At first glance, Las Vegas doesn't seem to be eco-conscious at all. All those energy-sucking lights and the prevalence of super-large buildings and cement seem to leave little room for the environment. But in Las Vegas, "green" is more than just another slang term for money. The famous Strip's skyline features several LEED-certified buildings. A full menu of organic restaurants, a useful public transportation system, and a host of other eco-friendly features mean that environmentally minded travelers shouldn't be so quick to cross Vegas off their to-visit lists.
In fact, supporting the city's blossoming environmentally friendly hospitality scene could inspire further greening. As North America's gambling capital, Las Vegas has always thrived on turning people's fantasies into reality. If visitors let it be known that one of their deepest desires is to visit super-eco-friendly destinations, Vegas is likely to comply. But even in the present time, behind the neon, fountains and oversized casinos, Sin City is a more Earth-friendly destination that many people think.
The Springs Preserve is a bastion of green amongst the man-made attractions of Las Vegas. This 180-acre venue has a botanical garden, museum and nature trail. The preserve regularly holds classes on sustainable gardening, horticulture and nature. Current offerings include workshops about drip irrigation, bugs and butterflies, and seasonal gardening.
The Las Vegas Zoo (officially known as the Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park) is a small zoo with some impressive educational programs both for local schoolchildren and the public. The zoo's size pales in comparison to other similar venues around the country. However, it is the only option in town, and eco-minded tourists will appreciate that the zoo, a nonprofit entity, seems to be focused on conservation education rather than simply seeking to separate tourists from their money.
Some of the larger casino/resorts have their own natural attractions. The Bellagio is home to one of the more impressive nature-themed examples. The Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is open year-round and has a wide array of plant life that is tended to by a small army of horticulturalists. There are seasonal exhibits as well as year-round gardens. Best of all, admission to the gardens is free.
CityCenter, a new construction that has already become an iconic part of Sin City's skyline, is not only one of the greenest complexes in Las Vegas; it is one of the few tourist-centered venues in the country to earn the coveted Gold LEED certification. As if its swooping, glassy exterior wasn't enough to draw attention, the Center has been trumpeting its green-ness as well. Sustainability consultants were brought in to make the construction as eco-friendly as possible. The buildings' design relies heavily on natural light, and recycled materials (from some Strip venues that were recently torn down) were used during construction. A state-of-the-art water management system saves millions of gallons of water each day at the complex. But why go to CityCenter? Aside from two of the greenest hotels in the city (see more about Aria and Vdara below), the complex houses half a million square feet of retail space, restaurants, entertainment venues and public art.
Even some of the casino resorts are greener than one might expect. The Harrah's property Paris Las Vegas has found a way to harness the excess steam from its boilers. The steam is used to heat water inside the resort and also to power some of the lower level operations rooms. Some other Harrah's properties will be or already are being fitted with similar energy recycling systems.
Despite the fact that the legendary Strip is the only place that a majority of tourists see when they come to Las Vegas, there are plenty of nature-themed adventures for those who choose to venture beyond the casinos and other extravagant attractions. Valley of Fire State Park sits an hour northeast of the city. The park is Nevada's oldest state park (opened in 1935) and is known for its sandstone formations, desert landscapes and wildlife. Another nearby notable nature spot is Lake Mead. The Lake Mead National Recreation Area has biking, boating and hiking opportunities year-round. Though most people are attracted to the water, there are ample hiking opportunities. Eighty seven percent of the park's land stretches into the Mohave Desert. Ranger-led hikes and unguided treks are both available.
A more convenient natural attraction is Red Rock Canyon, which sits only about 20 miles outside of the city's center. The area boasts a 13-mile scenic driving loop and 19 hiking trails. Guided interpretive hikes are scheduled almost daily. Mountain biking and rock climbing are other activities that draw people to the canyon.
Even visitors who aren't ambitious enough to hike the length of the Strip (which is quite an undertaking if you also explore the gigantic and labyrinth-like casinos along the way) can still be green while traversing Sin City. The Las Vegas Monorail seems like the obvious public transportation option. It is useful for people who are cruising the Strip, although travel during peak times can be claustrophobic and some of the stations are located behind the casinos rather than near the front entrances. A more convenient option is the RTC bus service. The RTC has routes that run up and down the Strip, with additional service covering the rest of the city. The tourist-centered service that runs down the main casino thoroughfare is branded The Deuce because of the double decker buses that ride this route. Daylong passes start at $7, a great deal for anyone who plans to make more than one trip during any given day. Three-day passes are $20.
Taxis are by far the most convenient and are greener than one might think. Despite the fact that "taxi" is a not a word that many eco-conscious travelers want to keep in their vocabularies, some Vegas cabs do have an Earth-friendly edge. That is because an impressive amount of these vehicles already run on natural gas. A new natural gas filling station near McCarran International Airport will improve the infrastructure for this cleaner-burning, cheaper fuel and make it easier for more taxi fleets to abandon traditional fuel.
Organic, sustainably grown foods are easy to come by in Las Vegas. Each Thursday, the Downtown Farmers Market takes place. It features locally grown foods, from produce to herbs. Several similar markets are held in city parks at different times during the week.
Known for its many theme restaurants, some featuring menus designed by cooking's most recognizable names, Las Vegas is one of the world's foremost dining destinations. The menu of eateries includes a high number of kitchens serving organic fare. The natural-edible standouts include the Go Raw Cafe, a chain serving bistro-style raw, vegan foods with two Las Vegas locations, and Wolfgang Puck's Springs Cafe in the Springs Preserve, another laid back spot serving a menu of organic, ethically sourced dishes created by one of the world's most famous chefs.
Even big name casinos and hotels feature restaurants that operate with their eye on sustainability. Cut, considered by some to be the world's best steakhouse, features naturally raised meat products, while Sage, in Aria, features natural artisanal ingredients and sustainably sourced seafood.
Sin City's sleeping menu includes several buildings that have earned the coveted LEED certification for their extensive environmentally friendly traits. The Vdara Hotel in the CityCenter complex is one of these green standouts. The hotel boasts an improvement of more than 30 percent in energy efficiency over standard building codes. It was built and decorated using sustainable materials. The Vdara's limousine service features vehicles that run on alternative fuels. The other CityCenter hotel headliner, Aria, also holds LEED Gold certification.
The Palazzo is another green sleeping option. This hotel has the distinction of being the largest LEED-certified building in the world. An advanced water treatment facility has led to a 40 percent more efficient water system inside the hotel. The in-house recycling program earmarks more than 70 percent of all the waste created in the Palazzo for recycling.
With all these green features, it is actually easier to plan a low-impact vacation in Vegas than in many other large cities. This city in the desert became legendary because it was (and still is) a place where fantasies can become reality. The city's green movement has shown that this is not only true when it comes to gambling and other traditional vices. Travelers who have fantasized about a low-impact vacation in one of the world's great tourist destinations have a good chance of seeing their green dreams become a reality in Las Vegas.
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