I had very few things I really needed to do on our trip to Las Vegas, besides soaking in the warmth of the southwest and getting a little break from the freezing temperatures in Chicago. As soon as we decided to go to Vegas though, I mentioned a possible side trip to the Hoover Dam. I have actually been to the Hoover Dam before, but the last time I was there was nearly 30 years ago… yes, I was alive then, but just a little boy at the time. In 2006 I was on a road trip and planned to visit the Hoover Dam, but the road was closed because of high winds that caused a crane to colapse during the construction of the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.
The bridge is actually a newer addition to the Hoover Dam area, and it was completed in 2010 after a lengthy 7 year construction process. I say “lengthy” because the Hoover Dam itself was built in just 5 years. The purpose of the bridge was to reroute US 93 from its previous routing along the top of Hoover Dam and remove several hairpin turns and blind curves from the route. It has to be a huge time saver for anyone driving or commuting to and from Las Vegas and Arizona via US 93.
How Far is the Hoover Dam from Las Vegas?
If you’re visiting Las Vegas, you’ll be happy to know that the Hoover Dam is just a 40 minute drive from the Vegas strip. You can get to the dam by taking US 95 out of Las Vegas and continuing on that route as it turns into US 93. You will see signs all along the way for the Hoover Dam and finally you’ll have to take the exit for Route 172 which is also known as the Hoover Dam Access Road. All of this is clearly marked along the route and is nearly impossible to miss.
Hoover Dam Free Parking
As you twist and turn your way down the hillside along the Hoover Dam Access Road, you’ll see a few different parking areas which are free to park in on the Nevada side, but there is no access to the dam or visitor center from those parking areas. They actually have signs that say there is no foot traffic along the road past certain points. We paid a $10 parking fee to park our car in a garage on the Nevada side of the dam because it looked like that was the only option.
On the Nevada side there is actually a parking area on the road before you start heading down the hill towards the dam that is free. There are a few actually, but one has a small parking area and a trail right by it that you can take to the visitor center. I’ve marked it on the small map below, along with other areas of interest near the Hoover Dam.
There is also one parking lot on the Arizona side that is free to park in and it’s possible to walk along the road and over to the dam. Note: There is a parking lot on the Arizona side right after you cross the dam (on the left), but it is not free. The free parking area is about 200 feet further up the road. It’s small, but there’s always a chance that you get lucky and find a spot. Both of these options are worth it if you don’t feel like paying the $10 parking fee!
What Can You Do at the Hoover Dam?
There are a few things that you can do at the Hoover Dam, like guided tours, visiting the gift shop & cafe, or just walking around and taking pictures of the area. What you may not know is that there are a few other things to see see and do that are on the way to the dam. Below I’ll go through some of things you can do in the area.
Hoover Dam Tours
There are a few dam tours and you can take all the dam pictures you want. If you plan on taking a dam tour, I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to stop yourself from making a bunch of stupid (but also fun) dam jokes. Your tour guide may even join in on the jokes.
There are 3 different tours that you can take at the Hoover Dam:
- Powerplant Tour – $15
Includes 30-minute guided tour and admission to the Visitor Center & Powerplant
- Dam Tour – $30
Includes 1-hour guided tour, and admission to the Visitor Center, Powerplant & Dam Passageways
- Visitor Center Admission – $10
This option allows entry into the Visitor Center WITHOUT access to the tours of the dam or powerplant.
We ended up taking the Dam Tour for $30 each which we thought was a pretty good option. I mean, we drove all the way there to see a dam, so why would we deny ourselves the opportunity to experience the full dam tour? The Dam Tour is basically the same as the other two options with the added ability to see some of the Dam Passageways with a tour guide. I’ll give my thoughts and full review of the tour later in this article.
Street Level Displays & Exhibits
If you’re just visiting the Hoover Dam, and you’re not interested in paying for a tour, you can easily just walk around the dam and take all the pictures you want. If you park in one of the parking areas, you can just walk down to the dam and take your own tour at street level. Here are a few of the things you can see at the top of the dam:
- Top of the dam – Yes, you can walk all the way across it, from Nevada to Arizona
- Nevada & Arizona intake towers – On the Nevada side there is an audio presentation that gives information about the towers
- Nevada & Arizona spillways
- Old Exhibit Building – This building is the old visitor center and it contains educational exhibits
- Winged Figures of the Republic – Also on the Nevada side to the left of the Old Exhibit Building
Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge
When you are at the Hoover Dam, if you look to the southwest you can see the towering bridge high above the canyon walls. It’s a pretty amazing structure, and it was exciting to see it since it was not there when I was younger. While standing on the dam or from the observation deck at the visitor center, you can see people walking up on the bridge.
There is a parking lot on the Nevada side where you can park and walk a short path for access to the bridge walkway. We actually saw the parking lot on our way in, but didn’t realize it was for access to the bridge. So, after our dam tour we drove back up to see the view from the bridge. NOTE: It is wheelchair accessible, because they built in a ramp that zig-zags back and forth to get you to the top.
We were a little disappointed by the bridge walkway because we were hoping to get a picture of us with the dam behind us, but there was really no way to do that. The railing on the side of the bridge was too high, so if you tried to take a picture, the railing blocks out the entire dam. The one thing we did do, which probably isn’t legal was climb up on the tall barrier between the highway and the walkway to take a picture. That allowed us to get a picture of the dam without the railing completely in the way. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a picture of the two of us together because we couldn’t ask a stranger to climb up on the barrier. We both couldn’t believe that they spend all the money to build this amazing bridge and didn’t even think to add a viewing area at the center of the bridge. A nice little extension with a lower railing would have been perfect for viewing the dam and taking pictures.
Lake Mead Overlook
There were all these side roads and pull-offs that we saw on our way to see the Hoover Dam, and one of them was a little road with a sign that read Lakeview Overlook. I put it in my memory bank so that I would remember to stop there on our way back to Las Vegas. So, on our way back, about halfway between the dam and where you get back on US 93 there is a road off to the right where you can drive up to the overlook. It’s a really nice view and if it’s a nice day like it was for us, you can get some great photos of the deep blue colored lake. I think it has something to do with the brown and beige colors of the land around it, but Lake Mead is such a colorful deep blue. If you’re visiting the Hoover Dam, I would definitely put this quick stop on your agenda… at least for a quick photo opportunity.
Our Hoover Dam Tour Experience
As I mentioned previously, we purchased tickets for the full dam tour, which includes access to the visitor center, observation deck, powerplant and the dam passageways. After we bought our tickets we had about 45 minutes before our tour would start. The Hoover Dam is not much different from many other attractions across the US… the first thing they had us do was stand in front of a green screen and get our picture taken. We had the option to look at our pictures later at the visitor center or view them online. We’re not really big on spending money on photos like that though.
Since we had some time before our tour, they actually suggested that we watch the 10 minute video on the history of the Hoover Dam. Even though the video has probably not been updated in quite some time, it was very informative. It also gives you some interesting facts and statistics about the building of the dam and the materials used. For example, we learned that the amount of cement that was used to build the dam could build a 3 inch thick and 4 feet wide sidewalk around the earth at the equator. Crazy, right?
After the movie we headed up to the observation deck to see the view of the dam and the bridge. Even though the observation deck gives you a nice view of the dam and the bridge, it was still not a great place to get a picture of the two of us in front of the dam. From the deck, we were just too close to get a full shot of us and the dam. On this topic, I will say that we never really found the perfect place to get a picture of us in front of the dam. It just doesn’t exist… well, it does exist, but the government will not let you access those areas. On our way down the hill to the dam there was a small area off to the right which looked like it used to be a viewing area, but it was blocked off and marked as a restricted area. It would be the perfect place to get a picture, but unfortunately there is no access to it.
Before our tour started we were told to wait in the main lobby area and our tour guide would announce our tour time. We waited there until our tour guide came out and introduced himself. He was an older gentleman originally from New York, and from what we would tell he was retired like many of the guides that work at the Hoover Dam. When he found out that I was originally from New York, he asked where exactly and that was his joke for the rest of the tour. He kept mentioning the town of Syracuse in all of his jokes, but I wasn’t sure where he got that from because all I told him was that I grew up in a small town in upstate New York. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t annoyed or anything… we actually thought it was funny. The guy was hilarious in his own way and his confusion about where I was from along with his thick New York accent just added to the enjoyment of our tour.
The dam tour started out with a large group of people that were both Powerplant Tour and Dam Tour ticket holders. The tour starts out with the tour of the powerplant and then the group splits and Dam Tour ticket holders continue on to see some of the dam passageways. The first thing that we did was take an elevator down 530 feet to the lower levels of the dam. From there we took a quick little walk through the passageways into a room called the penstock viewing room. We were basically standing over a 30 foot diameter pipe that transports 90,000 gallons of water per second. As you stand there, there is a constant vibration in the room, which is the water running underneath you… just crazy to think about. It’s pretty amazing just how big everything is, especially when you walk into the powerplant area with the generators. The picture that I took doesn’t even really convey the actual size of everything.
As we went from the powerplant area into the passageways of the dam, we were informed of a few different things that were pretty interesting:
- In the summer, the temperatures within the dam passageways can reach upwards of 120°F
- All of the marble flooring is the original flooring from the 1930s
- All of the light fixtures have also been there since the 1930s
- The dam is not actually attached to the walls of the canyon. I believe the guide called it a “floating” dam, which allows it to adjust when the earth moves (earthquakes)
- The dam is built to withstand an earthquake of up to 8.5 magnitude
Our tour guide brought us through many different passageways and some had some low ceilings. Before the tour he did warn us that anyone close to 6 foot tall would probably have to duck down at times. One of the passageways leads to an opening that allows for ventilation within the inner passageways of the dam. The opening was something that our tour guide pointed out to us before we went down into the dam, so it was cool to know exactly where we were when we were looking out the opening at the end of the passageway.
One other thing about the dam tour that we thought was pretty funny was this small box that is in the picture below. According to our guide and the actual label on the box, this is one of the earthquake sensors for the dam. The funny thing is that it sits right in the middle of the passageway with no real protection. The only protection that is has is the box that it’t contained in and the fact that our guide told us, “Do not kick this box.”
The final part of the tour was an elevator ride to the top of the dam which let us out at the street level. From there we were able to walk around and take some pictures. Half way across the dam there is a small plaque that shows you exactly where the state line for Nevada and Arizona is. It’s not very often that you can stand in two states at the same time.
Lynn and I really enjoyed our trip to the Hoover Dam, even though the one thing we were slightly frustrated about was the inability to get a good picture of us with the entire dam behind us. Other than that, we thought the tour was very informational and quite interesting. It was a great little side trip to our Las Vegas trip and because it only took about 40 minutes to drive out to the dam, it was just a small part of our day.