Yes, you can find outstanding photo opportunities close to the City of Lights. Although Death Valley and Bryce Canyon National Parks are nearby, these locations take a journey of hours to reach from Las Vegas. You'll find amazing landscapes a short distance away that can be reached by sunset after a day of meetings or at sunrise to start out a day right.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
This Bureau of Land Management (BLM) area has long been an outlet for me when traveling to Las Vegas. It's only 17 miles from the Strip, where all the casinos lurk, and offers a variety of landscapes, from desert to mountain, and even features waterfalls. Wildflowers bloom in the spring, and it's habitat to a range of Mojave Desert wildlife. When the press of people at a big trade show becomes too much, I know I can quickly reach Red Rock Canyon.
While it used to be a short drive, time-wise, from the center of Las Vegas, exploding growth in the city has made traffic somewhat troublesome at times. For early-morning shoots, traffic isn't a problem, but you need to give yourself more time for evenings. The main area opens at 6 a.m. and closes at different times, depending on the season—winter's short days versus summer's long days (check the Website for exact times). State Route 159 cuts through a section of the area and you can drive it at any time.
You can reach Red Rock Canyon by heading due west on West Charleston Boulevard (which is SR 159) from the main parts of Las Vegas. As you approach the canyon, you'll see large areas of red rock in the distance, along with the Spring Mountains covering the horizon. Photographing from near the highway can be productive with a long lens at sunrise (use the side roads and pull-off areas; this can be a very busy road, so be careful).
Located off of SR 159, the Scenic Drive is a 13-mile, one-way road that has a 1,000-foot elevation change. Popular areas such as the Calico Hills (or La Madre Mountains) and the Sandstone Quarry area provide special photo spots, but can become crowded. Red Rock Canyon has enough variety and trails that you can find solitude even on the free-pass days when the place is mobbed. You'll find fewer visitors when the park first opens in the morning and late in the day.
The east side of the drive, Calico Hills through the Sandstone Quarry, is mostly an afternoon and evening location, as the light doesn't hit the rocks in the early morning. Because of the convoluted nature of the rock formations in this area, there's good photography through most of the afternoon, since you can always find rock faces with strong sidelight to bring out the texture. Bring a polarizer to intensify the rock and sky color.
The west side of the drive, from the High Point Overlook to Oak Creek Canyon, offers some very rocky mountain scenes to photograph. An excellent early-morning location, you'll find streams up in the canyons with small waterfalls. The rocks are dramatic here, and again, a polarizer helps. There can be some fall color with aspens, plus there are cholla and other cactus that look dramatic with backlight. You might even spot the wild burros that roam this part of the canyon (don't feed them, though, and watch out for them on the highways).
The visitor center is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, and is the place to get the latest information on wildflowers, waterfall conditions, snow and wildlife. Traveling the Scenic Drive requires an entry fee of $5 per car (if you bike or hike, there's no charge), and the national Golden Eagle Pass is recognized.
Valley Of Fire State Park
About 50 miles north of Las Vegas off of I-95 (exit 75; take SR 169 at Crystal), Valley of Fire State Park includes some of the red rock seen in Red Rock Canyon, but here the rock is twisted, eroded and altered in so many different forms that you'd swear you've entered a book by Dr. Seuss.
It's easy to become entranced by the the arches and textured faces of the rock formations seen when you first enter the area, such as those in the Atlatl Campground area or the Beehives. Don't forget your polarizer and a good pair of hiking shoes. Some of the arches are quite small, so bring a wide-angle lens and get in close (you may have to do a little scrambling over the rocks).
The Beehives are aptly named and offer some spectacular rock shapes. A popular area, photography can be difficult, particularly right by the parking area, but usually you can walk a short distance and find people-less compositions. However, it can be a real kick to see folks in a hurry jump out of their cars, stand in front of a rock formation for the requisite photo, then jump back in the car to hurtle back to the gaming tables in Las Vegas. What an odd way to appreciate our world!
The main drive into the park north of the visitor center is incredible. You almost have to go through it twice—once in awe of what you're seeing and the second time to photograph. The road goes high and low, and accesses a whole range of landscapes, from intimate canyons to expansive scenes that head off toward Arizona. You'll find various colors of rock and some sand dunes.
The area at the north end heading toward the White Domes and around the Gibraltar Rock offer spectacular late-light and sunset scenics. There's a parking area near the huge rock formation that reminded someone of the real Gibraltar Rock. From there, you can see almost 360 degrees for an amazing variety of rock landscapes. A longish lens is helpful, especially a telephoto zoom. As the sun sets, this landscape changes rapidly, making a zoom lens a real benefit to keep up with all the changing compositions.
Day fees are $6 per car. Visitor center hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There are east and west entrances on SR 169.
Lake Mead Recreation Area
If you enjoy solitude and wilderness, you'll fall in love with the lesser-known Lake Mead Recreation Area along SR 169 from Overton to North Las Vegas or Henderson. This area is open 24 hours a day, every day, so you never have a problem finding an ideal sunrise or sunset location—and all of it's easily within an hour of the Strip.
Most people who think of the Lake Mead Recreation Area (National Park Service) think about the reservoir itself—the Hoover Dam at its base is an astounding feat of engineering—but the lake and dam aren't seen on the SR 169 route. It's the extraordinary landscapes along the route that are the attraction for me. These are so little known that there are never crowds, yet you can find rock, desert and mountain landscapes as dramatic as you'll find anywhere.
The drive is eye-opening as you head east from North Las Vegas on Lake Mead Boulevard and travel through growing developments until you go through a "pass" of sorts between some rocky hills, and all houses stop. Enter the Mojave Desert and everything changes. You reach the entry gate, pay a day fee of $3 per car for five days of visits, and continue on to SR 169.
At that junction is where the drama really begins. As you drive northeast, you'll begin to see compositions unfolding constantly around you. Look to the north and west of the road and you'll see Nevada's Muddy Mountains. I always thought that was an odd name for mountains until I saw them. They look like a giant put a thick layer of mud over rocks, then over the years, the mud began to break off, revealing the rocks underneath, but still holding the "rounded mud" everywhere else. With the right light and a telephoto lens, you can show off these unique geologic structures.
You'll drive through a whole range of scenery, from desert washes to rounded black cinder hills. For me, the most spectacular section is from the Callville Bay road turnoff to the Redstone Picnic area. There are multiple overlooks all along the way, each one showing different views of the mountains with the rolling shapes and eroded forms of the badlands-like desert landscape nearby. Trails lead into some attractive photo spots, and you don't have to go far to reach them.
The Redstone Picnic area is one of those terrific places that you could spend days at photographing and not duplicate anything. The red rocks surrounding the parking lot are of the same stuff seen in Valley of Fire and Red Rock Canyon. Here, though, there are rarely crowds and you're free to move throughout the area. There are hundreds of little arches and unique rock formations, but they're easy to miss among the big rock forms that are also there.
You'll find outstanding views of the mountains to the east, north and west, with great opportunities for interesting foregrounds to contrast with the distant mountains. A range of focal lengths from wide to telephoto will benefit you, plus a polarizer. Sturdy boots also help because of all the rocks, though you don't have to walk far to find exceptional photos. This is a great location at almost any time, but afternoon and sunset light is wonderful here.
Unfortunately, the visitor center for the Lake Mead area is way down by Hoover Dam. While it's interesting, it doesn't give you any information you can't get at the visitor centers in Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire, unless you want to learn the history of Lake Mead and Hoover Dam. You can get a map at the entry points.
Hopping around all the rocks in the Mojave Desert means you need a good pair of boots. Low hiking boots won't do. Higher boots help align your foot better so you're less likely to have a twisted ankle, plus they guard against the hard knocks that always happen to your feet as you climb over and on rocky places. A stiff sole can be an additional benefit. All-leather boots work well in colder seasons, but you'll find the lightweight, mesh and leather boots better for the hot conditions of this area during most of the year.
Lake Mead Recreation Area