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Betting on more than slots for Vegas fun

Wheels spinning, bright lights flashing, music pounding, quarters clinking, winners screaming: Viva Las Vegas.It’s a city that makes one’s heart beat faster just to keep up the pace. However, when the sensory input overwhelms the brain or the wallet cries out in pain, take a break from the casinos and enjoy some of the other attractions in and around gamblers’ gulch.Museums, hiking paths and other recreational activities can be found both in the city and within a short drive. Nature offers a lot around Las Vegas.Nevada is a geologic wonder, where sedimentary, volcanic and metamorphic rock formations collided, bent, rose and fell, which created a hodge-podge landscape. Hikers can find fossils, minerals and Indian artifacts or view ghost towns, old mines and rock art from past civilizations.Two popular hiking destinations are the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and the Valley of Fire State Park. Both contain sandstone spirals, arches, gypsum formations and springs that create wonderful walking environments. Red Rock Canyon, located 12 miles west of the city, is the most popular hiking destination because of its close proximity to Las Vegas. Hiking trails, one to six miles in length, are accessible from a 13-mile paved scenic loop.It’s worth a stop at Red Springs to see the boulders and sandstone hills covered with Indian rock art – known as petroglyphs.But the suburbs of Las Vegas are encroaching on the Red Rock Canyon area. So, if one is looking for a little more solitude, head northeast on Interstate Highway 15, and exit at Highway 169 to visit the Valley of Fire State Park.Less than an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, the park presents an entirely different world.A visitor center provides an overview of the park’s geology and history, and there are 10 trails ranging from 11 miles to three-tenths of a mile. October through May are the best months for hiking in the park, but anytime of the year it’s best to bring bottled water because there is none for sale in the park.During spring, the desert is dotted with red and yellow cactus blossoms, purple phacelia flowers, yellow creosote buds and spectacular pink desert willow flowers that look similar to orchids. Watch for little lizards darting between crevices in the sandstone. Big horn sheep scamper across high rock formations, and wild horses and burros wander around the area.Two trails offer some of the best petroglyphs in America. Mouse’s Tank Trail, only three-fourths a mile long, has depictions of people, animals and Indian symbols etched into the black desert varnish on the rocks. A petroglyph of a man using an atlatl, a prehistoric tool used to hunt large game including bison and mammoth, can be seen along the 4.5-mile Atlatl Rock Trail.Hoover Dam is another favorite for Las Vegas goers. This engineering marvel constructed during the 1930s is worth seeing. The visitor’s center has seven large bronze art deco panels depicting the benefits the dam provides to the area. There wouldn’t be all those bright lights on the strip nor would there be water for many southwest cities without Hoover Dam.Visitors can tour the dam between 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., and tickets cost $10 for adults. Since 9/11, the tour is limited to the top and center parts of the dam, which is disappointing because the view looking up from the bottom of the dam is awe inspiring and gives visitors a real sense of the amount of effort it took to construct the dam. Perhaps park officials will find a way to continue this part of the tour in the future.On the way back to Las Vegas, stop in and visit Mel Fisher’s Treasures at 2235 Village Walk Dr. in Henderson. There are displays of the treasure he collected from the wreck of the Atocha, a Spanish galleon sunk off the coast of Florida 400 years ago.Las Vegas seems like an unlikely place for fine art museums, but there are plenty within walking distance of the strip. The shuttle and the new Monorail offer a choice of transportation as well. Check out the Venetian and Bellagio museums, where there is world-renowned fine art.The Venetian features works of art from the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum. From now until July 31, the exhibit contains a selection of paintings by Rubens and other Flemish baroque artists from the 18th century. At the Bellagio, an exhibit featuring 50 photographs by Ansel Adams, famous for his western landscapes, will be on display from May 3 through May 6, 2007.If you’re not into fine art, the Madame Tussauds Interactive Wax Museum is also located in the Venetian. Female visitors get to cuddle up with Tim McGraw or marry George Clooney; while basketball fans can go one-on-one with Shaquille O’Neal. But my bet is your money is better spent elsewhere.Ancient Egyptian artifacts and a reconstruction of King Tutankhamen’s Tomb are featured in a museum at the Luxor Casino. This museum gives you the biggest bang for your buck and shows what King Tut’s tomb looked like when Howard Carter excavated it in 1922. Whether or not it possesses the same curse as the original crypt can only be determined by playing a few slot machines after leaving the tomb.Next door to the Luxor is the Mandalay Bay Casino where you can spend an hour or two visiting the Shark Reef. It bills itself as North America’s only predator-based aquarium. Here you are face-to-face with 2,000 sea creatures, including 15 different species of shark, stingrays, sawfish, piranha, a variety of tropical fish and green sea turtles. It’s also amazing to think about how they shipped 1.6 million gallons of seawater to Las Vegas to keep these creatures alive.The Las Vegas Historic Museum located in the Tropicana Resort zeros in on the underworld in Vegas. It tells the history of mobsters, entertainers and the brothels of Nevada. Needless to say, this museum is not for children.A short distance off the strip is the Atomic Testing Museum, which relays the story behind the development of the atomic bomb. Displays include the equipment used to build nuclear bombs. Films of above-ground and underground nuclear tests that took place outside of Las Vegas show the destructive power of the blasts.Numerous other museums exist within the city limits and appeal to a variety of interests. The Las Vegas Natural History Museum has animated dinosaurs and displays of Nevada’s plant and animal life. The Guinness World Book of Records Museum is only one-half block from the strip. Carroll Shelby’s Museum features performance cars, and of course, there is the Liberace Museum showing off his automobiles, pianos and rhinestone wardrobe. And for a “Hunk-a-Hunk of Burning Love,” go to the Elvis-a-Rama Museum that claims to have the largest collection of Elvis memorabilia in the world.No matter your interests, it’s a sure bet that Las Vegas has something for everyone.

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