Image: Las Vegas Springs Preserve
Jae C. Hong  /  AP
A group of children watch a flash flood exhibit at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve. The 180-acre facility opened in June after years of planning, an infusion of $250 million reaped from the sale of federal land around fast-growing Las Vegas.
updated 8/8/2007 1:52:59 PM ET 2007-08-08T17:52:59

It's been 178 years since a New Mexican merchant found a spring surrounded by scarce greenery in the parched Mojave Desert and called it the Spanish word for "the meadows."

Now the water source that gave Las Vegas its name and slaked the thirsts of travelers on the Old Spanish Trail is getting new life in a typically Las Vegas way: reimagined and recreated, bigger and better.

The Las Vegas Springs Preserve, which is designed to show Las Vegas' past and provide a glimpse at a sustainable future, opened in June at a cost of $250 million reaped from the sale of federal land around southern Nevada.

It's close enough to see the stunning skyline of the lavish resorts featuring dancing fountains on the Strip, but a world away when meandering from trail to gallery to garden. Everything is wheelchair-accessible.

"Ideally, this represents to Las Vegas what Central Park represents to New York City," preserve spokesman Jesse Davis said, expressing a theme as carefully crafted as the faux rock canyons and the centerpiece five-building Desert Living Center.

Water doesn't trickle here naturally any more. That's lesson one at the Springs Preserve.

But it gushes like a flash flood through "Mojave Canyon" at the OriGen Experience, an interactive exhibit hall sure to excite the kids while teaching about the desert, its dwellers, its dangers and its future. Designers call it a "playducational" museum.

"It felt like it was real," exclaimed 10-year-old Jules Jaget, a Las Vegas fifth-grader who said she was surprised when 5,000 gallons of recycled water whooshed down a recreated desert ravine in front of her and rushed beneath the walkway at her feet.

Water — whether too much or too little — is the elemental theme of the 180-acre preserve, three miles west of downtown.

"It's a cultural focal point, a historic centerpiece," Davis said, "something that offers something for everyone."

A hot summer day found moms with their children and their children's' playmates disappearing into exhibit nooks, playgrounds and the gift shop.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

"This is great to do with kids on vacation," said Cristi Milad, 38, a mother chaperoning four children, including Jaget, who said she also liked learning about furry, feathered and scaly desert critters, and the night-vision exhibit showing owls hunting lizards by moonlight beneath creosote bushes.

"We can occupy them for many hours, it's educational, and there's air conditioning inside when you need to be out of the sun," Milad said.

No neon or gambling here — although there are echoes of slot machines in the wow-your-teen interactive arcade, and a card-dealing video rewards correct answers to questions about Las Vegas with virtual stacks of poker-style chips.

Fact: "The average annual rainfall in Las Vegas is 4.49 inches." So says the writing on the wall between a Pacman style "Lawn Gobbler" video game that devours grassy turf toward a goal of helping to keep Lake Mead full.

A theater shows how the reservoir was formed with the construction of the colossal Hoover Dam on the Colorado River: 1935, a crucial date for a region that now gets almost all its drinking water from the nearby lake.

Visitors get to see how Pueblo Indians lived here for eons before merchant and explorer Antonio Armijo arrived in 1829; and how the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad followed, put in a water stop, and held a large land auction in 1905.

Everything seems hands-on, except the cactus. There are buttons to activate exhibit stories, a lever to show how a steam engine builds power, faucets to turn to reveal correct answers to recycling questions, touch-screens, joysticks, fossil scanners and a chance to try to fit broken pieces of Indian pottery together.

Children duck into little caves to see all manner of snakes, birds, lizards, tortoises, gila monsters, and a gray fox the size of a large house cat sleeping in his air conditioned lair by day so he can venture into his outdoor enclosure at night.

Over the years, more than 250 wildlife species have been documented at the springs. But the site was neglected for decades — with little but industrial-looking water works and a couple of weathered wooden derricks left to mark the spot designated as a national historic site in 1978.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District, which owns the land, established a nonprofit to raise funds, reshape and operate the preserve.

Critics decry the Strip-level ticket prices — $18.95 for adult out-of-towners, with kids under 4 free.

But entry is free to the eight acres of demonstration gardens and 1.25 miles of trails now open and winding through an area dubbed the cienega — Spanish for a desert wetland, with native plants, bird and animals.

Davis tallied more than 30,000 paying customers in the six weeks after the preserve debuted in June with a concert by pop singer-songwriter Jewel in a 2,000-seat artificial turf amphitheater.

Another lesson. Turf conserves water; grass guzzles it.

Solar panels shade cars in the parking area and generate enough electricity to power 70 percent of the preserve. The water system is designed to be self-sustaining — flowing through exhibits, buildings and restrooms, collecting "gray water" for treatment, then irrigating native desert and drought-tolerant trees and flowers.

Preserve designers applied for platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council after using recycled and reused materials to build buildings demonstrating energy efficiency and resource sustainability.

The lesson, echoed with a banner in a Desert Living Center pavilion: "Nothing Disappears."

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Welcome to Vegas

loading photos...
  1. Welcome to Las Vegas

    The Bellagio's fountain show entertains visitors nightly. In the background is Bally's Las Vegas, left, and Paris Las Vegas, which has a 50-story Eiffel Tower replica in front. Over 37.5 million people visit Las Vegas each year. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fremont Street Experience

    Located in downtown Las Vegas, this exciting pedestrian promenade is home to approximately 16 million lights, making it one of the largest LED screens in the world. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Looking for Lady Luck

    Casion visitors play slot machines at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dunking Elvis

    An Elvis impersonator performs a slam dunk during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game on February 18, 2007, at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAEGetty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grand casinos

    Lights from passing vehicles are seen in front of the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Poker face

    Jamie Gold, right, of California and Paul Wasicka of Colorado go head-to-head on the final table of the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the Rio Hotel & Casino on Aug. 11, 2006, in Las Vegas. Gold outlasted more than 8,700 other poker players to win the top prize of $12 million. Wasicka won just over $6.1 million for finishing second. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Glitz and glamour

    A Canon display is seen inside the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Consumer Electronics Show. Las Vegas is the nation's top business travel destination, with easy airline access, numerous hotel rooms, low rates, plentiful convention facilities and a wide range of dining and entertainment options. (Karl Polverino / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Over-the-top entertainment

    Performers ride a Volkswagen Beetle across the stage during a preview of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino on June 27, 2006, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A New York minute

    The New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas recreates the Manhattan skyline, complete with replicas of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Entertainment mecca

    Kenny Chesney performs "Out Last Night" at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on April 5, 2009. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tying the knot

    From left, Elvis Presley impersonator Norm Jones plays guitar as Bruce Barnett of Virginia Beach, Va., escorts his daughter Gayle to her wedding ceremony at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Graceland is the oldest wedding chapel in Las Vegas and offers ceremonies with or without Elvis impersonators. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    The $25 million, newly redesigned volcano display in front of the Mirage Hotel & Casino features 150 choreographed FireShooters sending fireballs more than 12 feet in the air and a custom soundtrack created by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for MGM Mirage) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A night on the Strip

    Hotels and casinos line the Las Vegas Strip. From thrilling roller coasters to erupting volcanos to art museums, Las Vegas' many attractions appeal to people of all ages and interests. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fight night

    David Diaz and Manny Pacquiao fight during the fourth round of the WBC Lightweight Championship at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 28, 2008, in Las Vegas. Pacquiao won in a ninth-round knockout. (Harry How / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Day at the races

    Rookie driver Shawn Langdon earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of his career at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on April 4, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Richard Wong / NHRA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fabulous shopping

    The Juicy Couture retail store at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace is seen before the grand opening February 5, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Juicy Couture) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Stunning shows

    Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from THE LION KING Las Vegas. (Joan Marcus / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A slice of Italy

    Visitors take a gondola ride at The Venetian in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Get into the groove

    Dina Buell, left, and Carla Giordano, both from California, dance at the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino during Rehab, the resort's weekly pool party, in 2005 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Let’s get this party started

    Party goers gather for the grand opening of LAX Nightclub Las Vegas in 2007. (Chris Weeks / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Big laughs

    Comedian Ellen DeGeneres performs at a taping of ''Ellen's Even Bigger Really Big Show'' during The Comedy Festival at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2008 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A kingly stay

    The Excalibur Hotel and Casino features a castle motif with newly refurbished hotel rooms. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A dancing fountain

    Visitors are silhouetted against the backdrop of The Bellagio's fountain show on the Las Vegas Strip. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments