Desolate NEVADA consists largely of endless tracts of bleak, empty desert, its flat sagebrush plains cut intermittently by angular mountain ranges. Apart from the huge acreages given over to mining and grazing, much of Nevada is used by the military to test aircraft and weapons systems.
By far the most compelling reason to visit Nevada is to see the surreal oasis of Las Vegas. While its eye-popping architecture, lavish restaurants, decadent nightclubs and amazing shows offer an unforgettable sensory overload, the experience remains rooted in gambling. Even the smaller and more down-to-earth settlements of Reno and state capital Carson City revolve around the casino trade.
In the Great Basin, where the rivers and streams have no outlet to the ocean, Nevada has an eerie beauty. The main cross-state route, I-80, shoots from Salt Lake City to Reno, skirting bizarrely named little towns scattered with casinos, bars, brothels and motels. The other significant road, US-50, has a reputation as the loneliest highway in America. Older and slower, it follows much the same route as the Pony Express of the 1860s, but many towns have faded away altogether.
The fundamental choice for Las Vegas visitors is whether to stay one of the colossal mega-casinos on the Strip, which is home to twenty of the world’s 27 largest hotels. Between them, these hold over 75,000 high-quality, and often very luxurious, rooms, but stays inevitably entail long queues to check in, a lack of personal service and endless walking to and fro. Downtown is smaller and on a more manageable scale, while finding a room elsewhere in the city is not recommended for anyone hoping to experience all that makes Las Vegas unique. Note that every room changes in price every night. A room that costs $49 on Wednesday may well be $199 on Friday and Saturday, so it’s best to visit during the week rather than the weekend. Most hotels also charge so-called “resort fees”, which cover internet access, phone calls and the like, and all hotel bills are also subject to an additional room tax of twelve percent on the Strip, and thirteen percent downtown.
Still a Las Vegas headliner in its own right, Caesars Palace remains arguably the biggest name on the Strip. Cobbled together for just $24 million, it opened in 1966, complete with clerks dressed as Roman centurions and cocktail waitresses kitted out like Cleopatra. White marble Classical statues are still everywhere you look, from Julius Caesar forever hailing a cab on the main driveway to the Winged Victory of Samothrace guarding a row of gently cascading pools. While the central bulk of Caesars Palace is set back around 150 yards from the Strip, all the intervening space has been built over, most notably by the vast Forum mall, in which a domed false-sky ceiling cycles between “day” and “night” at hourly intervals.
Nevada’s legendary Burning Man Festival is celebrated in a temporary, vehicle-free community known as Black Rock City, way out in the Black Rock Desert, twelve miles north of tiny Gerlach, which is itself a hundred miles north of Reno. It takes place at the end of August each year, in the week leading up to Labor Day. That’s a very, very hot time to be out in the Nevada desert, particularly if, like perhaps half of the fifty thousand revellers, you’re completely naked.
The festival takes a different theme each year, always with a strong emphasis on spontaneity and mass participation. An exhilarating range of performances, happenings and art installations culminates in the burning of a giant human effigy on the final Saturday. After that, in theory at least, Black Rock City simply disappears without trace.
For full information and the latest ticket prices, for which the standard rate is around $380 for the week, access burningman.com. All visitors must buy tickets in advance; you can’t pay at the gate. Only those who can prove total self-sufficiency are admitted; that means you have to bring all your water, food and shelter. The site holds no public showers or pools and its economy is almost entirely based on barter. No money can change hands, other than for coffee and ice.
Every Las Vegas casino offers free drinks to gamblers. Sit at a slot machine or gaming table, and a cocktail waitress will find you and take your order; tips are expected. In addition, the casinos hold bars and lounges of all kinds; very few tourists venture further afield to drink. Strip bars tend to be themed, as with the Irish pubs of New York–New York; downtown they’re a bit more rough- and-ready. A new generation of visitors is responsible for the spectacular growth in the city’s clubbing scene. casinos like the Cosmopolitan and Wynn Las Vegas now boast some of the world’s most spectacular – and expensive – clubs and ultra-lounges.
Las Vegas used to be a byword for bad food, with just the occasional mobster-dominated steakhouse to relieve the monotony of pile’em-high buffets. Those days have gone. Every major Strip casino now holds half a dozen or more high-quality restaurants, run by top chefs from all over the world. Prices have soared, to a typical minimum spend of $50 per head at big-name places, but so too have standards, and you could eat a great meal in a different restaurant every night in casinos such as Aria, Bellagio, the Cosmopolitan and the Venetian.
The Strip is once more riding high as the entertainment epicentre of the world. While Elvis may have left the building, headliners such as Celine Dion and Elton John attract thousands of big-spending fans night after night, and all the major touring acts pass through. Meanwhile the old-style feathers-and-sequins revues have been supplanted by a never-ending stream of jaw-droppingly lavish shows by the Cirque du Soleil, plus the postmodern likes of the Blue Men.
Just across the border from Utah, Great Basin National Park encapsulates the scenery of the Nevada desert, from angular peaks to high mountain meadows cut by fast-flowing streams. Guided tours from the visitor centre at Lehman Caves, five miles west of tiny Baker, explore limestone caves that are densely packed with intriguing formations. Beyond the caves, a twelve-mile road climbs the east flank of the bald, usually snowcapped Wheeler Peak, where trails lead past alpine lakes and through a grove of gnarled, ancient bristlecone pines to the 13,063ft summit. Off-track cross-country skiing is excellent in winter.
Just under an hour’s drive southeast of Las Vegas, the mighty Hoover Dam straddles the Colorado River. While this graceful 726ft-tall concrete marvel does not, as many visitors imagine, supply a significant proportion of the electricity that keeps Las Vegas running, its construction during the 1930s triggered the growth spurt, and the gambling boom, that created the modern city.
The main highway to Arizona, US-83, crosses the Colorado on a new bridge, slightly downstream from the dam. To see the dam itself, leave the highway via the spur roads at either end, park in the multistorey garage on the Nevada side, and walk down to the Visitor Center. Displays there explain the story and inner workings of the dam, but paying just a little extra entitles you to join a Powerplant Tour, and ride an elevator down to its base. The hour-long Dam Tour takes you right into its bowels, exploring its dank and mysterious tunnels.
The first, and arguably the best, of Las Vegas’s modern breed of replica “cities”, New York–New York, opened in 1997. Its exterior – a squeezed-up, half-sized rendition of the Manhattan skyline as it looked in the 1950s – is best admired from the tiny little yellow cabs of its Roller Coaster, which speed at 67mph around the towers.
In the old days, the casinos along Las Vegas’s legendary Strip were cut-throat rivals. Each stood a long way back from the road, and was a dark, low-ceilinged labyrinth, in which it was all but impossible to find an exit. During the 1980s, however, visitors started to explore the Strip on foot. Mogul Steve Wynn cashed in by placing a flame-spouting volcano outside his new Mirage. As the casinos competed to lure in pedestrians, they filled in those daunting distances from the sidewalk and between each casino and the next.
With Las Vegas booming in the 1990s, gaming corporations bought up first individual casinos, and then each other. The Strip today is dominated by just two colossal conglomerates, MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment, each of which owns a string of neighbouring casinos. Once you own the casino next door, there’s no reason to make each a virtual prison. The Strip has therefore opened out, so that much of its central portion now consists of pedestrian-friendly open-air terraces and pavilions housing bars and restaurants.