U.S. 93, which runs between Las Vegas, Nevada, and Kingman, Arizona, lays its ribbon of concrete right across one of the great engineering wonders of the world, Hoover Dam. Built between 1931 and 1935, this behemoth Depression-era project redrew the map of America: If it hadn't been for Hoover Dam, Arizona and California would never have had enough electricity and water to sustain their subsequent population boom. And yes, the dam also created the largest artificial lake in the United States, 110-mile-long Lake Mead. Driving across Hoover Dam, traffic crawls as motorists gape at the view, with smooth Lake Mead on one hand and a plummeting gorge on the other. But why let the kids be content with a mere view, when you can go inside the belly of the beast?
Going face to face with this much concrete is an awesome experience. Hoover Dam stands 726 feet tall from bedrock to the roadway atop it. At the top, it's 45 feet thick, which is stout enough, but it widens the farther down you go, until at the base it's a whopping 660 feet thick. The dam was named after Herbert Hoover, not just because he was president when the bill was signed to build it, but because the Boulder Canyon dam was in many ways his idea -- as Secretary of Commerce in the early 1920s, Hoover, a civil engineer himself, first urged the southwestern states to consider such an undertaking.
While much of the Hoover Dam story is told via historic photographs in interpretive galleries, the part kids really remember is taking elevators 500 feet down into the wall of Black Canyon, then walking down a 250-foot-long tunnel to look at the guts of the power plant, with its eight huge generators. At the end of the tour, don't miss going up to the observation deck to get that panoramic view of Lake Mead and the Colorado basin. Functional as it is in many ways, the dam still has a streamlined Art Deco flair -- check out the sculptured panels decorating the central two elevator towers rising from the top of the dam, the Nevada one celebrating the dam's benefits -- flood control, navigation, irrigation, water supply, and power -- the Arizona one paying tribute to Indian tribes that once lived here.
Hoover Dam makes a handy day trip from Las Vegas, 30 miles away, though I'd recommend combining a Hoover Dam visit with a stay on Lake Mead in a houseboat (contact Seven Crown Resorts, Box 16247, Irvine, CA; tel. 800/752-9669; www.sevencrown.com). Another fun way to visit the dam is on a paddle-wheeler cruise from Lake Mead Cruises (tel. 702/293-6180; www.lakemeadcruises.com).
Nearest Airport: Las Vegas McCarran International.
Where to Stay: $$ Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S. (tel. 877/632-7800 or 702/632-7777; www.mandalaybay.com). $$ MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S. (tel. 877/880-0880 or 702/891-7777; www.mgmgrand.com).