During September of 2000, DCSki’s Editor loaded his car up and headed west, with no fixed agenda - just a yearning for some adventure and fun.
Over the course of several days, I got married (twice), gambled away my retirement account, and was hit over the head by a mobster and left for dead in the desert.
What really happened: I visited the Statue of Liberty on the way to the Eiffel Tower, stayed in a hotel with over 5,000 rooms, and accidentally won $20.
This latter event was a mistake on my part; in a video blackjack machine, I intended to hit the “bet one” button (to bet $1) but instead hit the “max bet” button (betting $10). I did this twice in a row without realizing it. Thankfully, I won both times, then realized my mistake, and cashed out.
Outside of a few quarters in a slot machine or two, that was the extent of my gambling.
Las Vegas is about more than just gambling, although gambling - now referred to as the less-threatening-sounding “gaming” - lies at the city’s core. Over the past decade, Las Vegas has reinvented itself and is now run by corporations instead of mobsters. Grandiose hotels have been blasted away to make room for even more grandiose hotels. The skyline is in a state of constant flux, as new hotel/casinos rise out of the desert ground.
Las Vegas is a recess ground for adults.
Flamboyance is the norm. Millions of watts of flashing lights glitter in an ever-changing array of colors. Thousands of gallons of water splash through man-made fountains, cheating the dryness of the Nevada desert. And everywhere you look, at every hour of the day and every day of the week, a sea of people flows through the streets of Las Vegas, with the hopes of hitting the next jackpot or at least finding a good buffet.
And there are plenty of good buffets in Las Vegas. Even the inexpensive ones - around $6.99 for dinner - offer dozens of entrees including prime rib and shrimp. It’s hard not to eat well in Las Vegas.
I checked into the MGM Grand, a hotel so large it practically needs its own zip code. In fact, with over 5,000 rooms, it’s the largest hotel in the world. It also has its own amusement park, for those keeping score.
The MGM Grand itself has a couple dozen restaurants, plenty of shops, and - not surprisingly - plenty of casino action. MGM Grand is also home to EFX, an expensive production currently headlined by Tommy Tune. The show, with its own dedicated multi-million dollar theater, includes hundreds of special effects from explosions to lasers to giant dragons that appear from nowhere. If you’re in Vegas, definitely check this out.
Right next door to MGM Grand is the New York-New York casino, complete with its own New York skyline, a replica of the Statue of Liberty, and a 300-foot-long Brooklyn Bridge. A roller coaster winds around through the skyline.
A free monorail connects the MGM Grand with Bally’s, further down the Las Vegas Strip. Similar people movers connect other casinos, such as Luxor, Excalibur, and the new Mandalay Bay. The construction of Mandalay Bay was the highlight of a recent Discovery Channel special.
Each major casino offers it own distinctive character and bag of tricks. The Bellagio has a simulated ocean in front of it; I’m told there is a spectacular fountain and light display but, unfortunately, it was so windy during my visit that the fountains were turned off.
Mandalay Bay has its own aquarium, and you can watch live lions at both MGM Grand and the Mirage. A man-made volcano erupts regularly at the Mirage. Not to be outdone, a staged battle takes place in a 65-foot-deep lagoon at Treasure Island between pirates.
Each night, there are dozens of shows throughout Las Vegas, some G-rated, some not. Comedian Rita Rudner was headlining at MGM Grand during my stay. And, as you might guess, there are plenty of Elvis impersonators roaming around the City That Never Sleeps.
So, there’s plenty to do and see at Las Vegas, even if you skip the gambling.
After a couple days in Vegas, I was rested up and ready to begin the long journey home.
I charted a route through southwestern Utah, hitting national parks including Zion, Bryce, and Capitol Reef. Each offers spectacular scenery. Unfortunately, both Zion and Bryce also offer huge crowds - the two parks are relatively small and attract an enormous number of visitors each year, leading to some challenges for the National Park Service.
Even on a weekday after the busy summer travel season, a traffic jam greeted me at the entrance to Zion National Park. There were about three lanes at the entrance station and each was backed up with a couple dozen cars. Zion has closed one of the main roads through the Park; you must ride a free shuttle, which makes regular stops throughout the Park. The parking lot at the main visitor center had hundreds of cars, with shuttles coming every 15 or so minutes.
Not willing to deal with crowds, I quickly left Zion and headed to Bryce, which is suffering similar problems. Bryce also instituted a shuttle system this past year to help alleviate some of the crowding problems. As I arrived at Bryce, the sky darkened and it began to snow. (Earlier, over a foot of snow had fallen in parts of Colorado and Wyoming, shutting down some major highways. Good timing on my part: when I was there a week earlier, there were record-breaking warm temperatures.)
The snow at Bryce didn’t accumulate, but temperatures dropped well below freezing. Having been in Las Vegas earlier that morning, I was in shorts. I quickly grabbed a campsite and put up my tent possibly faster than I ever have. With temperatures in the teens that night, I was thankful for a warm sleeping bag.
The next day, I spent some time at Capitol Reef National Park, which includes some rather narrow canyons that you can hike or drive through. Just don’t try it if there’s a chance of a flash flood.
With over 5,000 miles under my belt, I was glad to finish my trip - but also glad that I had taken it. It gave me an opportunity to see some new sights, try some new things, and recharge. Those are pretty good ingredients for a vacation.
Tips for visiting Las Vegas:
Tips for visiting remote sections of Utah:
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.