When I was five years old my dad got orders to report to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. We were only there eight months when Dad went to Vietnam and we went to live near my grandparents outside Chicago. I was way too young to care and barely old enough to remember it.
What I do remember, however, is Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. I remember going out to the Lake to spend a day on the “shore” and my parents marveling at the dam’s technology and innovation. Decades later, Greg and I found ourselves headed to Sin City for a family visit and knew that stopping at the dam for a tour was a must.
We checked the map, pulled off at the exit and headed into the parking garage. That was the first surprise … a parking garage tucked into a crag between two rocky mountains at the top of Black Canyon.
Hoover Dam is part of the Bureau of Reclamation. It’s been in Hollywood movies, a major US landmark and an engineering marvel. It also provides electric power to major cities of the west and is a cog in the American Southwest’s complicated water machinery. (As a nearly life-long western resident, Greg is particularly attuned to the water politics that defined western growth and culture.) There’s a lot of info online about the dam … how it was built, the power plant and more … but seeing it in person is worth the stop.
Sadly, due to COVID, the Visitor’s Center Tours and Exhibits were closed. The good news is, you can still marvel at the views.
Here are a few tips for your visit:
Drive to the top of the parking garage. The view from the higher floors is pretty impressive and it’s easier to find a parking spot. We decided to take the stairs down so we could see how they nestled this facility in a crevasse. (Don’t worry, there are elevators to get you back up to your car).
Take your time and stroll across the dam to the other side. We were able to get up close and see how carefully the art deco finishes are being maintained.
We stopped midway on the dam to snap a pic at the Arizona/Nevada border. It’s fun to be able to capture yourself standing in two states at once with such amazing scenery behind you.
When you get to the other side, cross the street and come back with a completely different view. The north side gives you sneak peaks to Lake Mead. The water line on the walls of Black Canyon illustrate how high the water can get … and how low it is now as the region continues to suffer through a serious drought.
The south side shows off the engineering marvel of a massive concrete dam that experts say is still curing nearly ninety years after construction.
It also offers breathtaking views of the Colorado River sparkling in the sunshine below the arched bridge that carries Interstate 11 traffic past the dam. There’s a walkway to the bridge if you decide to take in the view from the other direction.
Pop into the gift shop and pick up a souvenir. Grab a snack or drink from the cafe and check out the expression on the statue of the worker that marks the entrance to the site.
Once you’ve walked the dam, get back in your car and drive it. There’s very little traffic and it takes you to the overlook parking areas on the Arizona side.
Drive up to the top of the parking areas and see if you can spot the WWII pillbox that was built to allow spotters and sharpshooters a birds-eye view of the dam for defense during the war.
From the higher vantage point, look down into the spillway tunnel and imagine the last time the water was high enough to fill it with gushing torrents of water. (It was 1983)
We’re hoping the tours resume soon so we can go back and get the behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the dam (Greg took a tour in 1976 as a teenager and still remembers it with fascination). The information is all available online, but it’s a lot more fascinating to be there. It’s another item to add to my never-ending bucket list.
There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Let a dam view electrify you.
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