The Hoover Dam for Free
By Lauren Wong
I set out to explore the Hoover Dam without paying a cent, not even for parking, so that’s exactly what I did.
I started out by stopping at the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. There’s a free parking lot you pull into that leads you to a set of stairs, taking you up to this arch bridge. It spans over the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada, offering you a distant view of the Hoover Dam. It was very crowded when we went, the bridge was covered in tourists, and the noise from the highway it borders was extremely loud. If you’re looking to read up on the history of the dam and learn more about the memorial, I would recommend coming here, but if you’re just looking to sitesee, I would hit some other spots. (The bridge is named after Mike O’Callaghan, the Governor of Nevada from 1971 – 1979, and Pat Tillman, an Arizona Cardinals player that enlisted in the U.S. Army).
Next, I went to the Lake Mead Overlook which was less populated and absolutely gorgeous. You couldn’t see the physical dam, but you got stunning views looking down upon Lake Mead and its dazzling, aquamarine, waters. It was crazy to me how still the water was, it looked like a flattened, pale-blue piece of land, the only movement coming from the few boats winding their way around the volcanic rocks of the northern Black Mountains.
Filled by the Boulder Basin, the lookout offers views of this eroded landscape with years and years of history’s markings in its rocks. The rocks jutting out are dotted along the tranquil, still water. While sitting on the edge of the overlook, a feeling of peace just washed over me.
Since we wanted to see the Hoover Dam up close, and check out the Visitor’s Center, we decided to find free parking and take the Historic Railroad Trail to the dam. We parked in the lot connected to the Hoover Dam Lodge Hotel and Casino at the Hoover Dam Lodge Trailhead.
From there you take the trail down to the fork and turn right. It’s an easy 8 mile round trip hike that takes you through five preserved tunnels. The tunnels are from when the area once was covered by train tracks. The 30 mile track used to connect Las Vegas to Boulder City and all the way to the Hoover Dam. While the Hoover Dam was under construction, the workers used the track as a way to transport building supplies.
In order to transport all these massive materials, drilling the tunnels was necessary. From the beginning of the Hoover Dam construction in 1931, the tracks were being used 24 hours a day until the construction was completed in 1935. Once construction wrapped up, there wasn’t a need for the usage of the tracks so they were just left, forgotten and abandoned until the 1980s. That’s when the trail was built and added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Walking this trail was my favorite part of the trip, it ran along beautiful Lake Mead, and the tunnels made you feel so small. It’s crazy to think back on those years, knowing that the ground you’re walking on, rich with history, was once the gateway for all those individual pieces that make up the monumental Hoover Dam.
After about four miles you’ll arrive at the Hoover Dam parking garage and take the steps down to arrive right next to the visitor center. We popped in, got some cold water and snacks, then walked around to see the dam up close. It’s one of those things that feels so massive it’s hard to believe it’s real. It almost looks fake.
I’d say the dam is definitely something you should see, it’s fascinating how it works and how long ago it was constructed, and just the huge scale of it all. It was extremely packed and touristy (as you’d expect), but I still made my way through the crowd to capture some photos.
As beautiful as the walk there was, the four mile hike back wasn’t as appealing, but I’d say even if you don’t want to take the trail all the way to the dam, hike through the five tunnels. They’re relatively close to each other, I’d guess probably a bit over a mile. The views alone make it worth it. And, it’s such a unique feeling as you go from the desert sun, to the eerie darkness of the tunnels, feeling the temperature drop in the matter of a single step.
And that is how I visited the Hoover Dam for free. If I were to recommend one thing from the day, it would definitely be the hike.