I have mixed feelings about man-made dams. We’ve visited Grand Coulee dam as well as several other dams along the Columbia River, and they certainly are engineering marvels. Many of them have generated economic prosperity for the surrounding communities and states and have eliminated devastating flash flooding.
They have also caused significant and irrevocable harm to their surrounding environments and communities, sabotaging salmon runs, eliminating food sources for indigenous people, destroying native wildlife, and more.
I first read about the impact of the dams along the Columbia River in Tim Egan’s The Good Rain, and more recently read about how the Glen Canyon Dam tamed the Colorado River and drowned a once amazing ecosystem beneath Lake Powell in Kevin Fedarko’s The Emerald Mile.
With these balanced perspectives in mind, I was interested but not totally excited to see the Hoover Dam for the first time.
We started our experience walking around the town of Boulder City, Nevada, which was founded in the 1930s to house the individuals working to build the Hoover Dam. Brian had found a few attractions in town on Roadside America, so we added it to our list.
One of the attractions was the Toilet Paper Hero statue, which honors the workers who helped do the most essential tasks as the dam was being built – including cleaning and restocking the toilet paper at the facilities all of these people were using. It was one of many interesting statues around town. His other find, the Area 52 Flying Saucer exhibit, I could take or leave – the alien shop it accompanied was not quite my style!
While we didn’t go in anywhere or get to try any of the cute restaurants, it was a lovely morning for making a loop along the main street to check out the many statues and informational plaques along the way.
Next on our itinerary was the Hoover Dam itself. After stopping at the entrance so they could search our vehicle, we continued on to the dam, driving across the top of it and crossing from Nevada into Arizona – my first time in Arizona!
Tip: There are multiple paid parking lots close to the dam, but if you’re willing to walk, continue driving past those to one of the multiple free parking lots. Several of them are not much farther away, and they have stairs and paths to safely make your way to the dam. I might have felt differently about this approach had it been a million degrees outside, but since it was early morning and comfortable, this was the perfect (and free!) approach for us.
We approached the dam from the east, walking across the northern sidewalk, crossing back into Nevada, and continuing over to the memorial area.
There are no tours or amenities right now due to COVID-19, so we opted for a “self-guided experience,” reading the available plaques before making our way back across on the southern sidewalk where we could look down over the vast wall of concrete to the gorge below.
The Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, which opened in 2010, was quite a sight – it wasn’t there the last time Brian visited!
We returned to our car and drove to the Hoover Dam Lookout – the turnaround point – for one final view of the dam before driving back across and out of the security area.
On our way in we saw an access road to a Lakeview Overlook, which we thought might offer a nice view of Lake Mead, so we started to keep an eye out for our turn. Apparently I was taking my spotting responsibilities very seriously because I caught sight of some big horn sheep in a cliff in the distance! Brian quickly pulled over along the side of the road so I could swap out my camera lens for our zoom lens and snap a few photos.
I originally saw a single sheep on an outcropping but as I zoomed in I could see there were multiple sheep, many of them behind a rocky ledge. Several of them wandered out, grazing on whatever they could find among the rocks. Our first wildlife sighting this trip!
Our last stop at the viewpoint was fairly busy so we didn’t stay long. We found a parking spot, pulled on our masks, found an isolated area to stand along the overlook, and gazed out over Lake Mead.
We had a beautiful morning for our quick visits to Boulder City and the Hoover Dam. While it would have been interesting to go on a tour of the dam, I still learned a lot during our visit and enjoyed getting to see what we could, as safely as we could, this trip.