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Lake Mead: Nevada’s Oasis

You can see the baking Nevada desert by boat, thanks to an audacious feat of engineering.

Lake Mead kayakers
Photo caption
Kayakers enjoy a late afternoon paddle through Boulder Basin.

In 1931, Lee Tilman was "just a starry-eyed 18-year-old kid" when he blew into Boulder City, Nev. "It was hot and dusty, and they were still putting in the streets and gutters," he recalls. Within a week he was working on one of the most ambitious engineering projects in the history of the United States: the construction of Hoover Dam. This audacious undertaking plugged the Colorado River and created Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake in the Western Hemisphere. Tilman, now 94, recalls watching that vast lake bloom in the desert as rising water turned canyons into coves within a matter of weeks of the dam's completion in 1935. "It was an amazing sight to see," he says.

It still is. Lake Mead and Hoover Dam, part of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, attract some 8 million visitors a year. When summer sizzles, Lake Mead beckons, a blue oasis a mere 30 miles from the pleasure palaces of Vegas. Along its 550 miles of shoreline, boaters take to the water in canoes, kayaks, powerboats, and Jet Skis. Five marinas rent just about anything that's waterworthy. You can swim, scuba dive, dine and dance aboard a classic paddle wheeler, or pilot the family around in a houseboat equipped with everything from a hot tub to a wet bar.

On the southwestern shore, close to Vegas, summer turns the lake into a party, with plenty of revelers. But don' t worry about the crowds. "The lake is so huge you can paddle a short ways up into one of the narrow coves and have it all to yourself," says Robert Finlay, a retired Las Vegas ironworker who offers guided kayaking trips. "I hear people say it's one of the quietest places they' ve ever been."

And how often do you get to tour a desert by boat? In stark contrast to the cool blue water, the austere landscape mixes painted cliffs, lava flows,low rounded hills, sandy beaches, and rocky outcroppings that resemble sand drip castles. The southwestern arm features Painters Cove, where iron oxide has turned the rock bright orange against the black basalt. In the Narrows, where the passage between Boulder Basin and Virgin Basin is less than a quarter-mile wide, sheer cliffs are scalloped with coves. Gregg Basin, at the eastern arm of the lake, offers tranquil views of mesas and some of the best fishing on Lake Mead. In this arid terrain, unusual plants thrive, including the smoke tree, named for its fuzzy leaves, and the creosote bush, which can live thousands of years. Ospreys, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons soar overhead. Bighorn sheep and wild mustangs wander the landscape. Abundant bass, catfish, and rainbow trout keep fishing buffs busy. Drop in a line and chances are you' ll have fish on the grill for dinner—the average angler lands at least four a day.

Although aquatic activities are the chief summer attractions here, there's plenty to do on dry land. Hoover Dam continues to astonish visitors with its graceful art deco towers and its 726-foot-high expanse of concrete straddling the Nevada-Arizona border. The guided tour includes a 508-foot descent by elevator to view eight generators, each seven stories high and able to pump 22,000 gallons a second. The viewing platform vibrates with the rumble of the water channeled through 30-foot-wide pipes below.

Triple-digit heat limits long desert treks, but you shouldn' t miss an early-morning or late-afternoon amble along the Railroad Tunnel Trail, just below Lake Mead's Alan Bible Visitor Center, which passes through five subterranean channels. Trains once carried gravel and other building materials to the dam along this old railroad bed. Keep your camera ready: bighorn sheep sightings are a possibility.

Ten miles west of Overton Beach, at the northern end of Lake Mead, Valley of Fire State Park features a landscape of dazzling red sandstone sculpted by wind and water into haunting shapes that are breathtaking even from the comfort of an air-conditioned car. In the small town of Overton, the Lost City Museum houses artifacts such as obsidian knife blades and baskets excavated from ancient Indian sites, some now hidden beneath the lake.

For a moving glimpse into the hard, sometimes dangerous lives of the first dam workers, head back south to Boulder City and check out the historic photographs at the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum. The museum is located in the 20-room Boulder Dam Hotel, built in 1933 for visitors during the dam's construction—just one of many original brick structures that have been carefully preserved in the town, a living museum in its own right. "If someone from the 1930s came back," says museum curator Dennis McBride, "they' d have no trouble finding their way around."

As for Lee Tilman, he's still there. "People come for the glitter of Las Vegas," he says. "But you have to get out of town, to the lake and the desert, to understand why so many of us stayed on."

Photography by Sean Arbabi

This article was first published in September 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.