Travel

Nevada's Best Parks for Alpine Lakes, Desert Hoodoos, and Brilliant Stars

National parks, who?

Unsplash/Jannes Glas
Unsplash/Jannes Glas
Unsplash/Jannes Glas

Nevada is home to some utterly stunning, world-famous national recreation areas (see Red Rock Canyon and Lake Mead), not to mention surrounded by scores of ultra-popular national parks in neighboring states, just a few hours’ drive away: Zion and Bryce Canyon in Utah. Joshua Tree and Death Valley in California. Grand Canyon in Arizona. You get the picture.

With all that going on, it’s easy to understand why outdoor enthusiasts might be tempted to skip Nevada’s smaller state parks in favor of their flashier federal cousins-except it totally make no sense at all. While the national parks stay packed to high heaven, the state parks are seriously beautiful yet utterly quiet reprieves even at their busiest, some so underrated that you may get the wilderness all to yourself. And at night, when the time comes to stargaze beneath America’s darkest skies, the sense of isolation and views of the firmament you’ll find will give you that scary-yet-magical feeling of insignificance compared to the grandiosity of space, both terrestrial and cosmic.

There are 27 parks in Nevada’s state park system. Here are 10 to add to your bucket list.

Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock
Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock
Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

Valley of Fire

By far the most famous of Nevada’s state parks, Valley of Fire gets its name from the striking red Aztec sandstone that covers much of its 46,000 acres. The way the light hits the stunning rock formations around sunset makes the valley look like it’s on fire-making it a very popular area for all manner of photographer and influencer, especially since it’s a relatively short (about one hour) drive from Las Vegas.

Established in 1935, it’s the oldest state park in Nevada, but its history goes back much farther. The vibrant red sandstone was formed by shifting sand dunes 150 million years ago, which is easy to imagine when gazing out at formations like the sprawling Fire Wave or the equally impressive White Domes. You’ll also see ancient, petrified trees and 2,000-year-old petroglyphs. And again: lots and lots of influencers.

Photo by Susan Mowers, courtesy of TravelNevada
Photo by Susan Mowers, courtesy of TravelNevada
Photo by Susan Mowers, courtesy of TravelNevada

Sand Harbor

Located on the Nevada side (and, let’s be honest, the better side) of Lake Tahoe-North America’s largest alpine lake and one of the best lakeshores in the US and beyond-Sand Harbor has some of the best this area has to offer: Crystal-clear aquamarine water, a sandy beach that stretches for half a mile, and the stately cedars, pines, granite rock formations emblematic of the Sierras. Pack a picnic, rent some kayaks at Sand Harbor Rentals, or ride your bike on the paved Tahoe East Shore Trail.

Note: Sand Harbor is closed until September 17th due to poor air quality caused by the ongoing Caldor Fire.

Arlene Waller/Shutterstock
Arlene Waller/Shutterstock
Arlene Waller/Shutterstock

Cathedral Gorge

Imagine if Bryce Canyon and Badlands had a baby and hid it in rural Nevada where no one would think to look for it-that’s Cathedral Gorge State Park in southeastern Nevada. The cathedral-like spires and hoodoos that jut out from the bottom of the canyon floor hide winding slot canyons that can get claustrophobically narrow. You’ll find yourself surrounded by towering walls formed tens of millions of years ago by layers of volcanic ash hundreds of feet thick, and you’ll want to explore the shallow, pitch-black caves carved into those walls by time.

There is a haunting beauty to this lesser-known park, between the spooky slot canyons and the stately, mostly abandoned stone structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Plus, this part of Nevada boasts some of the darkest skies in the state, making this an excellent place for stargazing against the dramatic backdrop of the spires. The Las Vegas Astronomical Society even hosts seasonal star parties.

Photo by Sydney Martinez, courtesy of TravelNevada
Photo by Sydney Martinez, courtesy of TravelNevada
Photo by Sydney Martinez, courtesy of TravelNevada

Big Bend of the Colorado

Located in the southernmost tip of Nevada on the shores of the Colorado River, Big Bend of the Colorado is an extremely popular spot in the summertime for sweaty Las Vegans looking to cool off. For better or worse, this is a party river, with two miles of beach, a boat launch, shaded picnic areas, and year-round campgrounds. You’ll see plenty of kayakers and jet skiers, and even more people just hanging out. This is not the state park to visit when seeking solitude and serenity, but if you’re raring to socialize with a cooler full of beer in tow, this is your spot. It’s also 15 minutes away from Laughlin, which is basically a Las Vegas-by-the-River (but, like, a very quirky, semi-tacky version of Vegas). During the winter months, it gets a lot quieter, and hikers will enjoy exploring the many canyons in the area.

Jennifer Agster/Shutterstock
Jennifer Agster/Shutterstock
Jennifer Agster/Shutterstock

Kershaw-Ryan

Kershaw-Ryan is a true desert oasis: a lush, green park filled with wild grapevines, fruit tree orchards, rose gardens, white oaks, and willows, surrounded by the colorful 700-foot walls of Rainbow Canyon. Natural springs run through the canyon, providing a natural irrigation system for all of the gardens and greenery and also feeding a small pool and koi pond.

The park and its picnic areas and trails are very well-developed; its hiking trails are short but incredibly scenic, and experienced hikers can venture further out into the backcountry above the canyon. Mountain bikers can check out the newly established Barnes Canyon Mountain Biking Trails system, and campers will be spoiled by the recent total overhaul of the campgrounds, which now include coin-operated showers, RV sites, horseshoe pits, and volleyball courts. Overnighters will definitely want to make the 1.5-mile hike on the Overlook Trail to the top of the canyon rim for some outstanding night sky vistas.

Photo by Sydney Martinez, courtesy of TravelNevada
Photo by Sydney Martinez, courtesy of TravelNevada
Photo by Sydney Martinez, courtesy of TravelNevada

Cave Lake

Located in the foothills of the Schell Creek Range just 15 minutes south of Ely, all of Cave Lake’s facilities, including its campgrounds, are essentially brand new. Surrounded by lush forests of aspens, pines, and evergreens, jagged limestone formations, and alpine lakes, the high-altitude park is a popular spot for year-round fishing. Cast a line before trekking along established trails or going backcountry hiking in the surrounding mountains and forests.

In the summertime, swimming, kayaking, and flat-wake boating are the move. Greater Ely is also popular with mountain bikers, with Cave Lake’s 20 miles of solid single-track offering up some of the most scenic routes in the state. Come fall, leaf-peepers should make a beeline for the 40-mile Success Loop Scenic Drive, and in the winter, visitors can take on cross-country skiing, ice skating, and snowmobiling. And with its location situated between Great Basin National Park, a gold-tier Dark Sky Park, and Ely, known for some of the darkest skies in the lower 48, Cave Lake is also an extraordinary place for stargazing.

IrinaK/Shutterstock
IrinaK/Shutterstock
IrinaK/Shutterstock

Ward Charcoal Ovens

Also located just south of Ely, this historic preservation site is named for the six beehive-shaped charcoal ovens that were used for silver processing in the late 1870s. After the mine dried up, the ovens were used as shelters for cattle and travelers, and rumor has it that stagecoach bandits sometimes used them as hideouts. Now, they’re open for tourism, and the park has plenty of facilities for camping, picnicking, hiking, and fishing in the surrounding area. Visitors should keep an eye out for big game like elk and mule deer, large birds of prey like hawks and eagles, and an abundance of other wildlife. While here, you’ll also find yourself in the stretch of Eastern Nevada with the same stellar night skies as Cathedral Gorge, Kershaw-Ryan, and Cave Lake; plan to stay overnight and marvel at the cosmos, if you can.

N8Allen/Shutterstock
N8Allen/Shutterstock
N8Allen/Shutterstock

Walker River

Nevada’s newest state park, Walker River, is comprised of four century-old ranching properties that were privately owned and inaccessible to the public for over 125 years prior to the park’s designation. The ranches are opening in phases as the state completes development and infrastructure; currently, Pitchfork Ranch and the “Elbow” of Nine Mile Ranch are ready for exploration. Several sections of the Walker River are considered world-class by fishing enthusiasts thanks to how pristine and primitive it remains, while the East Walker, specifically, is ideal for floaters and kayakers. If you want unspoiled serenity that looks like it’s been frozen in time, look no further.

Photo courtesy of Nevada State Parks and TravelNevada
Photo courtesy of Nevada State Parks and TravelNevada
Photo courtesy of Nevada State Parks and TravelNevada

Wild Horse

If you want remote-and my God, I’m talking remote-head north to Wild Horse State Recreation Area. Rural, rustic, and (once again) remote AF, Wild Horse features a huge reservoir surrounded by rolling meadows that burst with vibrant wildflowers come summer. The park is open 365, as are the campgrounds and three rental cabins. (There are no RV hookups, but they do have restrooms and showers). Fishing is the activity of choice here year-round, with boating and hiking gaining popularity during the warmer months. Developed hiking trails are limited, but you can follow miles and miles of game trails through the vast expanse of land. In the winter, ice fishing, snowmobiling, ice skating, sledding, and skiing are all on offer, but be prepared for extreme cold and harsh conditions. This is the high desert, and it gets ICY.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you. She winters in Las Vegas and summers in Detroit, as does anybody who’s anybody. Her favorite activities include drinking beer and quoting Fight Club.

Travel

13 Reasons to Drive to Palm Springs

Rest, relaxation, and happy hour await you in the desert.

Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

SoCal winters may not cause locals to flee toward warmer weather, but it does remind us that now is a good time to visit Palm Springs. This time of year is the sweet spot where it’s not too hot during the day and the nights are perfect for a dip in a hot tub. Covered in kitsch, with a culture that encourages you to day drink and lay by a pool all day, it’s no wonder that the desert town has long been a refuge for weekend warriors looking for an escape. Bonus: You can pack up and drive, and be there in less time than it takes to binge a new Netflix series.

Palm Springs is home to a vibrant LGBTQ community-including the nation’s first all-LGBTQ city council-plus art and culture, as well as an abundance of mid-century modern architecture. A field of wind turbines welcome you to town, and once you’re there you’ll be welcomed by leaning palm trees and craggy mountain ranges that keep inspiration flowing. Here you can find warm weather, outdoor activities, and an abundance of restaurants and shops. You’ll also find plenty of opportunities to lounge poolside and do close to nothing, if that’s more your vibe. Use our recommendations below to craft your perfect weekend. You deserve it.

Editor’s note: The city of Palm Springs requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination status or a recent negative COVID test result for entry into the city’s indoor bars and restaurants. Make sure you plan accordingly.

Photo courtesy of Fleur Noire
Photo courtesy of Fleur Noire
Photo courtesy of Fleur Noire

Chill out in style

So you decided to make the good choice to spend a weekend in Palm Springs and need a place to stay. Sure, you could go the Airbnb route, of which the town has many. Or you could enjoy the luxury and amenities of one of Palm Springs’ beautifully designed hotels.

If you’re traveling with a whole posse, consider the boutique hotel, Limón. Their interiors are bright, cheery, and inspired by mid-century modern and 1960s Mexico City. The seven-room property books as one unit and can accommodate you and 13 of your pals. It includes a communal kitchen, an entertainment room, pool, and BBQ area. During your stay, let their staff take the wheel and plan your days. They can assist in creating the perfect stay, like a night out for a bachelor/ette party, a hot air balloon excursion, or a personal chef to cook for you and your crew.

For those looking for an intimate stay for two, try the adults-only hotel, Dive. It’s hard not to feel romantic in their elegant rooms inspired by the 1960s French Riviera. Personally, we fell in love at “free glass of rosé upon check-in.” During Valentine’s Day weekend they will up their complimentary glass by offering a complimentary bottle of French Pool Toy Rosé and two chocolate-covered strawberries per room.

You can’t miss Fleur Noire, with its black exterior that makes it stand out amongst Palm Springs’ otherwise brightly colored architecture. The interiors feel airy, modern, and are punctuated with wallpaper bearing large floral prints. The property consists of an array of casitas, studios, and standard rooms surrounding the communal pool. The hotel is near Palm Springs’ famed Palm Canyon Drive with shops and restaurants. However, if you want to stay a bit closer to your home-tel, you can access Sandfish Sushi & Whiskey through their back gate. Try their signature Black Mussels served with hijiki seaweed, scallions, and miso sake broth. On the Fleur Noire property, you can grab a drink at their rosé and champagne bar, La Boisson.

Aptly named Tiki Hotel is a nod to the 1950s & ‘60s affinity for tiki culture. If you don’t like kitsch and bold design, this is not the place for you. The 11-room property boasts island-themed decor, with vibrant colors and patterns galore. You can lounge by their pool or jump on one of the provided beach cruisers to explore the Palm Springs Design District and nearby shops and restaurants.

Photo by Jenni-Kate Rogers, courtesy of Boozehounds
Photo by Jenni-Kate Rogers, courtesy of Boozehounds
Photo by Jenni-Kate Rogers, courtesy of Boozehounds

Try out the Palm Springs food scene

At some point you might want to stop taking your food and drinks poolside and head into a restaurant. Palm Springs has something for everyone and at least one restaurant for the dogs. Boozehounds makes you wonder: is this a dog-friendly restaurant or a human-friendly dog restaurant? Either way, we’re all in! The restaurant has a large patio perfect for your pooch or if you prefer to dine sans dog, they have an indoor dining area. They serve a wide selection of food, from Japanese yellowtail to a Double Cheeseburger, all inspired by Southern California. They even have a menu just for dogs. with items like a bowl of skirt steak, steamed rice, and sweet potato. As the name suggests, they have a great selection of booze in the form of cocktails, wine, and beer. Not to leave dogs out, you can order your fur baby a weenie-teenie, a concoction of chicken broth, chicken whipped cream, and a dog biscuit crumble. Non-alcoholic, of course.

Eat brunch or lunch outdoors at El Patio, a family-owned Mexican restaurant. Try the Breakfast Enchiladas that come with squash, spinach, corn, cheese, and topped with your choice of green or red sauce and two fried eggs. Or opt for the Bone-in Chicken covered with mole poblano and pipian sauces, garnished with red onion, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds. Make sure to save room for their churro cart that comes with three different dipping sauces and sprinkles.

One of the most exciting restaurants in Palm Springs right now is Bar Cecil. The culinary commander of the place is Gabe Woo, a Coachella Valley native and local celeb known for his dinner series at Sparrows Lodge and Holiday House that were hard to get into. Woo takes bistro-style foods and expands on it while using seasonal produce from local farms. We can’t promise you it’ll be easy to get a table but we can say that their bar area takes walk-ins where you can order a juicy, flavorful burger and a delicious pork chop with a hint of smokiness. Or order from their “Why Not” menu where you can find swanky items like their infamous $50 martini-Beluga vodka with a kiss of Alessio vermouth is poured tableside in a perfectly chilled glass. The drink is served on a silver tray with a Regiis Ova caviar-topped deviled egg and a bowl of sunchoke chips.

Seymour's
Seymour’s
Seymour’s

Grab a cocktail or two

Drink across decades at Truss & Twine, a cocktail bar that celebrates the history of drinks in America. The interiors may be dark and dramatic, but their staff are friendly and happy to share their knowledge on libations with you. We recommend trying one of their original cocktails like the Game Changer that comes with gin, lime, cucumber, sugar, onion brine, sea salt, and celery bitters. They also serve food that does not resemble typical bar food fare, like their Wagyu Oxtail Grilled Cheese with cheddar, caramelized onion, and green chile aioli. For a mellow night, take a trip to the local speakeasy Seymours, located next to Mr. Lyons Steakhouse. Enter through the unmarked side entrance and step into a bar with chill vibes, moody lighting, and an intimate atmosphere with extraordinary bartenders. They also offer outdoor seating. Try their Oaxcan Hemingway with mezcal, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice, and simple syrup.

Photo courtesy of Fantasy Balloon Flights
Photo courtesy of Fantasy Balloon Flights
Photo courtesy of Fantasy Balloon Flights

Take in the scenery

September through May, Fantasy Balloon Flights will show you the world… or at least the vastness of the Coachella Valley from the sky. Rest assured, the hot air balloon company has been at it for some time (since 1981 to be exact). For those that need a bit of liquid courage, champagne balloon adventures are available.

Hop on the world’s largest rotating tramcar at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The car takes you on a ten-minute ride up and along the cliffs of Chino Canyon for picturesque views of the desert until you arrive at your destination, Mt. San Jacinto State Park. At the top, there are places to grab food, observation decks, and over 50 miles of hiking trails. And if you go during the winter there’s a good chance there will be snow.

Bon Vivant Palm Springs
Bon Vivant Palm Springs
Bon Vivant Palm Springs

Load up on new and new-to-you goods

Look for retro wares in the land of mid-century modern majesty. Palm Springs may not have invented the style but they sure do embrace it. Go on a vintage crawl on Palm Canyon Drive and gander at shops like Bon Vivant, Modernway, and Revivals. There you can find eccentric accents and mid-century modern furniture to buy or give you major design inspo. While you’re around, you might as well spruce up your wardrobe at vintage boutiques like The Frippery, Iconic Atomic, and Bazar.

If you prefer to be the first owner of your items, check out the Mojave Flea Trading Post. Contrary to its name, the indoor department store features about 95% new and 5% vintage goods. Browse the stylish works of 40+ local artisans and find art, jewelry, clothes, natural beauty products, home goods, and more.

Photo courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge & Cabaret
Photo courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge & Cabaret
Photo courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge & Cabaret

Support the LGBTQ community

For a bar that has a mission statement that is as good as its food, try Blackbook. Named after the black book in Nevada, a list of notorious people not welcomed in casinos, owner Dean Lavine explains, “We like to think that everyone has been on a blacklist at some point in time. Gay, bullied, racially excluded, Raiders fans, etc.” The bar prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming to all, with some of the best food in Palm Springs. We’re partial to their Palm Springs-style nachos, a version they invented that ensures every chip has cheese so no one is left with a cheese-less chip when sharing. We can’t forget about their drinks. They have a full bar with the largest whiskey selection in the valley, with over 450 different bourbons, ryes, scotches, and international whiskeys, along with beers and other adult canned and bottled beverages.

After eating, sing your heart out at Quadz, where VJs are playing clips of beloved musical theater. You will have a great time at this lively bar even if musicals aren’t your “thing.” However, after a few of their notoriously strong and affordable drinks, you may be belting out Streisand with the best of them. Reserve a spot at Toucans and see a performance at Palm Springs’ longest continuously running drag show. Drag shows are Thursday-Monday with a different theme each night. No matter what day you go, it’s always a good time at Toucans, making it a favorite for tourists and locals alike, but pro-tip: Monday nights are free.

Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum

Get your art and culture fix

It may be hard to peel yourself away from basking in the sun, but take a break and explore the Palm Springs Art Museum. You can find modern and contemporary art, architecture, and design objects that reflect Palm Springs’ unique history, culture, and place.

Photo courtesy of Feel Good Spa
Photo courtesy of Feel Good Spa
Photo courtesy of Feel Good Spa

Recharge at a spa

Between work, existential crises, and living through a global pandemic, we all could use a relaxing spa moment. Book a massage at the Ace Hotel’s Feel Good Spa. Try their Rose Goodness, where a masseuse will use quartz massagers to get deep into your muscle tissue. The use of rose quartz is said to help replace toxic emotions and blockages to the heart chakra with loving energy. Release tension and stress and gain clarity through a holistic treatment at The Spa at The Colony Palms Hotel & Bungalows. They offer a wide range of services, including massages, facials, body treatments, vibrational sound healing, and acutaping.

Big Wheel Tours
Big Wheel Tours
Big Wheel Tours

Go on a tour

Cruise through the desert landscape on two wheels (or by Jeep or by hiking) with Big Wheel Tours. If your interests are more architecture than nature, check out Modern & More Bike Tours and see architecturally and historically significant homes in South Palm Springs.

If biking is not your style, hop in Palm Springs Mod Squad‘s van and take part in a mid-century modern architecture tour. Choose the martini option to learn more about the cocktail and cap off your tour with James Bond’s favorite drink. Their expert will explain why martinis are shaken and not stirred. They also offer socially distanced options for those that prefer to stay in their own car.

Indian Canyons & Tahquitz Canyon
Indian Canyons & Tahquitz Canyon
Indian Canyons & Tahquitz Canyon

Hike historic trailheads

If you prefer to see the desert terrain by foot, Indian Canyon Trails offer a plethora of hiking options that include cool streams and lush oases. You may even see a BigHorn Sheep. Indian Canyons is the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and you can learn more about their history through preserved rock art, irrigation ditches, and food preparation areas.

The Living Desert
The Living Desert
The Living Desert

Explore desert plant life

See desert animals and plants thriving at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. The world-class wildlife and botanical park has almost 430 animals, including cheetahs, giraffes, and camels as well as creatures native to the area. After that, head to Moorten Botanical Garden aka Cactus Castle, and explore over a dozen arid biomes and thousands of specimens sourced from all over the world. Plus, see rocks, crystals, fossils, gold-mining relics, and desert tortoises. If you feel inspired to become a plant parent after your visit, Moorten’s has a nursery for you to take home your own prickly bundle of joy.

Palm Springs Windmill Tours
Palm Springs Windmill Tours
Palm Springs Windmill Tours

Take a windmill selfie

The rows and rows of wind turbines off the I-10 on your way to Palm Springs are almost as iconic to the area as palm trees. If you’ve ever been curious about what they do, reserve a tour with Palm Springs Windmill Tours to see these 300-foot behemoths up close and learn how they power the entire Coachella Valley.

The Lights at Indio GC
The Lights at Indio GC
The Lights at Indio GC

Tee off after the sun goes down

If you burnt too much daylight at the pool or on hikes and weren’t able to get a round of golf in during the day, The Lights at Indio Golf Course has you covered. The Desert’s only night-lit course allows you to hit the links after dark.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Keisha Raines is a LA-based freelance writer born and raised in the Palm Springs area with a tattoo of the San Jacinto mountains to prove it.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.