Our desert days were over it seemed, as we turned our course to the east. Next on our list promised to offer more than dry, empty land. Soon we would have dry, empty land with water thrown in. Considerable water. Enough water to cover the entire state of Pennsylvania in one foot of that liquid. Water, cool and blue. Qualities we hadn’t seen in a while. We didn’t realize how much we missed such a scene until we actually saw it.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area is a vivid contrast of desert and water, mountains and canyons, backcountry and modern construction. Two powerful and uncompromising forces created this iconic place. Nature, taking millions of years, carved out the foundation. Human ingenuity built the dams and remodeled the landscape to better suit their needs. As a result, two lakes were created in one of the hottest, driest regions of our country. Lake Mead and Lake Mohave have become the center of our country’s first national recreation area.
A mountain-rimmed reservoir, The largest reservoir in our country when filled to capacity. But that hasn’t happened since 1983. Now you can easily see its “bathtub ring,” the high-water mark. The white ring perimeter around the shoreline shows where minerals were deposited on previously submerged rock. Receiving the majority of its water from snow melt in the Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah Rocky Mountains, the lake’s source of water is now largely moderated by the upstream Glen Canyon Dam.
We had a premier site booked ahead at Lake Mead RV Village, just up the road from the town of Boulder City and in a prime location at Boulder Beach. It was convenient to nearby attractions—Hoover Dam being the primary one. A day trip into Las Vegas, as well as Red Rock Canyon were close runner-ups. After many days camping in national parks and “roughing it,” we were ready to take advantage of all the perks that an RV resort afforded. Requesting a lakeside site was the “extra” that we splurged on. As soon as we checked in and headed towards the water, we knew we had made a good choice. Hey! Why not? With views like this, we were ready to bask in some tropical breezes. We wasted no time setting up camp and acclimating to a waterfront view. And the breezes off the lake were divine.
And let me tell you about the biking possibilities! Leading straight from our RV Village you can access a 35-mile-long paved bike trail—the River Mountains Loop Trail. Just completed in late 2012, it is a biking experience that offers plenty of thrills—rolling hills, tunnels, views of Lake Mead and Hoover Dam, as well as passing through the quaint town of Boulder Bay (did anyone say “Let’s stop for a quick pick-me-up?”). The 12-foot-wide asphalt path has earned the designation as a National Recreation Trail and is no longer a locals’ secret. Bikers come from all over to experience a challenging ride along with spectacular scenery. Although neither of us did the complete loop, we accessed it several times while we were there. A pleasant ride along some stretches, but a serious workout when going up an 8% grade to the Visitor Center. Hey, I’m just a girl from the flatlands of Indiana—what do you expect???
For Chris it was a Sunday stroll.
An added benefit to the River Mountains Trail is the cutoff on the Historic Railroad Trail. A hard-packed dirt surface, the trail is utilized by both hikers and bikers. Running for 5 miles, it connects the Alan Bible Visitor Center to Hoover Dam. With very little change in grade, the path was built on the rail line constructed for the Hoover Dam project. It is the only remaining section of this rail system that is not highly disturbed or now underwater.
Hugging the hills on the southern shoreline of Lake Mead, the rail-trail snakes through five railroad tunnels on its way to Hoover Dam. At the start, you pass through a high cut in the red, iron-rich volcanic rock. The cut was blasted out in 1930 for trains to pass through, carrying stone to the dam site.
All total, there are 5 tunnels to ride through, each 25 feet in diameter and about 300 feet long. Constructed in 1931, after the dam was completed in 1935, the railroad ceased operation, but dam workers continued to use it until 1961. In 1962 the tracks were removed. The site was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. The trail opened in 1995.
The trail curves toward the edge of Lake Mead, albeit several hundred feet above the sapphire blue water. The lake views are spectacular all along the trail. Peaks of ancient volcanic mounds rise above the lake surface of this drowned valley like the humps of some aquatic beast. Far in the distance the craggy, smoky-blue South Virgin Mountains rise into the clouds. It can make for a very distracting ride, a ride that is easily disrupted for photographic opportunities.
Which brings us now to Hoover Dam, just a small attraction that should have some attention paid. Yes, a big draw when in the area, and even on our weekday visit in one of the least-visited months, we were impressed with all the people turning out to see the dam.
We were prepared to be overwhelmed, and at first sight we surely were. Standing 725 feet high, it’s the second highest in our country. It is 45’ thick at its crest, 660’ at its base, where the water pressure is 45,000 pounds per square foot. More than five million barrels of cement were required to build it, which is enough concrete to pave a 16-foot-wide, eight-inch-thick road from New York City to San Francisco, according to the NPS. Just think on those facts for awhile.
It was built to tame the mighty Colorado River, which tended to reek havoc on the agriculture industry downstream, in Arizona and California. Before the dam, manmade dikes and levies were regularly breaking with the river’s constant flooding of the Imperial Valley.
Even by today’s standards, Hoover Dam was a gigantic project. At the time, it was the world’s largest project made with concrete, not to mention the largest public works project in US history. And bear in mind—the design and calculations were all accomplished on paper with a slide rule, no computers!
Begun in the middle of the Great Depression, workers were easy to find. The pay was good, but the conditions were severe, and work continued 24/7, with holiday work optional. An average of 3500 men worked on the project daily. One hundred twelve lives were lost from various reasons; accidents, heat stroke and heart failure being primary causes. The dam was completed 2 years ahead of schedule (try that today!).
We headed for the Visitor’s Center, a first-class design built into the canyon wall. Lots of windows, with marble and brass interior. Two types of tours are available, a 30-minute Power Plant Tour and the one-hour complete Hoover Dam Tour, which includes passageways inside the dam. Either way, you’ll see and learn a lot, coming away with a better understanding of how this massive dam was built and how it operates to generate power.
Pouring thick concrete presented significant problems. For one thing, the curing process of concrete creates heat. Thick bodies of concrete cannot cure evenly, required for strength and integrity to prevent cracks. Another problem is the concrete needs to cure fast enough to stay on schedule. To address these problems the concrete was poured in 5-foot thick sections with embedded cooling pipes that run water through the concrete to cool the concrete evenly and quickly. These 1″ pipes are still in the dam concrete today, over 582 miles of them! But even today the concrete is still curing, harder and harder every year……… 75 years later. We were told, the curing would continue another 25 years.
Part of our tour involved the penstock viewing where we stood atop one of the four huge 30-foot diameter pipes (penstocks) that transport early 90,000 gallons of water each second from Lake Mead to the dam’s hydroelectric generators. From there, we were taken to the power plant to have an overview of the 650-foot-long Nevada wing. We saw 8 of the dam’s 17 huge generators. About sixteen hundred megawatts of power come from turning those mighty generator turbines.
One last little tidbit before closing out the subject of Hoover Dam. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, but Lake Mead is loosing water, soon to reach very critical levels. Drought in the Rockies is sapping water from the Colorado River. Some experts see it as a harbinger of a new, drier era of the Southwest. Currently, Lake Mead is 140’ below full pool (1,089’ above sea level; full pool is 1,229’), which is its lowest point since first being filled in 1937. Over the last eleven years the lake has experienced some of the lowest water levels in 30 years. Marinas have closed and those that still exist have had to make major readjustments. Less pressure as the water enters the intake towers means less power coming out of the generators. And that spells big trouble for those relying on power from Hoover Dam. If water levels reach 950’ (considered “dead pool”), producing power with today’s equipment would no longer be possible.
A beautiful arch bridge spans the Colorado River just below Hoover Dam. Opened in 2010, the O’Callaghan—Tillman Memorial Bridge bypasses crossing the dam, and alleviates several hairpin turns and blind curves from the route. The first concrete-steel arch bridge built in the US, it has the widest concrete arch in the western hemisphere. At 840’ above the river, it is the second-highest bridge in our country, as well as the world’s highest concrete arch bridge. We walked its span, being wowed by the views we had.
I guess you could also say we were Wowed by our next day’s adventure—taking in the sights of Las Vegas. Only 20 or so miles from where we were camping, it just seemed like a outing we should take.
With no plans in mind, just two country bumpkins come to see the bright lights of Sin City, we thought an open-air Tour Bus was the best option for us. We bought tickets and hopped aboard, ready to have our eyes opened.
Hotel Casinos really do go all out. One is surely trying to best the others.
And the sights on the street were pretty eye-catching too.
The performance provided where we had an Italian lunch was high-caliber, I must admit.
But it would be the only show we took in on our Las Vegas day.
As impressive as Las Vegas sights are, we were much relieved to come home to our camp by the water.
Never mind the Strip’s bright lights and beckoning shows, give us the . . .
We really kicked back and liked it here. The resort gave us the luxuries of full hookups and a view to rival any beachfront location. Liking the ambience as much as we did, we kept adding days and more days to our stay. We could bike, and hike, and tour the recreational area, or just zone out and read a book. The days were all warm and sun-filled, another reason for remaining.
Before we could leave, I had another destination—something I was sure would impress. Close enough to make it a day trip, but talk about a change of scenery! It turned out to be so splendiferous that I’ve decided to give it its own post.
With more to come from the Lake Mead area, I’ll leave you with one more dramatic sunset over the surrounding Lake Mead mountains.
Melinda and Chris