Take State Roads 167/166 south to drive along Lake Mead.
Take State Roads 167/166 south to drive along Lake Mead. iStock

Las Vegas is the epitome of the bright lights-big city state of mind. But it is surprising how little time it takes to get away from the glitz and be in the midst of a different vibe, that of the awesome Mojave Desert that surrounds the gaming mecca.

If you get to the Mortgage Bankers Association's annual conference in Vegas a little early, a day trip away from Mandalay Bay (the convention hotel) will easily get you a view of some amazing natural (and man-made) landmarks and get you back to the big city in time to hit the slots.

The red of the roulette table will soon recede in favor of the vibrant crimson of the red sandstone rocks in the area.

Just a few miles from the city via State Road 215 is Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

This place is literally amazing. You are within 20 miles of millions of people (17 miles west from the Strip, according to its website) yet there is not a sight of any of them. The Mojave landscape looks a little like the surface of the moon or Mars.

There is a 13-mile road loop with stops along the way that is the best way to experience this scenic 200,000 acre spot. A million people a year come to visit, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

In addition to the scenic loop, the conservation area also offers more than 30 miles of hiking trails, rock climbing, horseback riding, mountain biking, road biking, picnic areas, nature observing and a visitor center with exhibit rooms and a book store.

Heading northwest, still only a few miles from the Strip (technically still inside the city) is the 4,000-acre Snow Mountain reservation of the Las Vegas Paiute tribe. An impulse to compare American Indian gaming to the Vegas sort can't be done here.

The tiny tribe (there are fewer than 100 members in this band of the Paiute) does not compete against the elaborate gaming palaces of Vegas.

However, the tribe does have what it describes as the biggest smoke shop in the country by volume of sales and a golf resort designed by Pete Dye, in case you want to take to the links.

The resort has three golf courses, a restaurant, a 50,000-square-foot clubhouse and an event venue.

Continuing northeast, about 55 miles from the big city on Interstate 15 you'll come to Valley of Fire State Park, which has got to be one of the best names for a park in the country.

No need to worry for your safety, though. Just use your imagination as you view the vivid red rock formations and you can imagine the park is on fire. But it isn't.

You can stop along the road and view petroglyphs made on the rocks by ancient Indians, and there are examples of petrified wood, the first time I ever saw this remarkable creation (the soft wood of the trees gets replaced by minerals that become rock but keep the form of the tree remnant).

What's a petroglyph? It is a carving on rocks left by former residents of the area who used stone chisels and rock hammers.

The first time I saw petroglyphs was in New Mexico, and I was amazed to see what was certainly a parrot carved in rocks hundreds or thousands of miles from where these tropical birds live (evidence of a long chain of trading down through Mexico and Central America). Not rock paintings, and not graffiti, they are reminders that our species will be creative wherever it gets the chance.

After these three stops you might start thinking about heading home for a night at the casino at Mandalay Bay or a meal at a Vegas restaurant (Charlie Palmer's in the Four Seasons hotel adjacent to Mandalay Bay is the best steakhouse in America IMHO). But you have one more stop to make, and you really don't want to miss this.

That is Lake Mead, and the modest construction at the south of the lake called Hoover Dam.

State Roads 167/166 south from Valley of Fire will take you along the lake and down to the massive dam, which straddles the Nevada-Arizona state line as well as the lake and the Colorado River that flows beneath it.

The dam, 726 feet high, was built in five years during the Great Depression and weighs more than 6.6 million tons, its website will tell you.

It required more than five million barrels of concrete to complete.

Those who aren't claustrophobic can take tours of the interior works, or if you prefer fresh air you can walk across the top of the dam on a pedestrian walkway to Arizona and back (agoraphobics could get a little queasy here).

Either way, the dam is one of the greatest works of American engineering and can-do attitude. It is a must-see that is also easily reachable from Vegas in the other direction, with no detours out into the desert, if you only have time for one destination outside the city.