (about a 30-minute drive down West Charleston Boulevard, route 159) from the Las Vegas Strip is the stunning Red Rock Canyon, Nevada's first National Conservation Area. It's a great destination for experienced hikers and climbers, as well as nature novices who simply want to take a drive surrounded by beautiful scenery. Of course, there are red rocks aplenty, a signature of southwestern United States rock formations.

There are more than 30 miles of well-marked hiking trails and picnic areas and many great places to set up the camera to capture fabulous vistas. There's a 13-mile scenic drive here, too, which is a great way to see the highlights of the park, especially if the mercury pushes past 100 degrees. Be sure to let your clients know that this drive can take several hours, especially if they get out of the car frequently to check out many of the unique land formations and plant life. Valley of Fire is well named for its rich, red sandstone features shaped over the millennia

A daily vehicle pass is only $5 and the scenic drive is open from 6 a.m. Closing times vary depending on the time of year, with the drive closing at 5 p.m. from November through February, 7 p.m. during March and October and 8 p.m. from April to September. Pets are permitted. Call 702-515-5350 for more information.

Valley of Fire

Nevada's oldest and largest state park, Valley of Fire is about an hour's drive (55 miles) from Las Vegas. Highlights here include swaths of petrified wood, as well as petroglyphs created by Native Americans 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus.

Start at the visitor center, which is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., to learn more about the park's history and geology. Staff there can also suggest particular hiking trails that match your clients' skill level and amount of time they wish to explore. Then be sure they also check out the sights that are accessible via car.

Atlatl Rock features myriad petroglyphs, while the Arch Rock scenic loop highlights many of the park's unique rock formations. At Fire Canyon, clients can take in views of rich red sandstone formations, as well as Silica Dome, one of the more unique features of the park. Suggest a stop by the Rainbow Vista for photographers looking to capture a wondrous view of multicolored sandstone. Tell your clients to pack a picnic lunch and suggest the Seven Sisters area for a backdrop of many red rock features that seem to come straight out of the movies. It's only $6 per car to enter and $14 to camp, on a first-come, first-served basis. Pets on leashes are welcome. For more information, call 702-397-2088. Red Rock Canyon's 13-mile scenic drive passes a variety of landscapes and perhaps some animal life: here, a friendly burro

Lake Mead

Created upon the completion of the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead National Recreation Area is much more than a reservoir. It's a watery oasis in the middle of the desert attracting water worshippers looking to enjoy swimming, fishing, boating or simply lolling about under the scorching sun.

The incredibly huge park contains two lakes and more than 1.5 million acres of surrounding land. Those looking to learn about the natural world should take a complimentary tour with a National Park Service ranger. Locations and schedules vary, so check out the schedule online at www.nps.gov/lame/planyourvisit/guidedtours.htm.

Suggest a cruise on a paddle wheel boat to Hoover Dam with Lake Mead Cruises. The company offers daily boat tours and cruises with specialty dinners and dancing, as well as sunset excursions. Call 702-293-6180 or visit www.lakemeadcruises.com. Those looking to rent a boat for fishing, waterskiing or speed should call the Overton Beach Marina at 702-394-4000. They even have houseboats that have room for more than a dozen people. AGENT ADVICE

Mount Charleston

Clients can escape the heat with a trip to Mount Charleston, which is 30 degrees cooler on average than the heart of Las Vegas. About 35 miles northwest of the city, it's an easy drive via a couple of highways.

Mount Charleston rises up more than 11,000 feet and is part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The park is more than six million acres and the forest is the largest in the 48 continental states. Drivers can go more than 7,000 feet up to see incredible views of Nevada and the city of Las Vegas. Make sure to tell your clients to bring a jacket. Such high altitudes can also cause a little breathing discomfort, so suggest that they pull over frequently to let their bodies adjust to the lower level of oxygen in the air. Learn more online at www.fs.fed.us/r4/htnf or call 775-331-6444.

The Grand Canyon

Though it's a four-hour drive to either rim of the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas, this is the closest many of your clients have ever been to this wonder of the world. The ride through the desert is an experience in itself, but if heading to the less-crowded North Rim, the route cuts right through Zion National Park.

The South Rim is the more popular of the two, and is visited by millions more annually. It's open all year, while the North Rim is only open May 15 through mid-October. The South Rim features such areas as Grand Canyon Village, Hermit's Rest and Desert View. Hermit's Rest is a scenic eight-mile route that takes about two hours and can only be accessed via a complimentary shuttle bus. Desert View Drive is a 25-mile route with stunning views that is open to your clients' rental vehicles.

However, the newest and most unique way to see the depth and awe here is by visiting the Grand Canyon Skywalk, which, since last spring, has allowed visitors to walk right over the canyon. Hovering 4,000 feet above the canyon floor, this glass semicircular bridge provides spectacular views, stoking people's fear of heights. Don't worry; it can support 71 million pounds. The only catch is that visitors need to purchase the bridge pass as part of a package, starting at $49.95. Some packages include helicopter rides to the canyon floor. Call 877-716-9378 or visit www.destinationgrandcanyon.com/tours.html for more information.

There are six unique hotels featuring different experiences on the grounds of the Grand Canyon that are part of Xanterra Parks & Resorts (www.grandcanyonresorts.com). The charming El Tovar Hotel, a Registered National Historic Landmark, which opened more than 100 years ago, has 78 rooms and suites. It was renovated in 2005 and has hosted Theodore Roosevelt and Albert Einstein. The budget-priced Bright Angel Lodge was built in 1935. It's a Registered National Historic Landmark and is the check-in point for the ubiquitous canyon mule rides. Thunderbird Lodge is on the canyon rim; some rooms have partial canyon views. It's been called ideal for families, but guests must visit El Tovar or Bright Angel for meal service.

Vegas.com offers a seven-hour day trip including a flight to the Grand Canyon, a bus tour upon arrival and lunch. The cost is $274 for adults and $244 for children.