Lake Havasu, Arizona
Drive time from Vegas: 2.5 hours / 150 miles (241 kilometers)
If you’re looking for an oasis in the desert, look no further than Lake Havasu. This Arizona lake and its namesake city may be best known for its quirky attractions—it’s home to the original London Bridge (yes, the same one that once spanned the Thames River in England) as well as scaled-down replicas of several historic US lighthouses. But it’s the plentiful opportunities to get out on the water and into the surrounding desert that make it worthy of a weekend trip from Las Vegas. Charter a fishing boat, rent a kayak to paddle to secret coves, and hit the trails for hiking, off-roading, and mountain biking. En route from Nevada, stop at Jack Smith Memorial Park for a picnic and Colorado River swim, or make a quick detour to the Lake Mead Overlook.
Zion National Park, Utah
Drive time from Vegas: 2.5 hours / 160 miles (257 kilometers)
Zion is one of the US’ most colorful national parks—think jagged red rocks, towering sandstone cliffs, and a wild, arid landscape. It may be small in comparison to America’s other great parks, but it punches above its weight when it comes to outdoors adventure. Find yourself hiking on sandstone ledges (fair warning: Angels Landing is not for the faint of heart) or through rivers (The Narrows, a trail so-named for the river-bound rock columns hikers need to squeeze through). And while not so intrepid, the Emerald Pools—a series of desert oases—are an unmissable Zion icon. Carve out a day for Kolob Canyons, an often-overlooked area of the park where you’ll find one of the world’s largest natural arches. And if you’re making a long weekend trip of it, don’t skip hiking among the hoodoo formations in Bryce Canyon National Park, which is around two hours from Springdale, where you’ll want to base yourself.
Editor’s note: Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to private vehicles through December 2020, but there's a shuttle running from the visitor center to Upper Zion and Scenic Drive highlights and trailheads including Emerald Pools, Scout's Lookout, and Temple of Sinawava (for the Narrows). Just be sure to buy your $1 ticket from recreation.gov in advance—it's mandatory.
Joshua Tree, California
Drive time from Vegas: 3.5 hours / 200 miles (322 kilometers)
As famous for its dreamy desert accommodation and hippy-chic vibes as it is its otherworldly landscape and namesake trees, Joshua Tree is the destination du jour for millennials and elopers. Inside Joshua Tree National Park, giant boulders and alien-like flora provide a scenic backdrop for hikers, climbers, and campers. Catch sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden; hike the Arch Rock, Hidden Valley, and Barker Dam trails; and watch the sunset from Cap Rock or the summit of Ryan Mountain (it’s worth the 1.5-mile, or 2.4-kilometer, uphill battle). Outside park limits, grab a coffee at Joshua Tree Coffee Company, peruse Mexican blankets and crystals at Sun Alley Shops, and visit eclectic Joshua Tree attractions such as Noah Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum and the World Famous Crochet Museum. Don’t skip a trip to Pappy & Harriet’s honky-tonk in nearby Pioneertown for live music and barbecue.
Pro tip: If you’re planning to head directly to Joshua Tree from Las Vegas, hit the North Entrance in 29 Palms, where the lines are typically shorter than at the other entrances on weekends.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Drive time from Vegas: 4 hours / 270 miles (435 kilometers)
One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon deserves to be so much more than a quick pit stop on a road trip of the American Southwest. Head to the South Rim for below-the-rim hiking (South Kaibab Trail takes the shortest route to the Colorado River, while Bright Angel Trail is less steep and slightly more shaded); the views and Hopi murals at Desert View Watchtower; and breakfast at the historic El Tovar Hotel. For a weekend of above-the-rim explorations, head to the North Rim (closed over winter) where trails offer prime views without the rigorous descent—or book a Grand Canyon helicopter tour. If you’re looking to leave your hiking boots at home, consider an overnight Colorado River rafting trip. However you decide to spend the weekend, don’t miss stargazing from Yavapai Point.
Drive time from Vegas: 4.5 hours / 280 miles (451 kilometers)
A desert town shrouded in New Age mysticism with a red-rock landscape reminiscent of Mars, Sedona is a mecca for outdoor adventurers, the artsy crowd, and the spiritually minded. Red Rock State Park is top of the list for hikers: Eagle’s Nest Loop leads to the park’s highest point; Javelina Trail shows off the area’s piñon and juniper forests; and the 15-mile (24-kilometer) Lime Kiln Trail connects Red Rock State Park to nearby Dead Horse Ranch State Park. Plan to watch the sunrise at Oak Creek Canyon, go off-roading on Broken Arrow Trail, and visit the Honanki and Palatki cliff dwelling heritage sites. A trip to the city’s spiritual vortexes (the energy is strongest in Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Boynton Canyon) is a only-in-Sedona experience.
Related: Spiritual Vortexes in Sedona