30 miles SE of Las Vegas

This is one of the most popular excursions from Las Vegas, visited by upward of 7 million people annually. Why should you join them? Because Hoover Dam is an engineering and architectural marvel, and it changed the Southwest forever. Without it, you wouldn’t even be going to Vegas. Kids may be bored, unless they like machinery or just plain big things, but expose them to it anyway, for their own good. Buy them ice cream and a Hoover Dam snow globe as a bribe. If you are visiting Lake Mead, it’s a must.

Getting There -- Drive east on Flamingo Road or Tropicana Avenue to U.S. 515 S, which automatically turns into I-93 S and takes you right to the dam. This involves a dramatic drive as you go through Boulder City and come over a rise, and Lake Mead suddenly appears spread out before you. It’s a beautiful sight. After the 2010 opening of a bypass bridge (dramatic on its own for its soaring height over the canyon), vehicles no longer pass directly over the bridge to get from Nevada to Arizona, but despite hopes that the bypass would make the commute better, it hasn’t helped much. On a normal day, getting to the dam will take about an hour.

Go past the turnoff to Lake Mead to Nevada State Route 172, the well-marked Hoover Dam Access Road. As you near the dam, you’ll see a five-story parking structure tucked into the canyon wall on your left. Park here ($10 charge) and take the elevators or stairs to the walkway leading to the visitor center.

If you would rather go on an organized tour, check out Gray Line (www.grayline.com; [tel] 800/472-9546), which offers a half-day tour of the dam from $57 or a daylong tour that includes a visit to the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign and a tour of the Ethel M Chocolates factory from $66.

Hoover Dam

There would be no Las Vegas as we know it without Hoover Dam. Certainly, the neon and glitz that we know and love would not exist. In fact, the growth of the entire Southwest can be tied directly to the electricity created by the dam.

Construction on the dam began in 1931. An army of more than 5,200 laborers was assembled, and work proceeded 24 hours a day. Though 96 workers were killed during construction, contrary to popular myth, none were accidentally buried as the concrete was poured (it was poured only at a level of 8 inches at a time). Look for a monument outside dedicated to the workers who were killed—“they died to make the desert bloom”—along with a tombstone for their doggy mascot who was also killed, albeit after the dam was completed. Compare their wages of 50 cents an hour to those of their Depression-era peers, who made 5 cents to 30 cents.

Completed in 1936, 2 years ahead of schedule and $15 million under budget (it is, no doubt, a Wonder of the Modern Fiscal World), the dam stopped the annual floods and conserved water for irrigation, industry, and domestic uses. Equally important, it became one of the world’s major electrical-generating plants, providing low-cost, pollution-free hydroelectric power to a score of surrounding communities. Hoover Dam’s $165-million cost has been repaid with interest by the sale of inexpensive power to a number of California cities and the states of Arizona and Nevada. The dam is a government project that paid for itself—a feat almost as awe inspiring as its engineering.

The dam itself is a massive curved wall, 660 feet thick at the bottom, tapering to 45 feet where a road crosses it at the top. It towers 726 feet above bedrock (about the height of a 60-story skyscraper) and acts as a plug between the canyon walls to hold back up to trillions of gallons of water in Lake Mead, the reservoir created by its construction. Four concrete intake towers on the lake side drop the water down about 600 feet to drive turbines and create power, after which the water spills out into the river and continues south.

All the architecture is on a grand scale, and the design has beautiful Art Deco elements, unusual in an engineering project. Note, for instance, the monumental 30-foot bronze sculpture, Winged Figures of the Republic, flanking a 142-foot flagpole at the Nevada entrance. According to its creator, Oskar Hansen, the sculpture symbolizes “the immutable calm of intellectual resolution, and the enormous power of trained physical strength, equally enthroned in placid triumph of scientific achievement.”

Touring the Dam

The Hoover Dam Visitor Center is a vast three-level circular concrete structure with a rooftop overlook. This facility is where you can buy tour tickets; peruse informational exhibits, photographs, and memorabilia; and view videos about the dam and its construction. The Overlook Level additionally provides an unobstructed view of Lake Mead, the dam, the power plant, the Colorado River, and Black Canyon. Have your camera ready.

It costs $10 to visit just this portion, but for an extra $5 you can get the Powerplant Tour as well (see below). Open every day except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the center closes at 5pm (4:15pm is the last admission time), though hours vary seasonally.

There are two tours available, the Powerplant Tour and the Hoover Dam Tour. The cost of the former is $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, children 4 to 16, and military personnel and their dependents; and free for children 3 and under and military in uniform. It is self-guided and takes about 2 hours if you really stop to look at and read everything (less if you’re a skimmer). The more extensive Hoover Dam Tour includes the self-guided portion but adds an hour-long guided tour into the deeper recesses of the facility. It is $30 per person; no children age 7 and under are allowed. Tickets for the Hoover Dam Tour must be purchased at the Visitor Center, while admission to the Visitor Center and tickets for the Powerplant Tour are available online. Parking is $10 no matter which tour you take, and the lot takes cash only. There is no need to call ahead to reserve a place, but for more information, call [tel] 866/730-9097 or 702/494-2517.

On the Powerplant Tour, visitors go to the center, see a movie, and walk on top of the dam. While both tours include a 530-foot descent via elevator into the dam to view the massive generators, the Powerplant Tour is a self-guided tour aided by the occasional information kiosk or guide/docent stationed at intervals along the way; the pricier Hoover Dam Tour offers the same attractions and viewing opportunities, but it is guided, lasts an hour, and is limited to 20 people. If you plan on taking that tour, be aware that it covers over a mile and a half of walking on concrete and gravel, with no handicapped access. The Hoover Dam Tour is offered every half-hour, with the last tour at 3:30pm, while the final Powerplant Tour admission is at 4:15pm.

For more information on the dam, visit www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam.

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. Things got a little better in recent years with increased water flow into the lake, but it is still a fraction of its former self and the long-term risk is still present. 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 outdoor activities will probably be affected, if they aren’t already.

The Lake Mead Visitor Center is 4 miles northeast of Boulder City on U.S. 93, at NV 166 ([tel] 702/293-8990). Here, you can get information on all area activities and services, pick up trail maps and brochures, 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 informative exhibits about the area and is staffed by friendly folks full of local pride. It’s open daily from 9:00am 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/lake.

The entry fee for the area is $25 per vehicle, which covers all passengers, $20 if you’re motorcycling, or $15 per person if you’re walking or biking in. Entry fees cover 1 to 7 days and yearly passes are available for $40 per vehicle or individual.

Outdoor Activities

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 of 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: Nonresidents can get a fishing license online ($81 for a year or $19 for 1 day plus $7 for each additional day; discounts for children 15 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 are in Lake Mohave. The Las Vegas Boat Harbor (www.boatinglakemead.com; [tel] 702/451-2901) rents powerboats, 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 (www.callvillebay.com; [tel] 800/255-5561 or 702/565-8958), which not only features a few RV and campground sites, but also rents small water craft as well as fully equipped houseboats. 

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 (www.nps.gov/lake; [tel] 702/293-8990). There’s a charge of $20 per night at each tent campsite, and up to $45 for RVs.

Canoeing: The Lake Mead Visitor Center (see above) can provide a list of outfitters that rent canoes for trips on the Colorado River. A canoeing permit ($16 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 Willow Beach/Black Canyon River Adventures (www. willowbeachharbor.com800/455-3490 or 702/294-4267). 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). Three trails, ranging in length from .75 mile to 6 miles, originate at the Lake Mead Visitor Center (see above), which stocks detailed trail maps. 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 (www.lakemeadcruises.com; [tel] 866/292-9191), 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 ($26 adults, $13 children), Sunday Champagne brunch cruises ($45 adults, $19.50 children), and dinner cruises ($61.50 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.

Boulder City

You might want to consider poking around Boulder City on your way back to Vegas. Literally the company town for those building Hoover Dam, it was created by the wives who came with their husbands and turned a temporary site into a real community, since aided by the recreational attractions and attendant businesses of Lake Mead. It doesn't look like much as you first approach it, but once you are in the heart, you'll discover that it's quite charming, an old-fashioned town all the more preserved and quiet due to its status as the only city in Nevada where gambling is illegal. It's worth getting out and taking a little stroll. There are some antiques and curio shops, and a number of burger and Mexican-food joints and family-style restaurants, including the Coffee Cup Diner, 512 Nevada Hwy. (tel. 702/294-0517; www.worldfamouscoffeecup.com), which is right on the road to and from the dam. A '50s diner in looks and menu, it has the usual burgers, shakes, and fries, plus complete breakfasts, and is inexpensive, friendly, and a good place to take the kids. Note: The restaurant is only open for breakfast and lunch, from 6am until 2pm.

Where to Stay -- There are no hotels on Lake Mead proper anymore, so if you want to do an overnight visit that doesn't involve a tent, your closest options include the resorts at Lake Las Vegas or nearby Boulder City. The latter offers several small no-frills motels, RV parks, and a couple of noteworthy accommodations, including the historic Boulder Dam Hotel, 1305 Arizona St. (tel. 702/293-3510; www.boulderdamhotel.com), which was built in 1933 as a place for high-level government supervisors to stay during construction of the dam; and the Hoover Dam Inn, 110 Ville Dr. (tel. 800/934-8282), formerly a Best Western, which offers a host of up-to-date amenities and some pretty good views of the lake.

For more information on Boulder City accommodations, call the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority at tel. 877/847-4858.

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.