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Trip Report Mini-Trip Report: You Can See Hoover Dam in Four Hours from Vegas!

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I don’t remember how young I was when I became aware of Hoover Dam, but growing up I do remember my parents frequently talking about what an amazing accomplishment it was. During elementary school, I probably was assigned a report on the dam because at some point its image — including those mysterious towers behind the dam — became fixed in my mind as a American icon I had to visit. My need to see was stoked by a fascinating documentary that I stumbled on within the last year while channel surfing. Using period film clips it described the building of the dam, amazingly, in less than five years during the early 1930s in the depths of the Great Depression.

As an adult, I’ve fortunately had the opportunity to travel over much of the U.S. — and to Las Vegas on several occasions — although to paraphrase Austin Powers, Vegas is really “not my bag, baby.” Yet even on those trips, the timing has never been right to take the short drive over to see The Dam. This spring and summer, a business project that required me to visit Las Vegas several times finally afforded me the chance to visit the Dam.

I arrive at McCarran International Airport and am in my rental car by 9:30 on a Monday morning. I need to be back in Vegas by 1:30 for a meeting, but based on helpful advice I’d received in this forum: http://bit.ly/pS5l6k - I think I can squeeze a dam tour into that window. The route from McCarran airport on I-215 and U.S. 93 through the sprawling suburb of Henderson, the desert, and Boulder City is only about 35 miles. The drive is pleasant, except for traffic congestion I encounter in Boulder City and on U.S. 93 as it narrows and winds down into the Black Canyon of the Colorado where the dam is located, and takes me about 50 minutes.

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    One of the most surprising things to me about the dam is the descent from Boulder City to Black Canyon — it must be over well 1000 feet loss in vertical elevation. Having seen Hoover Dam from the air a few times and in countless pictures, I have the misimpression that it is relatively level with its surroundings. Instead, and despite its height, it is tucked deep down in the canyon. The unexpected feeling I have as I drive down to and across the dam on the slender two-lane strip of U.S. 93 is almost claustrophobic. I don’t know if it is the morning light, the unexpected setting, or the monolithic density of the dam itself, but there is also something surreal in its appearance. Almost like I’m looking at a Hollywood set or a massive picture of the dam instead of the real object.

    The former through-traffic across the dam (that must have made for a lot of congestion considering the narrowness of the highway over the dam itself) is now diverted over the magnificent Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge that soars 900 feet above the Colorado River, just south of the dam. The arched bridge — a tremendous engineering feat in itself that pairs nicely with the dam — was just completed in late 2010. Despite the bridge bypass, the traffic on both sides the dam itself was beginning to build up. I’m afraid I might have already missed the chance for a guided tour of the dam’s interior. I make a beeline back over the dam to the Bureau of Reclamation’s newer multi-level visitor center recessed into the western side of the canyon.

    Damn — I’m indeed too late for tickets for the morning sessions of the full hour “Dam Tour,” if I plan to get back to Las Vegas in time for my meeting. Tickets are $30, the tours are limited to 20, and are sold first-come, first-served. Luckily, I am able to join the more limited “Powerplant Tour” ($11 for adults, see www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam/service/index.html for information about the tours.) After watching a 10 minute film on the dam’s history, the enthusiastic guide for our group of about 40 takes us down in large elevators through the cavernous tunnels to the giant electric turbines at the dam’s base. The Powerplant tour is run like clockwork and while lasting only 30 minutes, it provides, I think, a good feel for the interior and the functioning parts of the dam.

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    The refreshing brevity of the Powerplant tour gives me enough time when we return to the top to quickly walk through indoor exhibits on its history (I would like to spend more time here on another trip), then walk across the top of the dam, view its vast spillways and those mysterious towers that are huge water intakes to run the turbines, and see its Art Deco-era sculptures. There is a moving statue to the workers (about 100) who died during the construction of the dam, although according to our guide and contrary to myth, no workers are entombed in the dam’s concrete. Time is pressing, so I also skip the presentation at the small older Bureau of Reclamation visitor center.

    As I leave, I fortunately have saved enough time to stop at the turn-out for the O’Callaghan-Tillman Bridge and walk halfway across. Even though it is only late morning, the desert sun is already really beating down, so any visitors to the dam are well advised to pack sunscreen. The views of Hoover Dam from the bridge’s walkway are sweeping, providing a dramatic point to take in the entire vast panorama of the dam and its setting. I’m able to return to Las Vegas in time for my 1:30 meeting, so while a little rushed, I answer my initial question — Hoover Dam can be visited roundtrip from Las Vegas in four hours. While it is not hallowed ground in the sense of Gettysburg or Independence Hall, Hoover Dam is a stirring reminder to me of what we have accomplished as a people in an even more difficult time. I recommend it highly, and will visit again.

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