Hoover Dam

Practically sitting in Las Vegas' backyard, Hoover Dam is still recognized as one of America's greatest engineering feats the world over.

This marvel is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places as well as the National Register of Historic Landmarks. During the time period of its proposal it was one of the largest, most ambitious civil engineering projects ever.

Nothing like it had ever been created and it took tremendous efforts on the parts of statesmen, politicians of seven states, the US Congress, engineers, six construction companies and approximately 21,000 workers to build it. 

Hoover Dam top to bottomHoover Dam ... Top to Bottom

The time period given for completion was 7 years and the project was basically finished in 5, while coming in well under budget.

It gave birth to Boulder City which was created to house the government and contract employees.

Begun during the Great Depression, it saw workers from almost every state in the Union who came seeking work on the Dam.

On the tour it's noted that the amount of concrete used to build the Dam would be equivalent to making a 4 ft. wide sidewalk around the world at the equator!

The story of Hoover Dam is filled with massive numbers regarding materials needed for its construction. The scale and scope of the project called for the creation of new engineering processes as well as other innovations.

Street topside of Hoover DamHoover Dam's topside street level

When completed, it created the largest man-made reservoir in the U.S. - Lake Mead.

You'll see stories of the men and the true grit it took to work in some of the most harshest conditions of the southwestern desert. 

These items and more are what you'll see and experience when you come out to visit Hoover Dam.


Getting to Hoover Dam

If you're on the Strip, you want to take I-15 south until you see signs for the 215 Beltway, which you'll see shortly after passing Mandalay Bay.

Connect to the East 215 that takes you to 95. At 95 head south and stay on it until it turns into 93 then just take that all the way in. You'll be heading towards Boulder City.

In Boulder City, you'll see signs to connect you to the road for the Dam, which is a little ways past Boulder City.

If coming from Downtown, simply get on the 95, head south and it will eventually turn into 93. Stay on 93 and it will take you into Boulder City, then connect to the road for the Dam, which is a little ways past Boulder City.

From Las Vegas the trip to the Dam takes around 40-45 minutes in fair traffic much of the year.

The Visitors Center is open every day 9 am to 5 pm except Thanksgiving and Christmas so you don’t have much worries regarding days open or not open.

Keep in mind though that at dusk the top-side of the Dam begins to close and is not accessible to pedestrians after dark so be sure to give yourself at least 3 hours before sunset if doing a tour.

June through August is the peak season when parking can be a problem, and as with everywhere else, the weekends and holidays will be busier too. 

My last trip out was in December around 1pm and I parked in the parking structure situated right before you drive over the Dam (coming from Las Vegas) called the Denison Parking structure and I had no problems.

I parked on the second level, went down the elevator and took the escalators to the tour entrances all within about 6 minutes … it’s that close.

There's a $10 per vehicle fee for the Denison Parking structure, which could change so double check on that if the travel budget is getting stretched.

Elevator area of Denison Parking structure at the DamElevator area of Denison Parking Structure

An alternative, if you don't mind walking a bit, is to park for free on the Arizona side. 

You can drive over the Dam to the Arizona side to check it out and if spots are open and the heat isn't an issue, you can save on the ten bucks.


Hoover Dam Tours

These tours will have you walking in confined spaces and you will be near large electromagnetic fields.

It's not recommended for those with pacemakers, defibrillators or if you suffer from claustrophobia.

The Visitors Center tour is the choice for you or someone with you if these are concerns. 

Believe me, you'll get a lot out of just this tour alone.

There are three tour options, The Hoover Dam tour, Powerplant tour and Visitors Center tour. 

The Hoover Dam Tour - This is the most comprehensive one. It’s a 1 hour guided tour and has a few more features and stops than the Powerplant tour.

It will go to a few more different parts deeper into the Dam with more features and information from your guide. This tour cannot be purchased online and is first come, first served. 

Tours start every half hour, so you may have some wait time on busier days with this one since they only tour 20 people at a time.

Ask at the check-stands for wait times and then decide. The Hoover Dam tour is NOT wheelchair accessible or for anyone using crutches.

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The Powerplant Tour - This is a half hour guided tour which doesn't include those few extra stops of the Hoover Dam Tour but it's still a great choice that gives you a good look at key parts of the Dam.

This tour generally goes off every 15 minutes or so and has shorter wait times. The Powerplant tour IS accessible for anyone using wheelchairs or crutches.

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The Visitors Center Tour -  is a self guided tour and you get to see everything in the upper and lower Visitors Center which features historical photo’s and maps, displays, audio-visuals, interactive's and exhibits.

These have the history and information about the Dam’s construction, features on those who built it, what it took to get it done and more.

All tours give you access to the Dam Observation Deck, which is a really cool overlook deck that gives you a panoramic view of everything.

At times the Hoover Dam and Powerplant tours will be cancelled due to situations, so calling ahead and checking their website is recommended if you want either of these tours.

The Visitor Center tour is always available since it isn’t a guided tour that descends down into the Dam via elevators. 


Doing the Tour

All tours begin with you going to their checkstands, where you choose and purchase your tour, then going through a security checkpoint like at the airports.

Walkway to Hoover Dam Tour escalatorsWalkway to escalators for tours of the Dam

Pay close attention to their rules because they do not allow exceptions. 

A guy in front of me had a 3 inch pocket knife and he had two choices. Leave it with them for disposal or keep it and tour later, which meant another 30 minutes or so for him and his friends since the lines had grown longer by this point.

Rules for the Dam are on their website and also in the area where you purchase your tour, so checking those out will save you from having issues.

There are good reasons for their security measures and restrictions. There won’t be any haggling or you pleading your case. Things are done for everyone's safety.

Tour Lobby area at Hoover DamTour Lobby area at Hoover Dam

As beautiful a place as it is, it is still a sensitive security area. Small things can make big differences, so take some time to review those on their website. 

After the security checkpoint, you’ll enter the Visitors Center lobby where you'll see historical photo’s, maps and displays as well as a spot to have a professionally done keepsake photo.

There is a small theatre there where each tour starts with a 10 minute film on the reasons and decisions for Hoover Dam’s construction, and after this film you will be ushered into the queue area for the tour that you chose.

You’ll get into the elevators and that’s when your tour begins with your guide. This time out I chose the Powerplant tour which only differs from the Dam tour by a few stops so that is the tour I’ve outlined here also. 

After descending, you’ll exit your elevator and walk through a darkened tunnel.

In the tunnel for tour of the DamIn the tunnel during Powerplant Tour

From the very first time I walked these tunnels until this last time, it struck me as funny that I still feel like it's some kind of movie set .

Then I'm reminded this is the real deal where you’re surrounded by massive amounts of concrete and water ... really massive.

You soon arrive at a room called the Penstock room and here you’ll learn what’s below and around you while getting a presentation using a lighted graphic diagram of the working parts of the Dam.

While covering many aspects of the diagram, our guide was able to cover specific phases of the construction, why they were needed, the process on how and why the work proceeded as it did and many other spec’s that aren't touched on in other places.

This was a good Q and A session and it got quite detailed with some very good questions brought up by some in our group. The next leg of the tour takes you to the Powerplant room, and that's where the generators are.

Our guide pointed out that we had chosen a particularly good time to tour as they were refurbishing a generator and it would be out of its bay and out on the floor for us to see.

As you can see in the photo, she wasn't exaggerating at all ... it was one huge piece of machinery! To get a scale of its size, look up to the top right-hand corner of the photo and you'll see people by the railing.

By that measure, you can see this one generator is at least 3 stories tall, if not a little more.

Turbine being refurbished in the Powerplant room at Hoover DamHuge turbine out of its bay for fixxing

She pointed out the rolling crane that sat above us just for this purpose and how it lifts and guides the massive tonnage of these generators. Each of these weight more than the Statue of Liberty ... that's some serious heavy metal! 

The room was built with visitors in mind and that was pointed out in how it was designed with an observation perch and in the choice of the terrazzo flooring we were walking on, which is quite of piece of work, so remember to check out that floor while on your tour. 

At this point tours 1 and 2 diverge. Tour 1 is the Dam tour and continues, while the Powerplant tour ends here. 

At various points along your tour you’re encouraged to ask questions. We had a young female guide who was easygoing, knowledgeable and had a good sense of humor. She made the tour interesting and kept it fun. 

Powerplant room at the DamPowerplant room at Hoover Dam

On our way out of the Powerplant room we stopped once more halfway in the tunnel and she went over a few more features, had our last Q and A session, then it was on to the Exhibit Gallery.


 Exhibit Gallery and Observation Deck

At the end of your tour you’ll take your elevator back up to the Visitors Center Exhibit Gallery area, which is one flight up from where you started your tour in the Visitors Center lobby area.

Here you’ll see exhibits that detail the many aspects involved in the making of the Dam.

Wall exhibit on how the Dam worksWall exhibit explains how it all works

An especially relevant one for us that day was the display that lets you walk into a cross-cut section model of a generator… the same one we just saw sitting out on the floor of the Powerplant.

This Exhibit Gallery is the same you’ll see if you were just doing the Visitors Center self guided tour.

It covers all details on so many things regarding the Dam and its construction with many more exhibits than I can show you here.

Wall display of the four reasons for Dam's creationFour reasons for the Dam's creation

One flight up from there and you get to the Observation Deck … and the sights from here are really something. 

It’s an excellent vantage point to take pictures from and is enhanced with audio detailing even more about the Dam while you walk around it. 

From this deck, it becomes easier to get an even deeper sense of the incredible scale of accomplishment Hoover Dam represents. 

On the deck you get the full frontal views of Hoover Dam and the buildings below, as well as the Colorado River flowing out from the Dam.

Nearby you'll see the many cantilevered structures that support the power lines going out and a very short distance away the Skyway Bridge, officially called the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. 

Observation Deck at the DamGreat views from the Observation Deck

Once done on the Observation Deck, you’ll exit to where you can explore the topside part of the Dam. 

Here's where you'll see the Street Level Exhibits, and the must see here is the monument across the street as you exit the Observation Deck, called the Winged Figures of the Republic by artist Oskar J. W. Hansen. 


Winged Figures of the Republic

The work of art to commemorate the completion of Hoover Dam sits across the roadway from the main halls of the Visitors Center. 

One of two sentinels of the Winged figures of the RepublicSentinel at Winged Figure of the Republic

Artist Oskar J.W. Hansen was the sculptor and designer of the dedication site. It was with an utmost respect for Man's abilities in general, and America's unique abilities and vision in particular, that inspired his approach to its construction.

As with many great monuments, you'll find obvious and subtle symbolism laced into his creation.  

The three quality materials that preserve the craftsmanship and legacy of this monument. - terrazzo for the flooring, black diorite for the base and bronze for the sculptures - are brought together creating a classic balance to each other.

Diorite, an extremely hard and relatively rare rock, was painstakingly placed into position. In order to not mar the highly polished finish of the rock, they were centered on blocks of ice and guided into position as the ice melted.

His two striking bronze sculptures, more than 4 tons of statuary bronze, sit as sentinels guarding the American flag. Weathering gives them the patina of green while the feet, where people rub them for good luck, is where you'll see the bronze. 

Winged Figures of the Republic at Hoover DamWinged Figures of the Republic on Celestial Map floor

Embedded into the terrazzo floor is an amazingly detailed celestial map that pinpoints the exact astronomical time that Hoover Dam was dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on September 30th, 1935.

Equinox ring of Celestial Map at the DamEquinox Ring of Celestial Map
Andromeda in terrazzo at the Dam"The Great Nebulae in Andromeda"

Its front and center is also embedded with the American Eagle emblem over the seven seals of the seven states that came together for the Hoover Dam project.

Eagle and seven states emblems in terrazzo at Winged Figures of the RepublicSeven Seals of the Seven States

Hansen also designed the memorial plaque near the monument of the men who lost their lives during the building of the Dam. The actually fatality number varies for a few reasons but the number is just under 100 men.

He also designed two bas-reliefs that you'll see inlaid into the columns over the elevators along the top-side walkway.

A number of years back a local sculptor created a memorial to the High Scalers of Hoover Dam. High Scalers were the men who hung from ropes hundreds of feet down along the sides of canyon walls to remove loose rock.

The dangerous work included bringing along a jackhammer to drill dynamite holes into the rock in order to blast away unstable or non-usable rock.

The monument sits by the High Scaler Cafe and it too pays tribute to 98 of the men who died there.

If you're looking for a keepsake of your visit here you'll find their Gift and Souvenir store by the Cafe also.

Bypass bridge at the DamTopside view of the Skyway Bridge

There are a few other spots you can hit on the street level such as the Old Exhibit Building, which was the one I first visited many moons ago.

You can visit the Nevada and Arizona Spillways also, as well as the Nevada side of the Intake Towers. 

Walking the top of the Dam you'll get views of Lake Mead coming into the Dam on one side, the Colorado flowing out from the other side and the Skyway Bridge in the distance.

It's hard to believe now but up until this prolonged drought, you'd never see the massive 'bathtub ring' you see now. Only blue water with a few boats out in the distance.

It's a little painful for me to see just how depleted Lake Mead has become due to this drought ... and a little alarming because I've never seen it look this bad.

Droughts are part of the natural cycle in the southwest though. In the meantime, measures and solutions are being sought that will hopefully make a difference until this current cycle ends.


'The times, they are a'changin'

This past December marked the fourth tour I've taken and the 13th time I've come out since coming to Las Vegas 38 years ago. That doesn't include the dozens of times driving over it when going to or from Arizona.

The times I didn't tour I was often with someone that, for one reason or another, didn't want to go inside the Dam itself, which was fine with me because just visiting the Dam and the Street Level Exhibits was great.

Old Spillway pic of the DamBetter days when Spillways saw action

For me it's a treat to see the amazement on the faces of those that I’m with when seeing the Dam for the first time, as well as revisiting this incredible place which feels like an old friend. 

Afterwards, I’d sometimes make a stop in Boulder City to amaze them just a little more. That's because Boulder City is the largest and closest city to Las Vegas (30 miles) that still outlaws gambling.

The look on people's faces is too funny when I tell them gambling is not allowed there. It's still a relatively small town and cool little spot to go see once in a while.

The main changes at Hoover Dam keep getting better over the years and they've done a great job in accommodating the surging numbers of visitors, which has averaged 760,000 since 2008. 

One big change is the completion of the Skyway Bridge to bypass Hoover Dam entirely, saving travelers a lot of time and headaches.

Although very scenic, traffic became a small nightmare when travelling between Arizona and Nevada through the Dam’s small winding roads.

When I first came out to the Dam in 1977 you simply parked in one of the little parking places provided. If they were full, which was rare, you could park alongside parts of the road.

Spillway House at the DamSpillway House Event Center at the Dam

Like so many things were back in those days, it was very easy getting to and from most anywhere all around Las Vegas.

Parts of Boulder City have changed a lot since those days too.

The road to Hoover Dam was a sleepy small town street through Boulder City lined with just a few small Mom and Pop businesses on the way out to the Dam.

You still pass some of those but it's much more populated now with chain eateries you’ll be familiar with, making it easier to grab a bite to eat before or after your visit the Dam.

2014 was a seminal year for Boulder City. The last remaining worker of Hoover Dam identified by museum records passed away.

Darwin Colby, 98, was 15 when he heard about the Dam and right after graduating high school, he left Salina, Utah on his motorcycle to get work at the Dam. It was a grand opportunity in the midst of the Depression.

He passed away in his sleep on November 12, 2014 and with him ends an historical period of those who endured. They did what they needed to do to get work and keep working. 

Those were some of the toughest days in this country and the people back then had to be just as tough to survive.

Darwin Colby was one of them, and the last of the Hoover Dam men who helped build a unique piece of American History.

Poster of Affirmation at Hoover DamPoster of Affirmation

Every year in Boulder City they hold a reunion of the 31’ers. That’s the moniker given to those who were a part of building the Dam, which started construction in 1931. 

The tradition of the 31’ers still lives on with family members gathering every October in Boulder City, and the city also has a museum of their own there.

Darwin Colby exemplified the true grit of men who did one of the toughest jobs out here in the southwestern desert.

Stories like his, along with many others, attest to the rugged hard earned pride these men felt in helping to build one of the most extraordinary structures of its day. 

It’s definitely one for the bucket list if you've never been before.

If its been many years since you've visited, it's time to come on out again. You’ll enjoy the changes, additions and upgrades they've made since the last time you visited.

Cafe and Gift shop area at the DamCafe and Gift Shop area ... nearby is the Skyway Bridge

If you're doing tours 1 or 2 that take you down into the Dam, give yourself at least 6 hours total (includes getting there and back) to visit Hoover Dam.

If you're only wanting to do the topside Visitors Center Tour and Street Level Exhibits, give yourself around 4.5 hours.

Remember the top of the Dam is closed to pedestrians when it's dark, so be sure to plan accordingly. For any and all pertinent information before visiting, go to the Hoover Dam website to get the latest information.

Hoover Dam is still an absolutely great way to spend your day experiencing this engineering wonder before hitting the nightlife of Las Vegas. 

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