Architectural wonder, canyon-country gateway

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. 

Hike the canyons

Just as Hoover Dam can overwhelm with its size, so too does the recreation area’s landscape. From the Grand Canyon to Laughlin, Nevada, this is vast, empty country. But if the dam’s real beauty is in its details, the same is true of Lake Mead’s desert.

Outside Laughlin, Grapevine Canyon is tucked into a fold of the Newberry Mountains. The vegetation here is classic desert: creosote, barrel cactus, and Mojave yucca. But one pocket is verdant, with a tangle of native grapevines growing among granite boulders. The springwater that keeps the vines alive also drew several Indian tribes centuries ago ― as evidenced by extensive petroglyphs, ranging from abstract swirls and grids to one panel showing desert bighorn sheep.

While Grapevine Canyon’s water only trickles, other Lake Mead canyons reveal the power of desert flash floods. A few miles south of the dam, White Rock Canyon winds through serpentine passageways deep within towering walls of volcanic rock. It was named for large white boulders that sit among the granite that floodwaters washed from surrounding mountains.

The canyon serves as one of the few routes where you can easily reach the Colorado River. After shuffling through the wash’s gravel and rounding bend after rocky bend, the canyon finally opens to the river. Hoover Dam controls the Colorado’s flow, but the peaks and rock walls that enclose the river are reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. Plus there’s another payoff: a side trail that leads to a hot springs. (The downside of hot-potting here is that a long soak can fondue both your legs and ambition, turning the modest 3-mile return into a sandy slog.) 

History revealed

Although Lake Mead’s Northshore Road is near Las Vegas, its volcanic buttes and sandstone formations are worlds from the Strip’s artificiality. Short hikes lead to landscapes straight out of a dream ― look closely and you may even see bighorns melting into the terrain.

As you walk through the expanses near North Callville Wash, it’s hard to imagine that much awaits ahead. Then the route drops into Lovell Wash, and the walls close to form Lovell Wash Narrows. Here the tilting and winding layers of sandstone have a dizzying effect as you pass through the labyrinth that closes to an arm span across.

Not all of Northshore Road’s attractions are so hidden. The Redstone Picnic Area’s Aztec sandstone outcrops sit alongside the drive. These formations, actually petrified sand dunes, reveal intricate layers of sediment, as well as wind-sculpted caverns, with surfaces as graceful and smooth as Pueblo pottery.

This area marked the western reach of the Ancestral Puebloan culture. Before Lake Mead filled, excavations saved artifacts from Lost City, a group of pueblos along the nearby Muddy and Virgin Rivers. The lake was an equal-opportunity inundator and also swamped early Mormon settlements, such as St. Thomas, a community founded in 1865. Now, as Lake Mead has receded, foundations and chimneys of St. Thomas have reappeared.

Once an arm of the lake, the delta here is today choked with thick stands of invasive tamarisk. To see St. Thomas offers a glimpse of the past and, if the drought persists, serves as a harbinger of a drier future too. Hoover Dam may be big enough to tame the Colorado River, but some forces of nature remain far beyond our control.

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