3 National Monuments in Nevada That Will Blow Your Mind
Ice-Age fossils, ancient petroglyphs, dark-sky stargazing—these destinations offer the backcountry adventure you crave.
With social media feeding you epic views of stunning destinations on the daily, planning a vacation can seem like you’re retracing the steps of so many lucky travelers and influencers who got there first. But there’s still a short list of destinations with the power to surprise and amaze and awe—and quite a few happen to be in Nevada. We’re talking about wild and untouched spaces, where you and your companions are the only people for miles, where you can directly experience the Earth’s breathtaking natural wonders, unfiltered—the kinds of places where you don’t have to arrive early to fight the crowds.
Read on for three of Nevada’s best kept wilderness secrets. All were granted National Monument protected status in the last decade because of their unique, nowhere-else qualities. These trips will take you into the truly wild West, but they’re accessible to anyone willing to plan ahead. From a 30-minute off-Strip day trip to backcountry adventures where real-deal paper maps replace cell phones and rugged vehicles are required, the level of adventure is yours to choose. Pack the snacks, fill the tank (water jugs, too), and be sure to brush up on the Dirt Road Code for crucial, rural Nevada travel tips. There are epic vacations. And there are monumentally epic vacations. And that’s Nevada.
Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument
Ice Age treasures and rugged hiking just outside the Entertainment Capital of the World.
A 30-minute drive from the neon wonderland of the Vegas Strip takes you into an ancient landscape where woolly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers and dire wolves once roamed and hunted. Today, their fossilized remains are studied by paleontologists, while hikers and horseback riders have discovered pristine badlands to explore. The park has very few marked trails but infinite photo opportunities and excellent odds of stumbling upon a fossil eroding out of the Earth.
This arid countryside was all lush wetland in the days when migrating camels and lions were first entombed in the mud. As a result, the park has one of the greatest concentrations of Ice Age fossils in the world, spanning 100,000 years. It’s a uniquely continuous record of the planet’s history. Only in Nevada can you experience a site like this up close, unfiltered, and just a half-hour from your hotel room. But keep in mind: The park was designated a monument in 2014 to protect its treasures for all of us, so leave everything exactly as you found it.
And don’t let the proximity to Las Vegas fool you. There is no visitor’s center, designated parking, or facilities. You’ll want to pack plenty of water and sunscreen to ensure a pleasant visit in this open country. Protectors of Tule Springs is a good resource for the latest news. They also assist the National Park Service by leading interpretive hikes to the Big Dig trench and other fossil areas.
For a dramatic change of scenery, book a room at The Retreat on Charleston Peak, a boutique, family-friendly lodge nestled among the snowy alpine peaks of The Spring Mountains. It’s a half-hour drive that will make you feel as though you teleported from Mexico to Alaska. Or, if you’d rather base-camp closer by, you can get the full casino-resort experience away from the crowds at the highly rated Aliante Casino, Hotel & Spa in North Las Vegas.
Gold Butte National Monument
Stunning rock formations and ancient petroglyphs draw backcountry photographers to this off-the-grid beauty.
For an even more remote excursion, drive two-and-half miles north of Las Vegas to Gold Butte National Monument, a nature preserve spread across 300,000 acres in the Mojave Desert.
If you only have a day, the 62-mile Gold Butte Backcountry Byway is the best way to see as much as possible. Road conditions range from extremely rough and unmaintained asphalt to gravel to rugged-as-it-comes dirt. You’ll need a paper map, a high clearance, 4×4 vehicle with a full-size spare (two is even better), and an adventurous spirit. Temperatures in the summer months often soar past 100 degrees, which is why many folks consider October through May to be the best time to visit. If you do visit in the summer months, be sure to pace yourself and bring plenty of water. Also, there’s no gas, no food, and no cell coverage—this is real wilderness.
But that’s what you came for! The park’s wide-open terrain, ornamented with surreal red rock formations sculpted by the wind, create a dramatic backdrop for exploration. Must-see stops along the Byway include:
Whitney Pocket A breathtaking area with red and white sandstone outcroppings, petroglyphs, and primitive camping. This is the park’s jump-off for recreational activities.
Little Finland You’re unlikely to encounter any actual Finnish people unless, like you, they’re snapping photos of the magical Aztec Rock formations, shaped by the desert weather into erosional fins.
Devil’s Throat Perhaps named by a cowboy who witnessed the original collapse, this 110-foot sinkhole is worth a stop if you are passing by. But don’t even dream about hopping the chain link fence. It has been moved back many times over the years as the unstable hole keeps getting bigger!
Gold Butte Historic Townsite The park was named for this ghost town, a hub of gold rush fever a century ago. The town, mine shafts, and other remnants of a bygone era feel like a mere blip in Nevada’s long timeline next to the park’s ancient geologic formations and awe-inspiring petroglyphs.
Primitive camping is allowed in Gold Butte, but there are no designated sites or facilities. If a dip in the pool at the end of an active day is more your speed, book a room at CasaBlanca, a family-friendly resort with a casino and golf course in nearby Mesquite.
Basin and Range National Monument
Ancient petroglyphs, dark-sky stargazing, and primitive camping will take you far away from your everyday.
Photos don’t do justice to the epic sweep and majesty of Basin and Range National Monument, an undeveloped, natural space twice as large as the city of Los Angeles. In 2015, these iconic Nevada horizons of long mountain chains separated by sprawling scrubland valleys were preserved for posterity. There is no organized recreational activity out here, but you’ll find lots of opportunities to create your own outdoor adventure, including hiking, mountain biking, hunting, wildlife spotting, visiting petroglyph sites, and stargazing. Best of all? You’ll have it all to yourself. In order to experience something this incredible, you need to be prepared. Check out Travel Nevada’s page of tips to help you plan.
The park is home to several important concentrations of petroglyphs. National Geographic is no substitute for experiencing them in person. These powerful depictions of animals and humans were carved into the rocks up to 4,000 years ago, and they are still sacred to indigenous communities today. Be as respectful as you would be if you were visiting a church. And never touch the petroglyphs—the oil from your fingers will damage them.
The Monument is about a four-and-a-half hour drive from Las Vegas, and the nearest hotels and shopping are in Alamo, two-and-a-half hours away. So, if you made it this far, you’re likely spending the night. You can camp wherever you want so long as you leave no trace. (That includes not building fires near the beautiful rock formations you came here to enjoy.) When the sun goes down, you’ll discover just how off-the-grid this place is. There are no electric lights in the Monument, which means overnight visitors get to experience the night sky the way our ancestors did. City-dwellers should be prepared to have their minds blown by the sheer intensity of a dark-sky night, with thousands of brightly visible stars, planets, and galaxies. Only in Nevada, folks. Only in Nevada.