Las Vegas & The Hoover Dam

Since Las Vegas & the Hoover Dam are quite a distance from the Grand Canyon, and the two could easily be split up into two different trips, I've split them into two different posts. Grand Canyon highlights & travel details to follow. 

Last Thursday evening, I rushed out of work at 3:30, hoping traffic wouldn't be too bad (it was) in order to make it to the airport by 4:30 for my 5:30 flight. Needless to say, I was cutting it close. I did, thankfully, make the flight in time, and was soon in the air on my was to Las Vegas! After picking up a rental car at the airport, we headed off toward the bright lights of Las Vegas Boulevard.

When we'd come to Vegas last year, we hadn't rented a car (you don't really need one if you're staying in the city, particularly if you're on the strip), but this time around, it was so much fun to see Vegas from the front seat. I always feel like I have the attention span of a squirrel in Vegas. There are just SO MANY things to look at! Flashing lights, jumbotron screens, videos, glitter, extreme people watching, street performers, more flashing lights... I need more sets of eyes. 

After checking into our hotel (Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino- I would recommend it for it's central location, across from the Bellagio, and less-intense feel). We walked along the strip, swimming in the electric feel of the city. Each casino is heavily air-conditioned and perfumed with its own cocktail of hopefulness. There's nothing quite like walking the strip after dark. Forget the gambling, the drinking, the nightlife; this city is dancing, and it's free to join the audience.

Photo by David Lardy

Photo by David Lardy

We turned in after a quick dinner (side note: where I can I get some decent vegan eats in Vegas? Everything was covered in cheese, grease, meat, or all of the above. Am I just looking in the wrong places?) and a long walk. We knew we wanted to be up early.

Friday morning we went straight to the buffet at Paris. I knew from previous experience that if we got there early enough, the line to the omelet station would be short, and I could ask the chef for all of the veggies sautéed, without the egg (yes, I KNOW it's not an omelet if you ask for it without egg). Between my veggies, some hash browns, & all the fresh fruit, I probably ate enough for two Rachels. When traveling through the desert, one never knows where the next meal will be! Before long, we were packed up and driving to Lake Mead & the Hoover Dam.

Vegas is a bizarre city. It really is in the middle of a desert, although that's easy to forget once you're on the strip. Once outside the city limits, it immediately becomes apparent that this isn't your typical landscape. The vast sandy hills and mountains rise up on both sides of the highway, pockmarked periodically with tufts of low shrubs. How does a city even exist here? After Henderson, you really get full impact of the bleak landscape. It looks alien, yet somehow beautiful. It is formidable, yet captivating.

We took Lakeshore Drive so we could pass through Lake Mead National Recreation Area. We stopped at a lookout point that offered stunning panoramic views of the lake, with its iconic "bathtub ring" of white mineral sediment, visible because of the low water levels. We later found out (during the Hoover Dam tour) that the level of the lake was between 80 and 90 feet lower than normal due to drought and limited snowpack. It is so strange to see a lake literally in the middle of the desert. The contrast is stark and memorable. For a long while we were the only ones at the lookout point and I loved having the time to pause and take in the lake without the crowds at the Hoover Dam. However, there is a $10 entrance fee to the recreation area. I am on the fence about the value of paying the entrance fee just for passing through, but David insists it was worth the fee and more. The drive itself was serene and there was little to no traffic.

Driving from Paris Hotel to the Hoover Dam via Lake Mead NRA.

Driving from Paris Hotel to the Hoover Dam via Lake Mead NRA.

From Lakeshore Drive, it's just a right on 93 and from there a short drive to get to the Hoover Dam. It's Exit 2, but the signs are very easy to follow both for the Memorial Bridge and the dam itself. DO stop and walk across (or at least halfway across) the Memorial Bridge. The view is stunning, the information interesting, and the photo ops many. It is really the only way you're going to get that great concrete enormity all in one photo. Once you're actually on the Hoover Dam, it's not going to happen. It's just too big.

Since middle school, I had been looking forward to one day seeing the Hoover Dam. It is such an engineering marvel, especially for its time. I knew that the pictures didn't do it justice, and I wanted experience it firsthand. The Power Plant Tour and Visitors' Center were well worth the money and the wait in line. The video they make you watch at the beginning is downright cheezy (yes, the kids playing in the sprinkler DO demonstrate what a benefit the dam is to society, but was that the best use of my time?), but if you sit through it, the 30 minute tour to see the internal workings of the dam, including pipes, hydroelectric generators, and tunnels, is worth the patience. We could always hear the guide clearly, and the talking points were specific enough to help to understand the more technical aspects of the workings of the dam, yet concise enough to leave you wanting more. The tour is appropriate for all ages, and I would highly recommend it for all visitors. 

After the tour, the group is funneled through an informational area of the Visitors' Center. It touches more on the history as well as the hydroelectric generators, allowing the each visitor to read/listen as much as they like. I noticed that throughout the tour and the Visitors' Center, the negative ecological impacts of the dam were being ignored. I know that this dam is a modern marvel of human ingenuity, but I would have liked a slightly less biased presentation. It is important to acknowledge both the benefits and the consequences of the dam so that visitors understand both sides of its historical and current impact. Afterward, the observation platform was easily accessible and offered good views of the dam from above. If you missed the Memorial Bridge, at least stop by here to get a view from above.

We then made our way down the stairs (there is an elevator as well) and out onto the dam. I liked leaving the Visitors' Center equipped with more information before going to walk across the top of the dam. Knowing about the building process, and its current functionality made me appreciate more than just its colossal size. Learning about the intake towers, spillways, dimensions, and the power plants gives new light to the structures that were glanced over from the Memorial Bridge. It's surreal to walk across the dam. It feels so solid. So permanent. If I hadn't spent the better part of the previous hour learning about its construction, it would have been easy to believe the dam had always been there. 

I walked away feeling awe-struck and proud of the accomplishments of perseverance and determination. Possibilities feel endless when looking upon the conquered impossible.