LAS VEGAS -- The images of Las Vegas are familiar: gambling, ostentatious theme hotels, gambling, shows, the Strip ... and gambling.
All are legitimate lures to the city, which gets its name from the Spanish for "The Meadows," but is better known as "Sin City" or by its famous tagline, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."
But when we visited friends who moved there from the East, they recommended leaving Vegas for some regional sightseeing. So, on our first morning there, we awoke to see the sunrise, packed a lunch and got an early start to Zion National Park, about 160 miles away. Zion's big brother, the Grand Canyon, is about another 100 miles from there.
Zion, officially made a national park in 1919, is actually in Utah, but with Las Vegas sitting in the southeast corner of Nevada, it is easily reached by going through a bit of neighboring Arizona. The drive northeast took us past the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and in the neighborhood of the sprawling Nellis Air Force Base, all through some of America's most stunning scenery. (We felt sympathy for our driver friend, who had to keep his eyes on the road.)
The distances went by quickly as we gaped through the car windows at commanding rock formations and canyons and arid brush valleys.
The entrance fee to the park -- good for a week -- is $25 per car (includes passengers), $12 for one motorcycle rider and $12 per person (bicyclists, pedestrians, motorcycle passengers). Check for free days, like National Public Lands Day, and annual passes; plus, April through October, you can take a free shuttle bus that began running in 2000 to reduce traffic.
We saw Court of the Patriarchs, with a view of rock formations named Abraham, Isaac and Jacob peaks, ranging some 7,000 feet up. They were so named by Mormons, who discovered the canyon in 1858 and settled there in the mid-19th century.
We had our picnic lunch at The Gorge and marveled at the red sandstone walls, created by millions of years of sedimentation and uplift, towering majestically on both sides of the Virgin River stream running through the canyon. Magnificent indeed. There we caught our first glimpse of wildlife, young deer grazing near the water.