Hoover Dam — it’s a dam site bigger!

  • Tom Dell
  • December 18, 2016

  • This week’s destination for Road Trips with Tom is Hoover Dam, located on the Arizona-Nevada border just southeast of Las Vegas. Here, a gigantic concrete barrier harnesses the Colorado River, generating electricity for three states and creating the largest man-made lake in the country.

    Las Vegas is one of America’s top tourist destinations, and Hoover Dam is, by far, the most popular excursion for Vegas visitors.  I recommend you put Hoover Dam and Lake Mead on your road trip bucket list.  Ideally, you’ll take one of the tours provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam.  Over one million people tour Hoover Dam every year, so you’ll need a strategy for an enjoyable visit.

    Highly pressurized water drives these giant turbines, which generate hydroelectric power.  This is the Nevada side; there are nine more turbines on the Arizona side.

    Strategy for a dam fine visit

    Briefly, here’s your strategy for touring Hoover Dam:

    • Your strategy depends on whether you’ll be taking a package tour through one of the big Vegas hotels, or if you’ll be driving. The hotel tours generally include tour tickets, as well as bus transportation.  Check with your hotel before leaving home to make your arrangements.
    • Select your tour. Two tours are offered:  The Dam Tour includes about an hour inside the dam, plus a film on its construction, and admission to the visitor center.  The VC has exhibits, plus an observation deck.  The Dam Tour costs $30 per adult and involves about a mile of walking.  Tickets are sold only on a first-come, first-served basis.
    Tour guide explains how water moves from the penstocks on the north side of Hoover Dam into the powerplant
    • The Powerplant Tour includes 30 minutes inside the dam, along with the film and the visitor center.  It costs $13 per adult.  This is the tour I took; all told, it lasted about 75 minutes.   For the Powerplant tour, which is, by far, the more popular of the two, I recommend you buy your tour tickets online before your trip. Go to usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam/service/DamTour, where you’ll find tour descriptions, schedules and an order form.
    • Schedule your tour early in the day. Tours begin at 9:30 a.m. and continue until 3:30 p.m.
    • Allow at least 90 minutes to get from the Las Vegas Strip to the tour entrance. In addition to the 30- to 40-minute drive, you’ll need to pass through a vehicle security checkpoint, find a parking space, walk to the tour entrance, pass through an airport-like security check, then stand in line to pick up your tickets (even if you’ve purchased them online).  I arrived early on a November weekday and zipped right through with no hassles or long waits.
    • Avoid summer. That’s not only the most popular and crowded time to visit Hoover Dam, it’s also hot.  I’m talking serious, fry-your-brains hot.  Don’t listen to someone who says, “Well, it’s a dry heat – no problem.”  One hundred and ten degrees is too stinking hot.  Period.

    Engineering marvel

    Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s and was the world’s largest dam back then.  It’s still an engineering marvel.  Here are a few vital statistics:

    • 726 feet high
    • 1,244 feet wide across the crest
    • Volume: 25 million cubic feet of concrete
    • Generates over 4 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power per year
    • Lake Mead’s shoreline is 550 miles
    • The lake’s maximum depth is 498 feet
    Visitor center displays at Hoover Dam are only accessible to those who take one of the tours

    Before Hoover Dam was built, the Colorado River alternated between flood and drought stages every year.  In spring, snowmelt from the Colorado Rockies raged through the Grand Canyon and flooded the farmland downstream.  In late summer and fall, it dried to a mere trickle.  Now, the river’s volume is controlled, allowing a steady supply of water that irrigates farms as far south as Mexico.  Some of the water is siphoned off to provide water for cities in three states, including the water that reaches my home in Whittier, California.

    Watch these YouTube previews

    If you take the Hoover Dam tour, you’ll view a movie that explains how the dam was built.  You can also view similar videos on YouTube, but you’ll still have to sit through the tour video.

    However, there are two YouTube videos I recommend you watch.  Both are short.  First is a Discovery Channel video that explains how Hoover Dam works.  Go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=sV1i2EuRvL0.  It’s just 4:45 long, and it will give you a much better picture of the dam’s operations than I can give you in writing.

    The second video was shot by a visitor taking the Powerplant tour.  In it, the tour guide’s narration explains how 17 gigantic turbines generate electricity.  Go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbojuQw62ls.  Running time is 6:56.

    These pipes carry pressurized water to the turbines that generate electricity

    How to get to Hoover Dam

    From downtown Las Vegas, drive east on I-515 to its end, then continue on US 93 through Boulder City to the signed exit for Hoover Dam.  Expect to be slowed down by traffic and signals in Boulder City.   After exiting, you’ll follow a narrow, winding two-lane road to a security checkpoint, then on to the dam itself.  On your left you’ll see a parking structure.  It costs $10 to park, but it’s by far the closest parking to the tour entrance.  The alternative is to continue across the dam to the Arizona side, where parking lots are in tiers.  It’s a great view from there, but it’s also a long walk to the tour entrance (and uphill all the way back to your vehicle).

    From the Strip, drive east on I-215, which merges with I-515 after a few miles.  Then follow the directions above.  This is the best route if you’re northbound on I-15 from California.

    Coming from Laughlin?  Take Nevada SR 163 west to US 95, then head north through Searchlight to the junction with US 93.  Turn right there and follow the directions above.

    Looking downstream at the Colorado River and the new US 93 bridge

    Lake Mead sampler

    From the dam’s observation deck, you’ll see the Mike O’Callahan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, which carries US 93 from Nevada to Arizona.  Prior to its completion in 2010, this busy highway connecting Las Vegas and Phoenix, used that winding two-lane road that crosses Hoover Dam.  It was a traffic mess much of the time.  The bridge has a pedestrian walkway that offers what’s probably the best view of the dam.  Before you approach Hoover Dam, you’ll see a parking area for those who want to walk out on the bridge.

    Lake Mead is worth a look, too.  The contrast of deep blue water against the barren terrain surrounding it can be stunning, especially early and late in the day.  It’s easy to get a nice look at the lake when returning to Vegas from Hoover Dam.  After a few miles, you’ll see a turnoff for Lakeshore Dr. on the right.  Just beyond the turn, you’ll find the entrance to the visitor center for Lake Mead National Recreation Area.  There, you find the usual National Park Service setup, including an interesting relief model of the lake.

    Lake Mead, from the Nevada side
    Relief model of Lake Mead at the national recreation area’s Alan Bible Visitor Center

    Expect to get nailed for a $10 per vehicle entrance fee at a kiosk just beyond the visitor center.  After a dozen or so miles, turn left onto SR 564 to return to I-515 and Las Vegas.

    Thanks for visiting Road Trips with Tom.  Next Sunday, December 25, we’ll keep with the season by heading to Mission San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, California.




    3 thoughts on “Hoover Dam — it’s a dam site bigger!

    1. Hi Tom,
      I really enjoyed looking at the pictures and was blown away by both the written content. I can’t imagine how time consuming this most have been to compile.

      Probably a bad question – but do you have any YouTube videos?
      I will share this link to others I know that I believe will appreciate it.

      Keep up the great work.
      Thanks for sharing,

      1. Thanks, Robert, for your very kind comments. I was a travel writer in my earlier life, so this is a labor of love. Did you mean YouTube video I shot myself? No, but I’d like to. However, I always travel alone, and I lack both the hardware and expertise to shoot and edit video. Maybe one day. Thanks again!

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