It must be all the neon that makes people who don’t live in Las Vegas think that the city lies on a vast and arid plain. Driving into town on Interstate 15, the bright lights seem to render the mountains surrounding Las Vegas invisible. When you tell your average Los Angeleno that you can go skiing 45 minutes from Fremont Street, they think you’ve got to be talking about a Disneyland mountain and Styrofoam snow. But as any local knows, they’re delightfully wrong.
The crown jewel of the mountains surrounding Las Vegas is Mt. Charleston, which is not only a real mountain, but a genuinely tall one. Soaring upwards of 11,000 feet, it’s snow-capped all winter, and in the summer its slopes offer cool respite from the heat on the valley floor. Locals have known this for decades, which is why there’s a town up there. Nestled and perched on the cliffs and clefts of the mountainside are four separate subdivisions. Dwellings range in size from one-room cabins to palatial lodges. Some are for summer use only, but many are inhabited year-round by people who commute into Las Vegas to work.
When I drove out Highway 95 and up Kyle Canyon Road to Mt. Charleston the other day, I found it easy to understand why the residents think it’s worth living up there. It’s a world apart from the glitz and hustle of the city, even though it’s right nearby. This is the same reason the mountain is a perfect place for a weekend getaway. Fortunately for those of us who don’t own a cabin up there, the New Mt. Charleston Hotel, Event and Conference Center offers just the right kind of accommodations.
Built in the 1980s, the Mt. Charleston Hotel is positioned on a ridge, giving it mountain and valley views from all sides. The main building is reminiscent of lodges in national parks — it’s built of big logs and has lots of fireplaces. Right now it’s undergoing renovations that have added a duck pond in front and an ice skating rink in back (open in winter only). Cozy rooms and suites have their own fireplaces (some wood-burning, some electric). The hotel is everything the Strip is not — rustic, cozy, and quiet. Not surprisingly, it’s a popular wedding venue.
My room on the third floor had a view of the mountains to the north of the hotel. I could see a cave in the rocky cliffs near the ridge. I learned the next morning I was looking at the “Getaway Cave,” a hideaway used by bandits in decades gone by. Mt. Charleston, like the rest of Las Vegas, has a colorful history.
I had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, a spacious round dining room supported in the center by a mammoth pine log. From my table, I watched the valley below sink into night, a beautiful show of changing color. After I finished, I retired to the bar, which also has a sweeping view. I played chess, watched “Skating with Celebrities,” and chatted with the bartender and a couple of local residents. It was hard to believe I was in a place with a Las Vegas address.
Before bed, I tried out the hotel’s spa, which requires reservations for a truly outstanding reason — it’s private. Housed in a room with a bubbling waterfall fountain and windows with more lovely views, the spa was a perfect way to round out a peaceful evening.
I’m not sure why — the featherbed on my bed made it extra cozy — but I woke up around 3:00 a.m. I got up and went to the window, where I thought I might see a star-filled sky. Instead, the lights on the hotel illuminated softly falling snow. It was enchanting, although the ducks in the pond below might not have agreed. They were huddled together, bills tucked under wings, as the whiteness piled up around them.
In the morning, I went for a walk before the snow receded in the sunlight, then had a buffet breakfast in the restaurant. All too soon, it was time to head back down the mountain. My consolation is that it’s easy to return, and the New Mt. Charleston Hotel, Event and Conference Center offers just the right ambience for a great getaway, even if I have only one night to spare. It’s great to know that in 45 minutes, I can be in real mountains with real snow. It may be hard to believe, but this, too, is Las Vegas.