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Where Neon Signs Go to Die: The Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas

While my past three or four trips into the glittery desert have centered on pure debauchery, I’m slowly learning that Vegas isn’t just about the cards and the cocktails. (Or perhaps it is, but you need those little journeys off the Strip to reset from the night before. To breathe. To keep yourself from slipping into a slot machine abyss.)

Not that that isn’t pleasurable in a sick, sad way.

This time around, on my 11.11.11 pilgrimage, I finally managed to do something different: I visited the Neon Boneyard, an outdoor museum on Las Vegas Boulevard, about 15 minutes from the Strip.

The simplest description of the Neon Boneyard? It’s where Sin City’s signs go to die.

But that sounds rather morbid, and I guess it’s better to say the neon signs in this approximately two-acre park—most of them vintage and from the golden era of neon—rest elegantly in ruins. Established in 1996, the boneyard has over 150 donated and rescued signs, like this deep lavender Algiers Hotel sign:

neon boneyard

We toured the boneyard just before a part of the site—the future La Concha Visitor Center—was scheduled to be closed for construction. Boneyard guides are volunteers; ours gave us a one-hour walking tour inside a fenced-off lot of massive neon displays, hotel and casino marquees, fallen letters, and signs with broken bulbs.

Neon Boneyard

The neon signs in Vegas, leased by hotels and casinos, are made by YESCO (Young Electric Sign Company). YESCO started the sign biz in Vegas in 1932—the first sign sold in the city was to the Oasis Cafe on Fremont Street—and set up shop in the area in the 1940s, ushering in the grand age of “neon spectaculars,” like the classic Golden Nugget sign.

Neon Boneyard

For $15, you not only see these gorgeously dilapidated signs up close, but are also treated to a history lesson of Las Vegas. You learn random tidbits about the beginnings of the city; its expansion; and the major players, casino kingpins, and mafia figures that have built and shaped the Strip through the decades.

Neon Boneyard

While you’re not allowed to wander away from the group, you’ve got time to linger and snap photographs. (The section of the boneyard open to tours isn’t that big to begin with, so it’s not like you can escape anyway.) I loved the colorful, unattached letters on the ground: upright, on their sides, or upside down. Stacked, clustered together, or lonely and on their own.

It’s eerie and still here. Yet…also vivid and alive. Decades of history, frozen.

Feels also like some of the letters and signs are speaking to you.

Neon Boneyard bulbs
Broken bulbs. Dirty pink. Stacked letters in the background.

Neon Boneyard arrow
I loved the rusty, peeled-off displays, like this yellow arrow and 24-hour cocktail sign.

Neon Boneyard shadow
A girl on her side, and a shadow of a person quietly looking upon her.

Neon Boneyard
One of the casino signs near the entrance of the park.

Neon Boneyard detail

It’s cool getting up close to the bulbs within the “channeling” of the signs. When lit, the channels on the signs had helped shield the bulbs from the elements and keep the illumination strong and concentrated. Our guide said that while none of the signs are currently set up to be electrified, the museum hopes to do this someday. (Night tours of this site would be sweet.)

Neon Boneyard shadows
Our group silhouette in front of the massive red Stardust sign, partially shown above.

neon motel sign
The washed-out blue on this distressed motel sign is beautiful. Not all the colors on the signs are vibrant, yet even the duller, weaker shades are healthy splashes.

neon stardust sign
More of the Stardust sign, which rests near the tail end of the tour.

Neon Boneyard
Not-so-random placement of N, E, O, and N.

So, there you go. Despite what you may have inferred from my tweets this past weekend (losing my phone, jacket, and other belongings; incessant drinking; and the like), I did manage to soak into something local and non-gluttonous.

Please visit and support this nonprofit. And do note that you must purchase tour tickets in advance.

More Photos:

Categories: art photography travel

Tagged as:

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Writer at Writing Through the Fog. Editor at Automattic.

272 replies

  1. Mich überkam in diesem Moment der Wunsch dir zu diesem Blog zu danken. Die Art deiner Worte sind änzlich super und ich meine behauptenzu können, dass du ein totaler Experte bist!

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  2. I will definitely go there next time we go to Vegas. We arrived with Elvis piping up in the background music of our car and stayed in sheer decadence at the Wynne, highly recommend it if you want to feel looked after. Am enjoying your stuff, it’s great, am about to do a piece about Vegas, Grand Canyon and Palm Springs. My blog based in L.A and all surrounding parts as far as we can travel. Love to know your thoughts, Kate x

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    1. Thanks, Kate. I’ve got a growing list of things I want to see and do in southeastern CA, NV, and AZ. From the Grand Canyon (can’t believe I’ve never been) to kitschy stops along the highways, the “wigwam hotel” on Route 66, the pockets of hot springs near Death Valley, Joshua Tree, quirky Googie and Space Age architecture in the region, etc. I realize there’s so much in that area to explore!

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  3. Wow, those pictures are amazing and I love the way you write. Very enchanting. I like the idea of this place and it’s name is really cool. Neon Boneyard. It kind of reminds me of the Elephant Graveyard in The Lion King. But flashy.
    Thanks for the post xx

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  4. The best idea would be to use renewable energy, most likely solar, generated and stored there on site at the museum, to power the signs for the “night tour”, lighting up the classic signs to full brightness without harming the environment.

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    1. FYI, neon is the second most energy efficient light form, after LED, and before even fluorescent. Granted, not all of the signs are neon. And your idea of having the museum self-powered through solar is still an excellent suggestion.

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  5. Love this!!! This has been on my hotlist to see while in Vegas – barring too much debauchery of course. Beautiful photos!!! And congrats on Freshly Pressed!!!

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  6. Oh, I love this kind of history where your imagination takes over, inventing stories from a kind of graveyard of once young, exciting places. Your photos are fabulous and another way of preserving the past! Thanks for sharing.

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  7. Fantastic photos! Given Algeria’s troubled history over the last few centuries, I was surprised not only to see an old sign for the Algiers Hotel, but all the more so to learn that it’s still in business!

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  8. Great pictures! I’d love to visit the neon sign graveyard one day. Can you imagine what aliens would make of it if they accidentally landed there? :0)

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  9. Awesome – awesome – awesome! I want to go there. Too bad you’re probably not allowed to hang a giant A in your living room after you steal it from the pile of left-over alphabet soup.

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  10. I’ve a sibling who lives in Vegas, and so I get to visit more often than I ever imagined I would and I love it – never have seen the “neon graveyard” but from your pics, def looks like somewhere to add to my itinerary for the next trip.

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  11. We should get all these and restore them there are new lighting systems that are energy efficent and have a loger life. Business idea!? Not that all the structures could be used but many could be put to use from the photos.

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  12. I have ALWAYS wanted to visit this place … I actually assumed it was an urban myth… Glad it actually exists :) Thanks for sharing some amazing pictures!

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  13. Beautiful Pictures. I was unaware such a place existed, but will definitely have to put that on my to-see list when I finally make it out to Vegas.

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  14. I have been here and just loved it. I didn’t have a camera with me as I was expecting to just eat, drink and be merry. I’m old enough to have seen a few of them when they were still up, like the Sands. Even though the neon shouts tacky, Vegas used to be a really classy place with people dressing for dinner and the nicer casinos etc. long before people started walking around in shorts and tee shirts.Great post.

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  15. You have some marvelous shots here. LOVE the one of the girl on her side and the persons shadow. I’ve lived near Vegas and visited there too many times to count and didn’t know of this place. Next time around you can bet I will check it out and take some photos.

    Sarah

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  16. LV and the nearby mountains and deserts have a lot to do that you will never find on the Strip. The Boneyard is a great place to start making an escape. Your photos pick up the excellent opportunity for abstractions and social commentary. On future trips, seek out the Spring Preserve and recently opened Nevada State Museum. These are state of the art facilities. For some hiking, drive to the mountains at Red Rock, or go a little further to the north to Valley of Fire.

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  17. A fascinating piece and such lovely photos too! (This reminds me of a story about a place in Italy, where they keep the statues of saints who become unsainted somehow. ..I keep trying to write a poem about it but it never materializes. :) )

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  18. I love this! I once saw a great show where someone redesigned there living room with a bunch of neon signs that had probably once ended up in a grave yard somewhere along the way like this!

    Thank you for sharing!

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  19. I just thought of something else looking at your fascinating pictorial – most of the signs you shot didn’t have neon, but were just electric bulbs, inside and out of the channels you described. Makes me wonder how the sequencing of those bulbs turning on and off was controlled in the time before our present-day sophisticated computers. Thanks again for a fun read.

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  20. Great pics. Congrats on being Fresh-Pressed. Thanks for sharing this post. I think you’ve chronicled a fascinating way our pop-culture moves through history – taking some things along and leaving others behind.

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  21. I cannot begin to describe how much I loved this post and those amazing photos. Have you ever thought to use some of those letters in your interior decorating? The huge signs may be a bit large but a single letter may be re-appropriated as a coffee table or ottoman.

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    1. I recently moved into a new place, and my walls are pretty bare at the moment. Letters and words made out of recycled objects and pieces of wood are on my decorating list. I’ve seen objects at craft stores and flea markets, but this boneyard definitely inspired me to get moving on this!

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  22. This post is so cool. I love the photos. I’m pretty much obsessed with all things vintage. I hope to visit Vegas one day and take some photos myself. I am a photographer based on the coast of Virginia, and there definitely isn’t anything THIS interesting here. But I’m a small town girl, so I don’t mind. Glad I found your blog. Will visit again soon. :)

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  23. Very Interesting! I’ll have to visit this Neon Boneyard next time I visit Vegas. Interestingly, YESCO sign company is a Salt Lake City company who made the famous sign in Ogden that is a famous landmark of Ogden. It has been displayed in Ogden for decades. I also believe they created a sign for Brigham City that like the Ogden sign has been welcoming people for decades to the respective cities. You’re right about how cool it would be to have these signs electrified and even had a night time tour of these signs. It would be cool to see signs from the past of casino’s that no longer exist in Vegas. Like I said, I will have to pay a visit to the Neon Boneyard the next time I visit Vegas!

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  24. I just got really jealous, I’ve always wanted to go there! Looking at your snaps and reading about them was a nice break from some paper writing over here in London.

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  25. interesting how all these things end up. i did a blog on neon vegas, and one was an old shot i did of the strardust sign twenty years ago. i was glad to see the silver slipper was actually still up near the fremont experience and the other by the historical museum up the strip. thanks for the blog.

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  26. Wow, this is really cool. I got major love for Vintage things so would love to visit it! I’m kinda new to wordpress and would love you to check out my blog + leave comments please! Evie x x

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  27. Brandon Flowers of the Killers actually did a photoshoot there once to promote his solo album “Flamingo” some months ago. I’m sure another Killers fan will stumble on this blog and share details. :)

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  28. Great post! I lived in Las Vegas twice. It was only the second time that I learned about the activities beyond the strip. The Boneyard is definitely worth a visit and a great place to feel a sense of nostalgia while remembering historical memories from the city of lights.

    Ahh, the great photos is making me want to plan a quick trip back!

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  29. This is a very cool post! Besides the colourful subject matter – I love the way you present your photos on your blog, do you use an export plugin? Or import each one? Great job!

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  30. I would say that, Neon can be Converted to LED. It consumes less energy than neon.

    Great images Of Neon Advertising Box. :)

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  31. I’m from Reno, NV, and I have to say that one of the coolest moments I’ve ever had in the city was when they re-lit the famous Reno arch with more environmentally-friendly bulbs. It was cool to see the sign dark and then light up like that, and afterward they gave the old bulbs away to the spectators. It’s like having a piece of Reno history in my room.

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  32. Pretty amazing to see all those signs like that. it’s like going through some crazy history.

    Thinking about what they used to look like and what they look like now. What they used to represent, and what they represent now.

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  33. WOW. I just went to Vegas this past January, and that is EERIE. It’s such a huge contrast from the livelihood of the main strip. It just goes to show how consumerist our society is. Once something breaks they immediately replace it, and the old has literally no where to go. SO INTERESTING!!

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    1. Once something breaks they immediately replace it, and the old has literally no where to go. I love this — you are right. Our culture is always about bigger and glitzier and shinier, and the old is discarded. Amazing, though, how some of these signs, unlit, have more life than some signs that are currently along the Strip.

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  34. As a former neon bender apprentice (never got that good at it), I found this post intriguing and would love to see the Neon Boneyard. It looks fascinating in and of itself, but I also always enjoy being able to get up close to the signs and see how they were put together. Maybe some day…

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    1. The shadow shots are some of my favorites, too — staring at the ground as I walked made the place feel even more eerie. There are a few more shadow pics in the Flickr set (link at bottom of post).

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  35. I found out about the boneyard right before I went to Vegas in June, and alas, I didn’t quite make it over there. Loved this post, it made me want to go even more. I won’t miss it next time.

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  36. My husband and I are planning a trip to Las Vegas next year (I’ve been several times before; he’s never had the experience) and we will definately check this out. I’d heard about it but hadn’t thought it would be worth the money. You’ve convinced me otherwise. Thanks (and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!) Awesome pictures!

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  37. nice post.. i’ve been to vegas but wasn’t able to visit the neon boneyard.. i love its rustic looks and those signs should sit in a (neon boneyard) museum instead complete with working lights.. i’m sure it’s going to be awesome walking past each neon sign and travelling back in time..

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  38. I think people will find most of the South West and West are like that. People travel there to buy things you can’t find anywhere else, roughly preserved by the arid desert weather.

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    1. Ah! That is one of my all-time favorite Seinfeld episodes — it’s so funny how Kramer sets up the entire Merv Griffin set in his apartment and has Jerry, Elaine, and the eagle/hawk(?) trainer on his show… On another note, there’s definitely that old Vegas/showtime feel in the boneyard, so I totally get your comparison.

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  39. Thanks so much! On a trip to the US I took heaps of photos of old neons signs but never dreamt there was a boneyard – looks like I’ll be saving again to get back there. Cheers Sue

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    1. Indeed. One of the coolest things about this place is, depending on one’s imagination and interests, it conjures up stories and fantasies. You think of Neil Gaiman, another person thinks of something else. It’s a great spot!

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  40. I never knew such an awe inspiring place existed, very interesting! It seems somewhat akin to an elephant graveyard of the industrial variety. Congrats on being featured, you totally deserve it for cataloging this experience and writing such a great post! I hope you’re prepared to be completely overwhelmed with comments like these, some far more ridiculous :)

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  41. I suppose that is the draw of Las Vegas. Ever evolving constant destruction and reincarnation of the entire town. It is a shame they are left to die. I’m sure there are plenty of people willing to repurpose them.

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    1. Hey Chris–I think I used the phrase “where neon signs go to die” for dramatic effect. Because really, this nonprofit “takes care” of these signs, and some displays are restored and displayed along Las Vegas Boulevard. I think it’s an ongoing project.

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  42. They do look so imbued with life that they have a voice of their own, don’t they? I’ve never travelled to the States but even here in the UK we sometimes get to see bits of this site as it is occasionally used in TV series and movies shown over here and I’ve always wondered how large the whole place is. Thanks for sharing your visit with us :)

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  43. This is fascinating! Would love to go some day. And yeah, I second the night tours option. There must be something very sad about non-lit neon signs though? And seeing all the bulbs inside… a bit like discovering the mechanics of a magic trick?

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    1. Yes, there’s totally something sad about non-lit neon signs, and I love your description: a bit like discovering the mechanics of a magic trick. The signs are huge, and still so vibrant…they want to electrify, but can’t.

      Next time we head to Vegas, we’ll go.

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    1. Road trip, yes! There are a number of fun, quirky attractions in this region (Arizona especially) I’d like to see, like this boneyard and the wigwam motel on Route 66.

      Thanks for the comment!

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