We couldn't cross southern Nevada without the obligatory Vegas stop, which we did, and enjoyed all of the spa shower time and sushi we could cram into 24 hours. Both incredibly welcome things after our windy, sandy Death Valley camping. There are plenty of guides to Vegas -- this isn't one -- but if you do make this stop in your personal road tripping, don't miss the Neon Boneyard (do the free self-guided version if you don't have time for the full tour).
After our day of lounging in luxury we were back on the road for a quick stop at the iconic Hoover Dam, another attraction whose mid-week popularity surprised me. Pro-tips from our friends were to skip the tour and take the pedestrian footbridge just South of the dam for the best views. Unless you are a dam fanatic, this proved for us to be the fastest way in and out. We checked the dam box and moved on.
We drove from the Hoover Dam up through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area to the Valley of Fire State Park. This was one of the many unplanned, completely gorgeous parts of our trip. The drive around the western edge of the lake is simply spectacular as increasingly dramatic red and white sandstone formations crowd the horizon, glowing in the late afternoon sun.
The Valley of Fire offers a number of beautiful hikes in and around the red rocks, our choice being the Fire Wave where the red and white layers swirl together. A super simple 1.5 mile out and back trail takes you across the slick rock to a bowl where the interchanging stripes overlap, merge and diverge again. It's spectacular.
Other hikes in the park boast box canyons, slot canyons and rocks that look like elephants, you could easily spend a full day here.
Much like Joshua Tree, the no reservation campgrounds at Valley of Fire were already full (the ranger said they had been for days). If you are lucky enough to snag a spot, Arch Rock Campground, the more primitive of the two, looked pretty fantastic with sites nestled between massive boulders.
Without a spot to sleep, we stayed in the park through sunset and then followed the Valley of Fire road back in the direction of Vegas to some BLM camping just outside the park. Although not as scenic as the park proper, it was a perfectly fine spot to prepare a headlamp dinner and crash before waking early to get to our next stop.