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While most people visiting Las Vegas come for the bright lights, there are many options for short excursions out into the surrounding area. Visitors to the area can take advantage of car hire in Las Vegas to swap the city for the spectacular canyons. This is actually how we visited Hoover Dam and Lake Mead when we were in Vegas a few years ago!
One easy day excursion, involving just a 30 mile trip to the southeast of Las Vegas, is to the Hoover Dam. You can sense immediately what a monumental feat of construction and engineering it is, but taking the time to understand what went in to accomplishing this feat makes it that much more remarkable. Dating from the early 1930s, Hoover Dam borders Arizona and Nevada and impounds Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country. It is still considered the world’s biggest dam. Little wonder that it is a National Historic Landmark and a tourist attraction drawing almost a million visitors a year.
The idea of a dam in the area had been around since the early 1900s, but three decades passed before the completion of the dam. Novel techniques for the time were employed and the project was fraught with difficulties, culminating in the cost of over a hundred lives. Despite this, the dam was completed ahead of schedule.
The dam was built primarily to control flooding while also providing a source of irrigation water. Today, the dam provides water for a population of around 8 million people and irrigates more than a million acres of land. But another reason for construction was to provide energy in the form of hydroelectric power, and it is this which generates the necessary proceeds to pay off the construction loan and maintain the dam. Hoover Dam became the largest hydroelectric power station in the world in 1939, and more generators were added through to the 1960s.
But the dam is not just impressive in size and scope; it is also a work of art. Graceful Art Deco designs adorn the towers and spillways, while you can also marvel at the 30 foot high bronze sculptures and vast polished ‘star map’ floor of the Nevada plaza. Decorative motifs are based on those depicted in Native American paintings, textiles and ceramics, including depictions of animals, birds and environmental phenomena such as rain and lightning. Other artworks depict the workings of the dam.
Access to the dam is by tour only – visitors can opt to take the complete one hour tour, which covers the visitor center, power plant and dam passageways, or the shorter power plant tour. Both tours take in the power plant, where visitors are taken hundreds of feet down through the rock, before viewing the huge pen-stock pipes, which transport 90,000 gallons of water a second; afterwards, an elevator takes visitors back up for a sweeping view down to the power plant and generators. Visitors on the full tour also pass through the winding tunnels inside the dam. Numerous interactive exhibits explore the workings of the dam in detail. An observation deck in the visitor center allows for amazing panoramic views of the dam itself, Lake Mead and the Colorado River.
Hoover Dam is set in a spectacular location and it is this of course, as much as the dam itself, which makes the trip so memorable. Lake Mead is a wonderful spot for boating, cruising or other water-based activities, including fishing, swimming and water-skiing. You can also hike and camp in the area, enjoying the superb contrast of the lake and the surrounding desert.
Hoover Dam is open daily, except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Some parts of the dam are not accessible to those with wheelchairs or scooters, and the complete tour does not admit children under eight years. Tickets can be purchased on the day.