No region of America is quite as lost in the glare of its main attraction as Nevada. Even the state of New York – whose enormous prettiness is often forgotten against the beacon-bright backdrop of the planet's most celebrated metropolis – can hold up Niagara Falls as a second site of world-famous repute. But stare at a map of California's easterly neighbour, and – for many people – the only name that shines on the paper is Las Vegas.
There it sits at the south-east corner of the state – Sin City, the "entertainment capital of the world", the giant casino where the slot machines ring and the party never stops (until you run out of cash). It is the behemoth which lures 40 million souls a year to its themed hotels and roulette tables. Comparatively, in terms of tourism, every other part of Nevada – with the exception of the mini-me gambling town Reno – must doubt its own existence.
There is, though, more to Nevada than its ruthless good-time girl of a biggest city. And much of it is gloriously empty. This, after all, is a state that ranks as the seventh largest in the US, but only the 35th most populous. Instead of sprawl, it revels in sand, scrub and serrated rock formations – the Mojave Desert in the south, the Great Basin Desert across its central torso, the Sierra Nevada range spilling over its western border from California.
It is an arid realm – dotted with one-horse towns and national parks – that is perfect for road-trip exploration; a vision of the American West at its wildest. And it existed long before its loudest claim to fame. Where Las Vegas was founded in 1905, Nevada graduated to statehood in 1864, emerging from the next-door Utah Territory during a silver mining boom that, for a while, attracted fortune-seekers to those vacant vistas. Festivities to mark the state's 150th birthday will stretch across the next few days.
In pictures: Nevada
In pictures: Nevada
Horseshoe Bend, Grand Canyon National Park
Just deserts: the Mojave landscape
Lake Tahoe is the venue for a pastime that is not usually expected in a desert state, skiing
Guests can watch wild horses cantering across a ranch that fans out over 900sq miles
The section of US Route 50 marketed as 'The Loneliest Road in America'
Of course, it is impossible to avoid Las Vegas on a tour of Nevada – and it would be daft to try. As well as being endlessly infectious, it is the state's air hub. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) serves the city non-stop from Heathrow and, in November and from 12 March, from Gatwick; Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) from Gatwick and Manchester, with a non-stop link from Glasgow due to launch next September. Thomas Cook Airlines (0844 855 0515; thomascookairlines.com) runs a seasonal service from Manchester (April-November) and Glasgow (May-July), and will start direct flights from Belfast and Stansted next summer. A week's package of car hire and return flights from Gatwick on 26 November costs from £660 per person with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 4321; virginholidays.co.uk).
America As You Like It (020 8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) sells a 10-night road trip called "the undiscovered West: Nevada, Utah and Arizona" .It cuts east to Reno and Lake Tahoe, near the California border – and across the barren heart of Nevada on the dramatic US Route 50. Prices start at £1,073 per person, with car hire, flights and accommodation.
For more on tourism in the state, seek out travelnevada.com online.
The core appeal of Las Vegas (lasvegas.com) needs little introduction, whether you want to bet everything on black, or catch one of its visual extravaganzas – such as the acrobatics of the latest Cirque du Soleil show, O (001 888 488 7111; cirquedusoleil.com from $99/£61) at The Bellagio resort (001 702 693 7111; bellagio.com).
However, you can find a less-known Vegas. The Neon Museum (001 702 3876366; neonmuseum .org; one-hour tours daily from $18/£11), protects shards of the past in a city ever focused on the next 10 minutes – old signs from defunct hotels, such as the 80ft marker for the Sahara, where Sinatra sang in the Rat Pack days (it closed in 2011).
Elsewhere, the Contemporary Arts Center (001 702 496 0569; lasvegascac.org; see website for visiting times; free) focuses on modern works with exhibitions that highlight Nevada artists such as Robert Beckmann and Mikayla Whitmore. The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, meanwhile, was a fine addition when it opened in 2012 as home of the Las Vegas Philharmonic. Tickets for orchestral shows start at $26/£16 per person (001 702 749 2000; thesmithcenter.com).
Back on the Strip, the High Roller (001 702 322 0560; caesars.com/thelinq) is another newcomer. It arrived in March as the world's tallest observation wheel, rising to 550ft above The Linq – the mall attached to the Caesars Palace resort (tickets from $25/ £16pp). It's rumoured that Formula 1 may also be hitting the Strip; a Grand Prix was last held in Las Vegas in 1982.
Of the city's many hotels, The Venetian (001 702 414 1000; venetian.com) is arguably the pick of the themed casino-palaces thanks to the breadth of its ambition, with huge recreations of St Mark's Square and Rialto Bridge. Doubles from $149 (£93), room only.
The Cromwell (001 702 777 3777; thecromwell.com) is a little more discreet – a four-star boutique property of "just" 188 rooms which opened in May. Doubles from $167 (£104), room only.
Most of the events to mark the state's 150th anniversary (nevada150.org) are scheduled for the next week. But if you can fly quickly, you could catch "Civil War Days in the Battle Born State" – a flurry of military reenactments plus baseball games and general kitsch to salute the fact that, remarkably, Nevada was established as a state amid the trauma of the Civil War. This two-day bonanza (1-2 November; free), run by the Southern Nevada Living History Association (001 702 354 6875; snlha.org), will take over Spring Mountain Ranch State Park (parks.nv.gov) – 25 miles due west of Las Vegas.
Dust and bones
For all the glamour of Las Vegas, the true Nevada is a more desolate prospect, best seen from behind the wheel. Its section of US Route 50 (between Atlantic and Pacific coasts) is marketed as "The Loneliest Road in America", due to the dry landscape and mountain passes that it traverses as it rolls east to west. A drive along this sparse route will carry you through dusty mining towns such as Austin, Eureka and Ely. And if you follow it to the east, near the Utah border, it will deliver you to Great Basin National Park (001 775 234 7331; nps.gov/grba; free) – a pocket of terrain where pine trees bristle in the flinty soil. Here, you can scramble to the 13,065ft summit of Wheeler Peak (one of 12 hiking trails) – or descend into the stalactite-filled Lehman Caves (tours from $8/£5).
Alternatively, Lake Mead National Recreational Area (001 702 293 8990; nps.gov/lake; $10/£6 per vehicle) lies 24 miles south-east of Las Vegas. The lake in question is actually a reservoir, a child of the nearby Hoover Dam's influence on the Colorado River. This is a place for hiking and boating – and for seeing ghosts. The ruins of St Thomas – a village which slipped under the man-made tide in 1938 – are visible when the water level is low.
Another of Nevada's photogenic joys, Lake Tahoe is the venue for a pastime that is not usually expected in a desert state: skiing. Here, amid the last gasps of the Sierra Nevada (near the Nevada capital Carson City), the Mount Rose resort (001 775 849 0704; skirose.com) has some 60 pistes, mixing green, blue and black runs. The 2014-2015 season will start on 21 November (and stretch into April). Day passes start at $84 (£46). Ski Independence (0131 516 5082; ski-i.com) has a week at the Avalon Lodge in the resort of Heavenly (spread across the border with California) from £1,090pp with flights, transfers and B&B.
Nevada's emptiness makes its interior an ideal setting for accommodation options that are the antithesis of Las Vegas's urban pleasures. Walker River Resort (001 775 465 2573; wrresort.com), near Yerington in the west of the state, makes fine use of a leafy oasis in the Smith Valley. The theme is rural relaxation – fishing in the West Walker River and slumber in self-catering cottages (sleeping up to six), which cost from $124 (£77) a night.
Up in the distant north-east of the Silver State, close to Wells (about 380 miles north of Vegas), Mustang Monument (001 888 979 1422; mustangmonument.com) provides a gilded take on the cowboy life.
Guests can watch wild horses cantering across a ranch that fans out over 900sq miles – or ride out for themselves on some of these untamed beasts' gentler siblings. Lodging is full board, with five-star snoozes guaranteed in a range of vast luxury tepees ($1,000/ £621 a night) and stylish "safari" cottages ($1,500/£932 a night).
On the California-Nevada border, on the shores of Lake Tahoe, the Cal Neva Resort and Casino – once owned by Frank Sinatra and where a young Judy Garland was "discovered" – is currently undergoing a major renovation. It is due to reopen next year. The new owners are promising "The rebirth of a legend" (calnevaresort.com).
Across the border
The best Nevada road trip ignores all boundaries and clips over the state line in search of the two A-list geological joys, temptingly near at hand. Death Valley National Park (001 760 786 3200; nps.gov/deva; $20/£12 per vehicle) is California's craggy masterpiece, all raw majesty, aggressive heat – and, in the case of Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in North America (some 282ft below sea level).
Grand Canyon National Park (001 928 638 7888; nps.gov/grca; $25/£16 per car) waits in the other direction (including Horseshoe Bend). Its South Rim is 275 miles east of Las Vegas by road.
Grand Canyon Tour Company (001 702 655 6060; grandcanyontourcompany.com) offers day-trips by plane, picking up by van from hotels on the Strip, for $250 (£155).Reuse content