Lake Mead is the largest man-made lake in the US. The National Recreation Area is home to not only the lake but also thousands of acres to explore and the massive Hoover Dam, once the largest concrete dam in the world.
Visitor Rating (write your own review below)
ILNP Park Review
Our Visit I visited Lake Mead three times over the course of a long business trip to Las Vegas in February and March.
Our Weather Partly cloudy with a temperature in the low 70s.
Overall Impression First, let me clarify that this review looks at Lake Mead NRA as a destination for scenery, attractions and hiking, the way I look at other parks and monuments. There is already plenty of information available on the web for those looking to enjoy the aquatic recreation activities of Lake Mead. Lake Mead is a great place to get away from the lights and bustle of nearby Las Vegas. While the scenery is not particularly spectacular, there are pockets of interesting geology and history to hike through, and the Hoover Dam offers an experience not to be missed.
Visiting There are several sections of Lake Mead NRA including the Lake itself, Lake Mohave on the south side of Hoover Dam, the mountains and desert surrounding the lake and Hoover Dam itself. This review will cover Hoover Dam and the area surrounding the lake.
Hoover Dam is what gives this park its 3.5 star rating. Without the dam, the rating would be more like 2 stars. Hoover Dam is a colossus and masterpiece of 19th century engineering, and despite it’s age, the dam is surprisingly accessible to tourists. The dam is adjacent to highway US 93 and visiting does not require entry into the NRA and the fees associated with it.
A visit to the dam starts from the Nevada side of the Colorado River (the dam straddles the state line). The exit from US 93 is well marked. On the way down to the dam, you’ll see a parking lot off to the right side of the road marked Memorial Bridge Plaza. This is where you can park to walk across the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge completed in 2010. As long as you’re not deathly afraid of heights, this short hike offers an amazing view of the dam, one you can’t get just by driving across the bridge (the railings are too high). The parking lot is small, though, so weekends and holidays will likely make finding a space challenging.
Back in the car, you can continue your drive to the dam. Visitors can still drive across the dam, but your vehicle will need to be inspected first. This is a simple process for a car, a little more involved for an RV or van. If you want to walk across the dam or visit the gift shop, you’ll need to either pay for parking at the Hoover Dam Visitors Center or park at one of the lots on the far side of the dam and walk. In 2011, the cost was $7 per car to park close to the visitors center. Walkways adorn both sides of the dam, so you can gaze down into the blue waters of Lake Mead on the north or look down more than 500 feet to the Colorado River on the south side of the dam. The concrete railing is not that high, so hold onto your kids and loose belongings!
If you want to learn more about the dam or go inside of it, you’ll need to purchase a ticket at the Hoover Dam Visitors Center at the west end of the dam. Unlike the NRA which is run by the National Park Service, the dam is run separately by the Bureau of Reclamation (even if you’ve purchased entry into the recreation area, the dam fees are separate). The basic tour ($11 in 2011) allows you to see a 10 minute video about the dam’s history and purpose and take the elevator down 540 feet to the power plant at the dam’s base where you’ll stand atop one of the four massive water flow pipes and visit one of the generator rooms which supplies electricity to millions of people in the surrounding states. It’s worth the money, and if you want to see more, there are other tours available–the more you want to see, the higher the price of the tour.
Area Surrounding Lake Mead
Lake Mead is enormous, and it is surrounded by rugged mountains and desert. While most of this wilderness is open for back-country explorers, there are relatively few roads and trails to explore. Probably the most traveled hiking trail is the Historic Railroad Trail near the main visitors center off US 93 (outside the fee area). This level and well maintained trail sits atop the right-of-way of the railroad built to bring supplies and materials to build the dam. The trail runs through five large tunnels and overlooks the Lake Mead for most of its length. The trail is great for bikes and hikers, but it to get through all the tunnels and back is a round trip of just over 4 miles (about 2 hours). If you just want to get to the first tunnel, it’s a round trip of 2.5 miles (about an hour). There are no interpretive markers on the trail, so be sure to read the large sign at the beginning of the trail.
There are two major roads within the fee area of the park, Lakeshore Drive and Northshore Road. Lakeshore Drive is primarily for lake access, so if you want to see the scenery Lake Mead offers, then you’ll want to spend a couple of hours driving Northshore Road. For most who enter via US 93 or Lake Mead Boulevard, Northshore Road will take you north along the west side of Lake Mead. The road initially travels through the desert with mountains in the distance. Eventually, the Muddy Mountains will loom larger on your left, and the road will get steeper. The Muddy Mountains are mostly brown but have strange pockets of bright red rock. Your first opportunity for a short hike is the Northshore Summit Trail. This trail climbs steeply for 1/4 mile to a great vista of the Muddy Mountains and is worth the stop, especially in the morning or evening when the light and shadows mix on the hillsides.
If you can only make one stop, make it Redstone. The Redstone area, just past the halfway point of Northshore Road, is home to a series of ancient petrified sand dunes. These red rocks are piled in twisted shapes full of caverns and arches. A short loop trail offers access to the dunes, and there are many places to climb and explore the whimsical rocks. This was my favorite area. If you really want to hike and enjoy more scenery like Redstone, I suggest visiting Valley of Fire State Park which adjoins Lake Mead NRA (keep traveling North on Northshore Road). This park has a separate entrance fee ($10 per vehicle in 2011) but offers many places to hike and picnic surrounded by large red rock formations.
Suggestions This is the desert–always take plenty of water and let someone know where you are. Cell phones don’t work well in the more remote areas of the park. Keep an eye out for critters. While hiking at Redstone, I didn’t see any rattlesnakes, but I did see what looked like their “tracks” in the dust.
Nearby Towns Las Vegas, NV, Boulder City, NV
Other Nearby Attractions Valley of Fire State Park
Official NPS Website Lake Mead NRA
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