First, a digression about research and preparation for this trip.
On my part, it was the usual mix of following discussion boards on Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion and Death Valley on Tripadvisor, Frommer’s and Fodors, as well as a few other sites, especially those related to family travel in those areas. I read the history and scientific/geological background sections in a few guidebooks, brushed up on my Mormon history and read Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy through the Grand Canyon. I had the boys read a few shorter books on the national parks, and one on Powell’s journey.
I had great hopes of watching this American Experience episode on the Hoover Dam, but never got to the right library to check it out. In retrospect, though, it all might more sense to us now having actually been there.
After I had risen before 7 and gone through the contortions to get the car (hotel shuttle to airport, airport shuttle to car rental center), the boys had breakfast, and we set out on a short drive, first just up and down the Strip – a first for all of us, I’ll add. We were all sort of stunned in an ambiguous way, and found the stretch of road, even this initial brief introduction, to be very strange and not compelling. On this first exposure, what surprised my 14-year old sports fan was the proximity of UNLV to the Strip. I mean…it’s hard for me to imagine sending a kid off to college just a few blocks from that environment. An education, to be sure.
Hoover Dam is only about 45 minutes from Las Vegas, and therefore a popular day trip. We were there on May 20, and the crowds weren’t bad at all, but I would imagine they’d get worse as the summer wears on and tourism to Lake Mead increases – this really only being an issue for two reasons: the line of traffic through security, and the ability to get on the dam tours you want without eating up your whole day. There’s one tour you can book ahead of time, but the other, you can’t.
The drive to the dam takes you through Boulder City, which came into existence for the thousands of workers on the dam. It’s a nice little town, scattered with statues, both of contemporary art and historical nature, the latter depicting various types of dam workers.
Once you arrive at the dam, there are a couple of options for parking. First, there’s a pay garage on the Nevada side. But if you drive over the dam, there’s a free open lot on the Arizona side (seen at right) – and since you’re probably going to want to have the experience of walking over the dam anyway, you might as well. That’s what we did.
Walk over the dam, find the border between the two states, admire the Art Deco design.
There are two different tours of the interior of the dam:
The Power Plant Tour is the shorter of the two. It lasts about 45 minutes, takes you in a group of about 40 into a short introductory film, then down into the dam to view some of the huge intake pipes and then the power plant. You can purchase tickets for this tour ahead of time.
The Dam Tour is longer, and takes you to just one or two more stops. This is the one I had wanted to do …because..longer? So it must be better? I guess. But you can’t buy these tickets ahead of time, only on site, and when we arrived (around 11), the next available Dam Tour was at 2:30, and the ticket seller basically told us on the down low…hey, it’s not worth the wait. You really don’t see that much more.
So Power Plant Tour it was.
It was interesting, and the guide was fine, but honestly, I am so tired of jokey tour guides. They are everywhere. Caves, historical sites, what have you. The jokes are invariably lame and awkward, and everyone sort of chuckles nervously and wonders why we’re being talked down to like this and can we please move on. The fellow at Hoover Dam wasn’t the worst, by any means – those, I repeat, then to be at show caves…they don’t tell you a blasted thing about the geology, but shine their flashlights up to a formation and say things like, “I call that up there my cupid. If you look at it from here, can you see it? Watch out, or my cupid might shoot you! Oooh…did you feel it?” And other stupid nonsense. And it’s always my Whatever Formation with those cave guides, like they own the rocks. I don’t get it.
Back to the dam. This guide had his share of awkward jokes, but he was also informative and, most importantly was able to answer the intelligent questions tossed at him by engineering/historian types in the group.
After the tour, you’re spilled out into the Visitor’s Center (for which you must pay to visit, even without the tour, by the way), for some views of the Dam. It’s from inside, glassed in at that first level, but nonetheless, there was one middle-aged man, who couldn’t handle it. Clearly terrified, he was being pulled toward the window by his companion, but couldn’t look out. I felt badly for him.
There’s a small history museum, which does a good job of laying out the process of building the dam Why was it constructed? The power generation is a side benefit. The foundational reason behind Hoover Dam was flood control – the Colorado was so unpredictable and destructive in its flooding, especially as agriculture was developing, something had to be done. The power generation has, of course, been a boon, and has been what has enabled the Dam to pay for and support itself.
I was particularly interested in the preparation work that had to take place before the first cement could be poured: blasting tunnels so the river could be diverted and the area for the dam itself could be dried and dug out to the bedrock level. I was also interested in the human stories of families resettling, of the camps that grew, and then Boulder City, and even of the support you don’t even think about, but is absolutely necessary. There’s a statue in Boulder City of a man with a ring of rolls around his neck. We passed by and had no idea what it was until we got to the Dam, where we learned that it represented one of the men who took care of the latrine areas for the workers – truly an essential role, with appropriate historical credit given!
After you finish at the dam itself (or before…we just did it after), you can drive back just a couple of miles to the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Bridge that now takes the bulk of traffic crossing the area. It’s a great view and the walk up to the bridge from the parking lot is marked by signage with tons of information on this, the longest single-arch bridge in the United States, and the second-highest bridge in the United States.
Finished at the dam, we had to backtrack – even though Hoover Dam is east of Las Vegas, and so was Saint George, Utah – our next stop – there was no direct northeast route from Boulder City up to Saint George. We’d have to backtrack to the east side of Las Vegas to catch I-15, which would take us back up.
After a lunch at Scratch House in Boulder City, and some ice cream….we were on our way….
Part 4: Saint George, Utah