Grand dam

Architectural wonder, canyon-country gateway

Hoover Dam

A magnificent sweep of concrete Hoover Dam stands 726 feet tall.

Kerrick James

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  • Railroad Tunnel Trail

    The Railroad Tunnel Trail edges the lake and passes through old tunnels.

No matter how many times you visit Hoover Dam, the first impression is the same: That is one big dam.

Massive and white, Hoover hunkers down like a nose tackle on a goal-line stand, holding back the Colorado River and reducing its passage through Black Canyon to a steady, controlled flow. Then there's the second impression: As brutally functional as the dam needs to be, there's beauty in the beast. Hoover's concrete face curves elegantly for more than 1,200 feet between the canyon's volcanic-rock walls. Bas-relief adorns the crest's art deco turrets, while four rocketlike intake towers have a kind of vintage futurism ― a dash of Flash Gordon.

Just before U.S. 93 crosses the dam from Nevada, the Winged Figures of the Republic, a pair of 30-foot-tall bronzes, preside over a terrazzo plaza that shows the celestial alignment the day the dam was dedicated 70 years ago. Another memorial salutes the sacrifice of those who died during construction, with a figure rising from the waters and the declaration, "They died to make the desert bloom." Hoover Dam is a shrine to the modern West and the can-do resolve of the Great Depression.

Hoover Dam sits at the heart of the 1.5 million-acre Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which stretches for more than 100 miles across Nevada and Arizona. While the dam is one of the country's most visited landmarks, few visitors explore Lake Mead's prime Southwest terrain: Water covers only 13 percent of the recreation area.

In fact, the drought that began in 1999 has dramatically exposed more land as the lake has fallen. While early-winter rains and runoff will increase the lake level, they won't be enough to reverse the Southwest's worst drought in 500 years. But hopes are high for wildflowers and some of the best exploring in years.


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