Following our exploration of Death Valley, we headed off to another iconic destination: the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Hoover Dam. Our friends Susan and Robin were staying at the Government Wash campground, so that’s where we headed. The creation of the Hoover Dam, completed in 1936 to provide the west both with a larger and more reliable source of water and with electrical power for its growing needs, impounded the Colorado River to create the largest (by volume) reservoir in the U.S. The dam straddles the Nevada/Arizona state line, and Lake Mead creates a 112-mile-long water playground in the desert. Sadly, a combination of drought and increased water usage has dropped the lake level 135′ since 2000, resulting a white “bathtub ring” in the rock and leaving the huge boatramp at Government Wash high and dry. There were still plenty of people coming and going to fish the lake though, since we were just a 15 minute drive from Las Vegas.
We settled in and enjoyed catching up with Robin and Susan, whom we last camped with in Arizona. We also starting calling RV repair places since we had been having a pesky rear brake issue that we hadn’t been able to fix ourselves. We made an appointment to take the RV in to Findlay’s RV and took an afternoon to visit the Hoover Dam.
I wasn’t that excited about the dam tour, but it turned out to be completely fascinating. Completed in 1936, the dam is 726 feet high, 1244 feet across, and weighs a staggering 6.6 million tons! It is nearly as wide at the base (660 feet) as it is tall, but is only 45 feet wide at the top. The dam contains 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete, which is still hardening! The Art Deco movement was at its height when the dam was designed and, as it was to be an engineering marvel and a grand achievement, no expense was spared to make the dam beautiful on the inside and out. There are Art Deco statues, marble friezes, rooftops, and even Deco-inspired Native American designs in the terrazzo floors.
The tour was pretty fascinating, and you get to go deep down into a turbine room where the real action happens. While waiting for the elevator, our guide pointed out that we were below lake level, so the water seepage along the walkway was technically from the Colorado River. So Eddy Beer got his feet wet in the Colorado for the first time!
On a day off from work, we took a Jeep expedition over nearby Christmas Tree Pass. People have really gotten into the spirit of the name, and trees near the top of the pass have been decorated – some pretty elaborately!
Our destination for the day was Grapevine Canyon – a hike inside the Lake Mead National Recreation Area which was said to have petroglyphs. We’ve been disappointed more than once on a purported “petroglyph” hike when we arrived at our destination and found the same one or two glyphs that were in the brochure, or when we couldn’t find them at all, but Grapevine Canyon did not disappoint. There is a spring high up in the canyon which makes the canyon an oasis. There are actual grapevines growing along the stream bed, and even something that looked like a clematis vine! I don’t know if it was a Nevada wildflower or if it was planted there by settlers long ago. At any rate, the petroglyphs did not disappoint! The boulders at the entrance of the canyon are thickly covered with them (presumably to let others know there was a water source inside the canyon) and they also appear on boulders inside the canyon. It was an enjoyable and beautiful hike, with wildflowers and cacti blooming, the trickle of running water, and the mysterious petroglyphs.
During our stay we enjoyed hanging out with Susan & Robin too, and enjoyed some extraordinary sunset happy hours.
The four of us also took a great day trip into Valley of Fire State Park which boasts some amazing red rock scenery. Susan wanted to see how capable her Big Girl truck was off-road, so we took an amazing drive on the Bitter Springs Back Country Byway which began inside the Park and ended miles away. Along the road we found an old dam which is no longer holding water, but the spring still feeds a small stream. I never thought I’d see moss in the desert, but it was happily thriving here!
With our RV repairs complete and the desert heating up, it was time to move on. We really enjoyed our time at Lake Mead and would visit again. There’s an extensive network of BLM and National Recreation Area dirt roads to explore, and many of them lead to secluded coves along Lake Mead. There’s so much here to explore and we barely scratched the surface!
TIPS FOR YOUR LAKE MEAD/HOOVER DAM VISIT
- Plan ahead for your Hoover Dam visit. The more extensive one hour tour sells out very quickly and tickets cannot be purchased ahead of time, so get to the dam early in the day to reserve your spot. The shorter half-hour tour is still worth it though!
- The Visitor’s Center is on the Nevada side of the dam, so don’t forget the time difference if you’re staying on the Arizona side (during daylight savings months).
- There are numerous BLM campgrounds along Lake Mead and some offer more amenities than others, so check them out before you go.
MUST SEE AND DO LIST
- The Grapevine Canyon and Wetlands Trail hikes are both great. A full list of hikes in the NRA can be found here.
- If you’re a birder, Lake Mead is along a north-south migration route and is an important stop for many species. Try to schedule your visit to coincide with peak migratory times. There’s a lot of info available online for finding the best spots.