For most visitors, Las Vegas is a one-dimensional town. One either walks up the Strip, or down (though for compass-challenged tourists, even that can be confusing). An adventurous minority will go downtown to Fremont Street, a few short blocks of casinos and souvenir shops that I liked better before they roofed it.
It turns out that naïve tourists have stumbled onto the truth: there are no east-west highways in Las Vegas. And therein lies the tale.
There are three US highways: 91, 93 and 95. All run from Canada to Mexico (except for 91, which only got as far south as Long Beach). They all intersect in Las Vegas.
If you think of Nevada as a wedge pointed south, then US 95 roughly parallels the western boundary of the state, and is the main road between Reno and Las Vegas.
US 93 parallels the eastern boundary of the state, and connects Elko and Ely with Las Vegas.
US 91 is no longer marked in Nevada, and has been replaced by I-15, which really does go from the Canada to the Mexican border at San Diego. In Las Vegas, it is signed as northbound to Salt Lake City, and southbound to Los Angeles, reflecting the route of the original 91. And then there are the Union Pacific tracks, which run through town northbound heading 30 degrees, and southbound at 210 degrees. North of the city they curve to the east (45 degrees). A 1955 map of Nevada shows all of this in its original glory.
The three roads meet in downtown Las Vegas. To understand why it is the way it is, we need to go back in time and see the way it was. This 1952 map of Las Vegas is helpful.
Main St. parallels the tracks. Intersecting Main St., where the Golden Nugget Casino is today, is Fremont St., which heads 120 degrees southeast. Streets parallel to Main St. were numbered, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc., with the next major N-S thoroughfare being 5th St. Let’s trace the routes of the three highways through town.
US 91 is the simplest – it simply followed Main St. from north to south. South of town it was known as the LA highway.
Fifty miles north of the city (today only about 20 miles), US 91 and US 93 joined forces and shared the same road alongside the tracks to Las Vegas. They both entered Las Vegas along Main St., to the center of town. They parted ways when US 93 turned southeast along Fremont. After passing Charleston Blvd., then the southern city limit, US 93 was known as the Boulder Highway – the name it still has today – as it goes to Boulder City.
US 95 was the most complicated. It approached Las Vegas from the northwest along Rancho Drive.
The railroad tracks are like a river – for just as with a river, one needs a bridge to cross (or at least a crossing). There were only four streets that crossed the tracks in 1952: Harrison Ave. (now called Owens), Bonanza Rd., Charleston Blvd., and San Francisco Ave. (now Sahara Ave.). To avoid the tracks, Rancho Drive turned south (today it ends at Sahara, just as it did then). But US 95 headed east on Bonanza, crossed the tracks, and then joined up with 91 and 93 at Main St. For five blocks along Main St., from Bonanza to Fremont, US Highways 91, 93 and 95 all shared the same road.
At Fremont, US 95 turned east, coincident with US 93. They diverge (then and now) 23 miles south of town (about 3 miles short of Boulder City). US 93 continues on through Boulder City and then over the Hoover dam (a new road and a beautiful new bridge are currently under construction). US 95 heads due south, toward Searchlight and Needles, leaving Nevada right near the southern tip of the wedge.
So what does it look like today? US 91 has been replaced by I-15. Like its predecessor, the interstate follows the railroad, but now lying west of the tracks through the central city. I-15 is the major N-S traffic artery through town.
At exit 42 – today the very center of Las Vegas where all three highways meet – I-15 intersects a freeway that has become the primary E-W artery. The new freeway has replaced Bonanza Road as the major route across the railroad tracks. Heading west the freeway is labeled US 95 North, with signage to Reno. It goes due west for about five miles to Rainbow Blvd, and then turns due north until it intersects Rancho Drive. From there it follows the original US 95 route (the freeway ends just past Durango).
If you want to continue west past Rainbow Blvd., then you have to exit US 95 onto Summerlin Pkwy, which continues west to the mountains at the edge of the valley.
Heading east, the freeway has three labels: I-515 South, US 93 South, and US 95 South. It heads east initially parallel to Fremont, and then due east parallel to Charleston. It goes east to the mountains at the valley's rim, and then turns south, crossing Boulder Hwy, only to eventually end at Boulder Hwy south of Henderson, a few miles north of the 93-95 split.
At exit 34, another E-W artery intersects I-15. Follow I-215 South to go east towards Henderson. Follow Nevada State highway 215 North to go west (and then north) towards Summerlin.
Point proven: there are no E-W highways in Las Vegas. But it really isn’t that hard to find your way around: just ignore the compass markers on the freeways. Reno is to the west, Los Angeles is to the south, Henderson-Boulder City is to the east, and Salt Lake City is to the north. You won’t go wrong (as long as you remember the Summerlin Pkwy exit if you want to keep going west).
In part 2 we’ll talk about Vegas surface streets, and I’ll drop a few hints for tourists. In some future post, I’ll even answer the vexing question of where Las Vegas really is.
Daniel Jelski is Dean of Science & Engineering State University of New York at New Paltz.