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Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Under the auspices of the National Park Service, 1.5-million-acre Lake Mead National Recreation Area was created in 1936 around Lake Mead (the reservoir lake that is the result of the construction of Hoover Dam) and later Lake Mohave to the south (formed by the construction of Davis Dam). Before the lakes emerged, this desert region was brutally hot, dry, and rugged -- unfit for human habitation. Today, it's one of the nation's most popular playgrounds, attracting millions of visitors annually. The two lakes comprise 247 square miles. At an elevation of just over 1,000 feet, Lake Mead itself extends some 110 miles upstream toward the Grand Canyon. Its 700-mile shoreline, backed by spectacular cliff and canyon scenery, forms a perfect setting for a wide variety of watersports and desert hiking.

Having said all that, Lake Mead is in the beginning stages of a crisis so large that if unchecked, it would spell the end for Vegas entirely. The nation's largest reservoir has experienced a severe drop-off in levels since 2000, a combination of drought, global warming, and increased use. Whole portions of the lake's edges are now dry, in the process exposing the remains of some of the small towns that were flooded to build the thing in the first place. These have become tourist spots themselves. In 2010, the lake was at 39% of its capacity and hit a record low height of 1,083 feet above sea level. According to a research study published in 2008, there is a 50% chance the lake will go dry by 2021 and because it supplies water to Las Vegas (not to mention hydroelectric power), that has grave implications for that city. Let's encourage those fancy new hotels to put in drought-tolerant plants instead of more grass. And don't ask for your towels to be changed every day.

Keep in mind that if the lake water shortage continues, many of the following activities will probably be affected in one way or another, if they aren't already.

The Alan Bible Visitor Center, also known as the Lake Mead Visitor Center, 4 miles northeast of Boulder City on U.S. 93, at NV 166 (tel. 702/293-8990), can provide information on all area activities and services. You can pick up trail maps and brochures here, view informative films, and find out about scenic drives, accommodations, ranger-guided hikes, naturalist programs and lectures, bird-watching, canoeing, camping, lakeside RV parks, and picnic facilities. The center has some sweet exhibits about the area and is staffed by friendly folks full of local pride. It's open daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

For information on camping, boat rentals, fishing, tours, and more, visit the National Parks Service website at www.nps.gov/lame.

The entry fee for the area is $10 per vehicle, which covers all passengers, or $5 per person if you're walking, motorcycling, or biking in. Entry fees cover 1 to 7 days and yearly passes are available for $30 per vehicle or individual.

Active Pursuits

This is a lovely area for scenic drives amid the dramatic desert landscape. One popular route follows the Lakeshore and Northshore scenic drives along the edge of Lake Mead. From these roads, there are panoramic views of the blue lake, set against a backdrop of the browns, blacks, reds, and grays that make up the desert mountains. Northshore Scenic Drive also leads through areas of brilliant red boulders and rock formations, and you'll find a picnic area along the way.

Boating & Fishing -- The Las Vegas Boat Harbor (tel. 702/434-4405; www.boatinglakemead.com) rents power boats, pontoon boats, personal watercraft, and watersports equipment. It also carries groceries, clothing, marine supplies, sporting goods, water-skiing gear, fishing equipment, and bait and tackle. Similar services are offered at the Callville Bay Resort & Marina (tel. 800/255-5561 or 702/565-8958; www.callvillebay.com), which is usually less crowded. Nonresidents can get a fishing license here ($69 for a year or $18 for 1 day plus $7 for each additional day; discounts for children 14 and under are available; additional fees apply for special fishing classifications, including trout, which require a $10 stamp for taking or possessing that fish). Largemouth bass, striped bass, channel catfish, crappie, and bluegill are found in Lake Mead; rainbow trout, largemouth bass, and striped bass in Lake Mohave. You can also arrange here to rent a fully equipped houseboat at Echo Bay, 40 miles north.

Camping -- Lake Mead's shoreline is dotted with campsites, all of them equipped with running water, picnic tables, and grills. Available on a first-come, first-served basis, they are administered by the National Park Service (tel. 702/293-8990; www.nps.gov/lame). There's a charge of $10 per night at each campsite.

Canoeing -- The Alan Bible Visitor Center can provide a list of outfitters that rent canoes for trips on the Colorado River. A canoeing permit ($12 per person) is required in advance and is available from livery services licensed by the Bureau of Reclamation. Questions about launch permits should be directed to Black Canyon River Adventures (tel. 702/494-2204; www.blackcanyonadventures.com). You can apply for and receive the permit on the same day that you plan to canoe.

Hiking -- The best season for hiking is November through March (it's too hot the rest of the year). Some ranger-guided hikes are offered via the Alan Bible Visitor Center , which also stocks detailed trail maps. Three trails, ranging in length from .75 mile to 6 miles, originate at the visitor center. The 6-mile trail goes past remains of the railroad built for the dam project. Be sure to take all necessary desert-hiking precautions.

Lake Cruises -- A delightful way to enjoy Lake Mead is on a cruise aboard the Lake Mead Cruises boat Desert Princess (tel. 702/293-6180; www.lakemeadcruises.com), a Mississippi-style paddle-wheeler. It's a relaxing, scenic trip (enjoyed from an open promenade deck or one of two fully enclosed, climate-controlled decks) through Black Canyon and past colorful rock formations known as the Arizona Paint Pots en route to Hoover Dam, which is lit at night. Options include narrated midday cruises ($24 adults, $12 children), brunch cruises ($39 adults, $18 children), and dinner cruises ($49 adults, $25 children). Dinner is served in a pleasant, windowed, air-conditioned dining room. There's a full onboard bar. Brunch and dinner cruises run April through October, and the midday cruises run February through November. Call for departure times.

Scuba Diving -- October through April, there's good visibility, lessened in summer months when algae flourishes. A list of good dive locations, authorized instructors, and nearby dive shops is available at the Alan Bible Visitor Center . There's a designated underwater-diving area near Lake Mead Marina.

Desert Hiking Advice

Except in summer, when temperatures can reach 120°F (49°C) in the shade, the Las Vegas area is great for hiking. The best hiking season is November through March. Great locales include the incredibly scenic Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire State Park.

Hiking in the desert is exceptionally rewarding, but it can be dangerous. Here are some safety tips:

1. Don't hike alone.

2. Carry plenty of water and drink it often. Don't assume that spring water is safe to drink. A gallon of water per person per day is recommended for hikers.

3. Be alert for signs of heat exhaustion (headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and cool, damp, pale, or red skin).

4. Gauge your fitness accurately. Desert hiking may involve rough or steep terrain. Don't take on more than you can handle.

5. Check weather forecasts before starting out. Thunderstorms can turn into raging flash floods, which are extremely hazardous to hikers.

6. Dress properly. Wear sturdy walking shoes for rock scrambling, long pants (to protect yourself from rocks and cacti), a hat, and sunglasses.

7. Wear sunscreen and carry a small first-aid kit.

8. Be careful when climbing on sandstone, which can be surprisingly soft and crumbly.

9. Don't feed or play with animals, such as the wild burros in Red Rock Canyon. (It's actually illegal to approach them.)

10. Be alert for snakes and insects. Though they're rarely encountered, you'll want to look into a crevice before putting your hand into it.

11. Visit park or other information offices before you start out and acquaint yourself with rules and regulations and any possible hazards. It's also a good idea to tell the staff where you're going, when you'll return, how many are in your party, and so on. Some park offices offer hiker-registration programs.

12. Follow the hiker's creed: Take only photographs and leave only footprints.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.