7 Options for Non-Gamblers in Vegas

For non-gamblers, there's only one thing worse than the blinding neon glare of nights in Las Vegas. Days in Las Vegas.

For whatever reason -- conventions, trade shows, family reunions, car trouble -- legions of people arrive in Vegas who care absolutely nothing about throwing dice or lining up cherries on a slot machine. Fortunately (and, no doubt, surprisingly to some), the city offers many other daytime diversions, some on the Strip, others in far-flung parts of the city rarely seen by tourists, and all within a reasonable drive of the fabled Strip (with one notable exception).

Here are seven ways to kill an afternoon in Sin City without broiling by the pool, shopping away your gambling money or holding a chip, starting with that notable exception. For most, a car will come in handy, but many tour companies offer day trips by coach.

 

1. HAVE A DEATH VALLEY DAY. Comprising more than 3.3 million acres in the middle of the desert, Death Valley National Park is about 2 1/2 hours from Vegas and light-years apart. While visitors are better served by spending a couple of days exploring the park (remember, it's 3.3 million acres), you can get a good sense of what it's like on a day trip.

Start at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to get your bearings and then head for Badwater, the lowest point (282 feet below sea level) in the Western Hemisphere. Snap a picture to prove to your friends that you were there, and then take your pick of diversions: hike, explore the Rhyolite ghost town or the old borax works, go horseback riding at Furnace Creek Ranch, or just drive around and ogle. You'll leave wishing you'd booked a room for the night at the incongruously chichi Furnace Creek Inn.

Open year-round, though the summer heat is unbearable(110 degrees-plus). $10 vehicle entrance fee is good for a week. Rangers offer talks, walks and guided hikes November through April. Details/directions: 760-786-3200, www.nps.gov/deva

2. MUSEUM HOP. Strangely enough, Vegas is full of 'em. The Venetian resort has a Guggenheim branch, while the Bellagio hotel is hosting "Faberge: Treasures From the Kremlin" in its Gallery of Fine Art. Elsewhere, museums are devoted to Elvis, Native Americans, cars, gaming memorabilia, even King Tut. My advice? Mix and match. Three choices:

1. The Natural History Museum is a modest affair featuring kid's faves like a shark tank, snakes, fake mammals, robotic dinosaurs and a gallery with scratch-and-sniff displays of Nevada wildlife. Badgers? Yes. You'll need to sniff the steenkin' badgers.

2. At the Liberace Museum, donated by the glitzmonger himself, a self-important film precedes a tour of the late entertainer's gaudy doodads, including his jewelry and costumes, vintage cars and historic pianos. The $12 admission fee, however, is the one thing that's truly over the top.

3. A better deal is the fascinating, and free, Nevada Test Site History Center -- if you can find it (call for directions). Open only from noon to 4 p.m. weekdays, the one-room exhibit features a timeline of the country's nuclear testing program interspersed with relics of the era and a model of the site in the nearby desert. And the gift shop rocks.

Natural History Museum, 900 Las Vegas Blvd. N., 702-384-DINO,www.lvnhm.org; $6. Liberace Museum, 1775 E. Tropicana Ave., 702-798-5595,www.liberace.com; $12. Nevada Test Site History Center, 2621 Losee Rd., 702-295-1198; free. For other museums, see the info sources listed below.

3. TAKE A TRIP TO THE MOON. Less than 20 miles out of town lies the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and its lunar landscape. Here you can hike, bike, climb, ride horses, camp or drive your way through nearly 200,000 acres of dusty terrain.

Start on the horseshoe-shape scenic loop, a 13 miler that passes the Visitor Center, picnic areas and scenic vistas. While on the loop, you should plan to stop and hike one of the 23 trails of differing degrees of difficulty -- many of which allow you to commune with nature . . . alone. But don't forget to look up, because those specks on the red rock wall up ahead will be climbers inching their way along the rock face. Also expect to see an interesting array of wildlife, including wild burros and snakes.

One warning: Like Death Valley, conditions in the summer can be dangerous, so try to plan your trip in the late fall through early spring.

Red Rock Canyon is 17 miles west of the Strip on Mount Charleston Boulevard. One-day vehicle passes are $5. Details: 702-363-1921, www.redrockcanyon.blm.gov.

4. GO ON AN URBAN SAFARI. Kids love it, and you'll get the lay of the southern Strip by spending a few hours on the trail of the town's ubiquitous caged casino critters. Wear comfortable shoes and start at the Mandalay Bay resort, which features tropical birds in the lobby and, more impressively, the Shark Reef, an aquarium that's home to more than 100 different species, including crocs, rays and, of course, sharks.

Next, head down to the Tropicana for its Wildlife Walk -- the birds and marmosets are nothing special, but you can at least enjoy the AC on a hot afternoon. Directly across the street via a pedestrian bridge is the MGM Grand's Lion Habitat, which is another free attraction but is far more ambitious; guests stroll through giant glass-enclosed pens as the felines watch. Then stroll about 15 minutes north to the Flamingo and its Wildlife Habitat, which is intertwined with the resort's Grade-A pool. The flamingos are gorgeous, but you'll have to pry yourself away from the African penguin pool.

Finally, cross the street and make your way to the Mirage and Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat. I didn't expect much and came away humbled. The stars are rare white lions, snow white tigers and striped white tigers, all in lush habitats that allow the cats to amble up to guests. For Vegas, it's shockingly sophisticated.

All of the attractions areopen daily and are free, except for Mandalay's Shark Reef ($14.95) and the Mirage's Secret Garden ($10).

5. VISIT HOOVER DAM. Unfortunately, 9/11 security concerns have dampened the experience a tad, as dam tours offer less access than before and traffic creeps along for vehicle inspections. But the behemoth, about a half-hour southeast of Vegas, is still a big attraction.

Dedicated in 1935, the dam is well worth a few hours of your time. Start at the excellent visitor center and take the fascinating tour. Then wander around outside and admire the public art and the vertiginous view from the top. For lunch, skip the cafeteria and head back to nearby Boulder City -- it's a pretty little town that most people just blow through. Or pack a meal in Vegas and stop a few miles from the dam at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, where you can picnic on the beach and then explore by car the desert surrounding the shores. If you're feeling adventurous, you can fish, water ski, kayak or canoe.

Hoover Dam is about 30 miles from the Strip; parking is $5, tours $10. Details: 702-294-3517,www.hooverdam.usbr.gov. The vehicle entrance fee at Lake Mead NRA is $5. Details:702-293-8907,www.nps.gov/lame.

6. SCREAM YOUR WAY TO THE STATE LINE. While there are plenty of water parks and kitschy motion-simulator rides tucked in the casinos, roller-coaster buffs can spend a day getting more visceral thrills clear out to the Nevada-California border. Atop the Stratosphere resort's iconic tower sits the High Roller, billed as the world's tallest coaster at more than 100 stories above ground. It's not that fast, but the view will get your heart pumping.

A few blocks away at the Sahara is Speed -- the Ride, which propels coasterheads from 35 mph to 70 mph in two seconds right through the casino's marquee. About a half-hour west of town in Primm, just off I-15 at the border, is the Desperado at Buffalo Bill's Resort. It's one of the world's fastest and tallest coasters and a must-ride for aficionados.

I love Manhattan Express at the New York New York hotel. It's ridiculously expensive ($12), but it's the only time I've ever enjoyed screaming in a New York taxicab, which the coaster's cars are modeled after. And seeing the Statue of Liberty while riding upside down is a hoot.

High Roller at the Stratosphere (2000 Las Vegas Blvd. S, tower admission/coaster, $11); Speed at the Sahara (2535 Las Vegas Blvd. S., $8 for two rides); Desperado at Buffalo Bill's (I-15 in Primm, $6); Manhattan Express at New York New York (3790 Las Vegas Blvd., $12). Discount coupons can often be found in hotel room city guides.

7. TOUR A FACTORY. If you've ever wondered how chocolate is made or how vitamins are packaged, you're in luck, as Vegas has some of the weirdest factory tours around. The best part: All are free and self-guided, so you'll only spend money on gas.

In a town steeped with oddities, you'll be hard pressed to find anything odder than Ron Lee's World of Clowns in Henderson, about 20 minutes from the Strip. Watch as grim-faced workers paint smiles on creepy little clown statues; then go to the gallery and marvel at the prices. There's a nice cafe on site and a cool diorama of a carnival that comes to life for 25 cents. More fun is the Ethel M Chocolates tour, also in Henderson. Hershey does it better, but there's a free piece of chocolate at the end. Outside, budget in some time for the wonderful Botanical Cactus Garden, a 2 1/2-acre spread highlighting 350 species.

I thought it was fascinating, but others raced by me to get to the shop at the end of the self-guided tour of the National Vitamin Co., only minutes from the Strip. It takes about 10 minutes or so to see the whole production line, but that shop is a whopper, and according to the folks I was with, the vitamin prices are excellent.

When you are home it is easy to satisfy your love of gambling during the day. You can find all of your favorite casino games at casino.org and play without the distractions of the city around you. You can improve your poker skills at poker sites recommended at Cardschat.com without the pressure of making live game decisions. But when you are in Vegas and need to get away from the casinos during the day there are some other options available.

Ron Lee's World of Clowns, 330 Carousel Pkwy., 702-434-1700, www.ronlee.com; Ethel M, 2 Cactus Garden Dr., 888-627-0990, www.ethelm.com; National Vitamin Co., 7440 S. Industrial Rd., 888-346-6848; www.nationalvitamin.com

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