Worlds Away From Slot Machines

The other Las Vegas is awash in roses, pelicans, and sharks.


Red Rock Canyon.

Photo by John Fowler (CC)

Certain questions sound like ready-made reality-TV challenges. For instance: What can you do in Las Vegas besides gamble?

The quick answer is: Tons. The subtler, more irresistible answer is: Which would you prefer? Pop-cultural kitsch, cutting-edge engineering, and/or the wonders of nature?

Consider nature first, as it’s the diametric opposite of why most folks visit Las Vegas. Fifteen miles west of town, this region’s best “before” picture is Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. A scenic 13-mile loop road through these 300 sunset-colored spiky, stratified square miles of cactus-, cliff-, and hill-studded desert, crisscrossed with dozens of hiking and equestrian trails where shadows shift under huge moody skies, is comfortably astonishing even if you never exit your vehicle. But you should.

Craving nature without a car? Radiant under a vast verdigris-trimmed skylight-y ceiling glowing moody blue by night, airily golden-gray by day, the Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Garden comprises tens of thousands of flowers: sheets, fountains, and mountains of live blooms configured masterfully along with structures, sculptures, stones, swings, suspensions, waterworks, trees, and lights into seasonally shifting, Rose Parade-ish mega-displays such as a Japanese village or a fairytale farmyard featuring giant pumpkins and a car-sized cornucopia.

Photo by Genevieve (CC)

Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Garden.

The gardens at the Wynn Casino and Hotel also feature seasonal displays fashioned amid ficus trees and thousands upon thousands of flowering plants. The Wynn’s major semi-natural wonder is its shimmering three-acre Lake of Dreams, outfitted with a pine-crowned peak, 40-foot waterfall, and otherworldly music-and-light shows.

A taste of the tropics under a desert sky, the Flamingo Hotel Casino’s palm-shaded, multi-ponded Wildlife Habitat houses bubblegum-pink Chilean flamingoes along with swans, turtles, parrots, koi, ringed teals, sacred ibis, and pelicans. Crowds gather to watch the animals being fed twice daily.

Relaxing in or around the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino’s swimming pool requires—well, relaxing with sharks. Stocked with some 300 live sea creatures including six species of sharks, rays, and other elasmobranchs, a three-story, 200,000-gallon aquarium-style tank soars like a translucent column from the middle of the pool.

Photo by Martin Campbell (CC)

Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino swimming pool and shark tank.

Flanking the Mirage’s check-in desk, a 53-foot-long, 20,000-gallon saltwater aquarium houses a thousand specimens spanning 85 exotic species including angelfish, pufferfish, and eels. Evoking Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, this dreamy environment with its jewel-bright occupants feels worlds away from slot machines.

Seeking more sea creatures—along with a komodo dragon and golden crocodile? Mandalay Bay’s nearly 2-million-gallon Shark Reef Aquarium houses thousands of live creatures in numerous enclosures, including interactive and walk-through tanks. But while the Mirage’s and Golden Nugget’s aquariums are free to see, this one isn’t.

Nature and technology merge in the Mirage’s pyro-aquatic, startlingly techno-spiritual nightly Volcano Shows and the Bellagio’s graceful, musical, moonlit Fountain Shows. Downtown Las Vegas’ Mob Museum—examining organized crime—and the Strip’s Pinball Hall of Fame offer further hours of nongambling fun.




Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area: 1000 Scenic Loop Drive, 702-515-5350,

Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Garden: 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 888-987-6667,

Golden Nugget Shark Tank: 129 E. Fremont St., 702-385-7111,

Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay: 3950 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-632-4555,


Published online on June 22, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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