LAS VEGAS -- It's been 178 years since a New Mexican merchant found a spring surrounded by patchy 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: re-imagined and re-created, 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 on the Strip, but a world away when meandering from trail to gallery to garden. Everything is wheelchair-accessible.
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.
"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,
A hot summer day found moms with their children and their children's' playmates disappearing into exhibit nooks, playgrounds and the gift shop.
"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.
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.
On a wall by a Pacman-style "Lawn Gobbler" video game, a sign reads: "The average annual rainfall in Las Vegas is 4.49 inches." Hence, the Lawn Gobbler devours grass toward a goal of helping to keep Lake Mead full.
A theater shows how the reservoir was formed with the 1935 completion of the colossal Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The region now gets almost all of 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 in 1978 as a national historic site.
Critics decry the Strip-level ticket prices -- $18.95 for adult out-of-towners.
But entry is free to the eight acres of demonstration gardens and 1.25 miles of trails that wind through an area dubbed the cienega -- Spanish for a desert wetland -- with native plants, birds and animals.
IF YOU GO
The Las Vegas Springs Preserve is located on U.S. 95 at Valley View Boulevard, three miles west of downtown Las Vegas (across from Meadows Mall shopping center). It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Trails and gardens close at dusk. Admission is $18.95 for adults, $17.95 for seniors (age 65 and up) and students, $10.95 for kids ages 5-17. www.springspreserve.org; (702) 822-7700.