Travel

Nevada's Best Parks for Alpine Lakes, Desert Hoodoos, and Brilliant Stars

National parks, who?

Unsplash/Jannes Glas
Unsplash/Jannes Glas
Unsplash/Jannes Glas

Nevada is home to some utterly stunning, world-famous national recreation areas (see Red Rock Canyon and Lake Mead), not to mention surrounded by scores of ultra-popular national parks in neighboring states, just a few hours’ drive away: Zion and Bryce Canyon in Utah. Joshua Tree and Death Valley in California. Grand Canyon in Arizona. You get the picture.

With all that going on, it’s easy to understand why outdoor enthusiasts might be tempted to skip Nevada’s smaller state parks in favor of their flashier federal cousins-except it totally make no sense at all. While the national parks stay packed to high heaven, the state parks are seriously beautiful yet utterly quiet reprieves even at their busiest, some so underrated that you may get the wilderness all to yourself. And at night, when the time comes to stargaze beneath America’s darkest skies, the sense of isolation and views of the firmament you’ll find will give you that scary-yet-magical feeling of insignificance compared to the grandiosity of space, both terrestrial and cosmic.

There are 27 parks in Nevada’s state park system. Here are 10 to add to your bucket list.

Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock
Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock
Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

Valley of Fire

By far the most famous of Nevada’s state parks, Valley of Fire gets its name from the striking red Aztec sandstone that covers much of its 46,000 acres. The way the light hits the stunning rock formations around sunset makes the valley look like it’s on fire-making it a very popular area for all manner of photographer and influencer, especially since it’s a relatively short (about one hour) drive from Las Vegas.

Established in 1935, it’s the oldest state park in Nevada, but its history goes back much farther. The vibrant red sandstone was formed by shifting sand dunes 150 million years ago, which is easy to imagine when gazing out at formations like the sprawling Fire Wave or the equally impressive White Domes. You’ll also see ancient, petrified trees and 2,000-year-old petroglyphs. And again: lots and lots of influencers.

Photo by Susan Mowers, courtesy of TravelNevada
Photo by Susan Mowers, courtesy of TravelNevada
Photo by Susan Mowers, courtesy of TravelNevada

Sand Harbor

Located on the Nevada side (and, let’s be honest, the better side) of Lake Tahoe-North America’s largest alpine lake and one of the best lakeshores in the US and beyond-Sand Harbor has some of the best this area has to offer: Crystal-clear aquamarine water, a sandy beach that stretches for half a mile, and the stately cedars, pines, granite rock formations emblematic of the Sierras. Pack a picnic, rent some kayaks at Sand Harbor Rentals, or ride your bike on the paved Tahoe East Shore Trail.

Note: Sand Harbor is closed until September 17th due to poor air quality caused by the ongoing Caldor Fire.

Arlene Waller/Shutterstock
Arlene Waller/Shutterstock
Arlene Waller/Shutterstock

Cathedral Gorge

Imagine if Bryce Canyon and Badlands had a baby and hid it in rural Nevada where no one would think to look for it-that’s Cathedral Gorge State Park in southeastern Nevada. The cathedral-like spires and hoodoos that jut out from the bottom of the canyon floor hide winding slot canyons that can get claustrophobically narrow. You’ll find yourself surrounded by towering walls formed tens of millions of years ago by layers of volcanic ash hundreds of feet thick, and you’ll want to explore the shallow, pitch-black caves carved into those walls by time.

There is a haunting beauty to this lesser-known park, between the spooky slot canyons and the stately, mostly abandoned stone structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Plus, this part of Nevada boasts some of the darkest skies in the state, making this an excellent place for stargazing against the dramatic backdrop of the spires. The Las Vegas Astronomical Society even hosts seasonal star parties.

Photo by Sydney Martinez, courtesy of TravelNevada
Photo by Sydney Martinez, courtesy of TravelNevada
Photo by Sydney Martinez, courtesy of TravelNevada

Big Bend of the Colorado

Located in the southernmost tip of Nevada on the shores of the Colorado River, Big Bend of the Colorado is an extremely popular spot in the summertime for sweaty Las Vegans looking to cool off. For better or worse, this is a party river, with two miles of beach, a boat launch, shaded picnic areas, and year-round campgrounds. You’ll see plenty of kayakers and jet skiers, and even more people just hanging out. This is not the state park to visit when seeking solitude and serenity, but if you’re raring to socialize with a cooler full of beer in tow, this is your spot. It’s also 15 minutes away from Laughlin, which is basically a Las Vegas-by-the-River (but, like, a very quirky, semi-tacky version of Vegas). During the winter months, it gets a lot quieter, and hikers will enjoy exploring the many canyons in the area.

Jennifer Agster/Shutterstock
Jennifer Agster/Shutterstock
Jennifer Agster/Shutterstock

Kershaw-Ryan

Kershaw-Ryan is a true desert oasis: a lush, green park filled with wild grapevines, fruit tree orchards, rose gardens, white oaks, and willows, surrounded by the colorful 700-foot walls of Rainbow Canyon. Natural springs run through the canyon, providing a natural irrigation system for all of the gardens and greenery and also feeding a small pool and koi pond.

The park and its picnic areas and trails are very well-developed; its hiking trails are short but incredibly scenic, and experienced hikers can venture further out into the backcountry above the canyon. Mountain bikers can check out the newly established Barnes Canyon Mountain Biking Trails system, and campers will be spoiled by the recent total overhaul of the campgrounds, which now include coin-operated showers, RV sites, horseshoe pits, and volleyball courts. Overnighters will definitely want to make the 1.5-mile hike on the Overlook Trail to the top of the canyon rim for some outstanding night sky vistas.

Photo by Sydney Martinez, courtesy of TravelNevada
Photo by Sydney Martinez, courtesy of TravelNevada
Photo by Sydney Martinez, courtesy of TravelNevada

Cave Lake

Located in the foothills of the Schell Creek Range just 15 minutes south of Ely, all of Cave Lake’s facilities, including its campgrounds, are essentially brand new. Surrounded by lush forests of aspens, pines, and evergreens, jagged limestone formations, and alpine lakes, the high-altitude park is a popular spot for year-round fishing. Cast a line before trekking along established trails or going backcountry hiking in the surrounding mountains and forests.

In the summertime, swimming, kayaking, and flat-wake boating are the move. Greater Ely is also popular with mountain bikers, with Cave Lake’s 20 miles of solid single-track offering up some of the most scenic routes in the state. Come fall, leaf-peepers should make a beeline for the 40-mile Success Loop Scenic Drive, and in the winter, visitors can take on cross-country skiing, ice skating, and snowmobiling. And with its location situated between Great Basin National Park, a gold-tier Dark Sky Park, and Ely, known for some of the darkest skies in the lower 48, Cave Lake is also an extraordinary place for stargazing.

IrinaK/Shutterstock
IrinaK/Shutterstock
IrinaK/Shutterstock

Ward Charcoal Ovens

Also located just south of Ely, this historic preservation site is named for the six beehive-shaped charcoal ovens that were used for silver processing in the late 1870s. After the mine dried up, the ovens were used as shelters for cattle and travelers, and rumor has it that stagecoach bandits sometimes used them as hideouts. Now, they’re open for tourism, and the park has plenty of facilities for camping, picnicking, hiking, and fishing in the surrounding area. Visitors should keep an eye out for big game like elk and mule deer, large birds of prey like hawks and eagles, and an abundance of other wildlife. While here, you’ll also find yourself in the stretch of Eastern Nevada with the same stellar night skies as Cathedral Gorge, Kershaw-Ryan, and Cave Lake; plan to stay overnight and marvel at the cosmos, if you can.

N8Allen/Shutterstock
N8Allen/Shutterstock
N8Allen/Shutterstock

Walker River

Nevada’s newest state park, Walker River, is comprised of four century-old ranching properties that were privately owned and inaccessible to the public for over 125 years prior to the park’s designation. The ranches are opening in phases as the state completes development and infrastructure; currently, Pitchfork Ranch and the “Elbow” of Nine Mile Ranch are ready for exploration. Several sections of the Walker River are considered world-class by fishing enthusiasts thanks to how pristine and primitive it remains, while the East Walker, specifically, is ideal for floaters and kayakers. If you want unspoiled serenity that looks like it’s been frozen in time, look no further.

Photo courtesy of Nevada State Parks and TravelNevada
Photo courtesy of Nevada State Parks and TravelNevada
Photo courtesy of Nevada State Parks and TravelNevada

Wild Horse

If you want remote-and my God, I’m talking remote-head north to Wild Horse State Recreation Area. Rural, rustic, and (once again) remote AF, Wild Horse features a huge reservoir surrounded by rolling meadows that burst with vibrant wildflowers come summer. The park is open 365, as are the campgrounds and three rental cabins. (There are no RV hookups, but they do have restrooms and showers). Fishing is the activity of choice here year-round, with boating and hiking gaining popularity during the warmer months. Developed hiking trails are limited, but you can follow miles and miles of game trails through the vast expanse of land. In the winter, ice fishing, snowmobiling, ice skating, sledding, and skiing are all on offer, but be prepared for extreme cold and harsh conditions. This is the high desert, and it gets ICY.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you. She winters in Las Vegas and summers in Detroit, as does anybody who’s anybody. Her favorite activities include drinking beer and quoting Fight Club.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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