The Hoover Dam is an incredibly popular tourist destination – and for good reason – however rather than drive there have you thought about hiking to it on the historic railroad trail?
We did and it was a good, flat and easy hike for us all to enjoy.
The Historic Railroad Trail
The Historic Railroad Trail is a 7.5 mile/12km circular hike which passes through five old railroad tunnels whilst providing panoramic views of Lake Mead.
The trail was designated as a national recreation trail in 2015 and shares the history of the construction of Hoover dam, the flooding of Lake Mead and the rail track that ran between Boulder City and Hoover Dam from 1931 to 1961.
I’d recommend getting there earlier in the day as even during winter the temperature is hot and the climate is dry. There is a car park however it is limited (about 30 places) and spaces fill up quickly. We were surprised that it was full when we returned just after midday.
It’s free to park here and there are two eco-toilets.
This is a map of the hiking route. You can download it directly from there. It’s virtually impossible to get lost though as the route is mostly straight.
Hiking the trail
The trail is quite busy with hikers, joggers, cyclists, parents with buggies and dog walkers out for a stroll. The trail is wheelchair friendly and flat and easy to navigate. It’s perfect for kids and families to hike but also to cycle. You do not need hiking boots or poles but a bottle of water is essential.
If you’re looking for a wilderness experience, this is not it, but it is a fun way to see Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and of course it encourages the family to be active.
Weird rocks & little shade
There is very little shade on this route (except in the tunnels) and I was reminded of how hot it must have been for the men working this route all those years ago. The men worked through the summer which is ironical given this trail is shut between July and September!
The rocks around the route are made up from metamorphic, sedimentary, volcanic lavas and basalts that have made up the changing landscapes over the last 1.5 billion years.
The rocks in the distance are made from limestone and black basalt – the result of lava from about 5 million years ago. Saddle Island is the oldest metamorphic rock in the park and it sits to the left of the trail. You can see it from the car park and the trail.
There are five tunnels in total on the hike. All of the tunnels are approximately 300 feet in length and 25 feet in diameter.
The tunnels were deliberately over-sized to fit penstock sections and large equipment being transported to Hoover Dam.
- The first tunnel is around 1 mile from the trailhead. After the exit of tunnel one, on the right hand side, are the concrete plugs taken out of Hoover Dam to install the turbines.
- The second tunnel was burned in an arson fire in 1990. It looks different from the other tunnels as it was sprayed with shotcrete to fortify the looser rock.
- The outermost east arch was deformed by pressure of the rock in tunnel 3.
- The fifth tunnel is around 2.2 miles from the trailhead. Tunnel 5 was burned in 1978 and was then sealed. The tunnel was restored, sprayed with shotcrete and reopened in July 2001.
- The elevation change from the trailhead to the fifth tunnel is about 11 feet.
- After the fifth tunnel, the trail continues another 1.5 miles to the Hoover Dam Parking Garage. The elevation change between these two points is around 445 feet. The gates after Tunnel 5 are locked at sunset.
One of the things I liked most about this hike was the signposts detailing everything from rock formation to how the rail-track was built.
The signs were short but detailed enough to keep the kids interested.
Building the rail track
Nine steam and four gas locomotives and seventy-one people were used to operate the system which built the tracks.
Apparently this section of the railroad was used in the motion picture “The Gauntlet” starring Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke for a sequence in which they were on a motorcycle being chased by an assassin in a helicopter. Seen it? I haven’t lol.
Great views over Lake Mead
Aside from inside the five tunnels, the hike gives impressive views over Lake Mead. There are a number of seats around the walk where you can stop, take a seat and admire the view.
There is also a plethora of wildlife and we were able to see some big-horned sheep as well lizards and plenty of birds of prey.
After tunnel five
After we reached tunnel five we went through another gate where there is a small picnic table and an eco-toilet. This gate is locked at sunset – so don’t get caught out!!
After this point the track becomes much higher, less protected and the temperature rises. The last mile was the most boring because Lake Mead is no longer visible and there’s not a whole lot to see. The track is dusty and remains the same colour.
Reaching the holding pen
The holding pen broke up the boredom of the last mile. This is where they store the disused parts for the Hoover Dam.
The rotor blades are impressive in size and you can see how they generate power and electricity.
Seeing the Hoover Dam
FINALLY, you can glimpse the Hoover Dam through the mass of electricity pylons which buzz around you.
It was at this point that we decided to turn around and drive up to the dam instead. Once you reach the Hoover Dam, you’re level with it BUT I wanted to visit the top bridge and that’s another BIG walk away.
I really wanted to drive up onto the top bridge so I could have a view of the dam from above.
Driving to the Dam
Once we’d hiked the way back we got into the car and drove up to the top bridge so we could look over and admire the dam from above.
It’s an incredibly impressive feat of engineering. The size is staggering and I’m glad we made the decision to drive up there.
Admiring the dam from above
In my opinion the dam is best viewed from ABOVE. The sheer scale of it cannot be appreciated until you can see it ALL and you can only do that from above.
The dam from eye level
I found the dam most impressive from above but there’s no denying that to see people standing on it in comparison to its size, is equally as outstanding.
The only problem is, it’s REALLY busy. There must have been about four hundred people milling around and a constant procession of cars driving in and out of the car parks.
From memory the Nevada car park costs $10 whilst the Arizona car park is free. Just something to remember.
Time zone changes
Despite being just a few metres apart, each tower is in a different time zone and technically an hour’s difference.
Arizona is an hour ahead of Nevada and we had a bit of fun running between the time zones just being silly.
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