When we woke up way before sunrise on our first full day of the USA Southwest road trip, we grabbed some bottled water and bananas, and drove the 50 km southeast down to the Hoover Dam. It is a very impressive technical monument, although, of course, since its completion over 75 years have gone by, and the world has seen larger, more stunning dam constructions. For me, the Hoover Dam was a must-see – I love technical monuments (and museums) of all types, and this one is not only on the list of Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks, but it is also a geek landmark of sorts. I’ve spent endless hours playing the various versions of Sid Meiers Civilization, and the Hoover Dam was one of the great wonders or scientific achievements of the gameplay.

The Hoover Dam

Driving through Boulder, NV, a city originally constructed for workers on the construction project, we spotted a railway museum (which has a few old locomotives you can see even on workdays, but it is more interesting on weekends, when they actually run the old trains), we grabbed a coffee somewhere along the road, made a trip down the Hoover Dam Bypass first (more on that in a minute), and then returned to the Dam.

The Hoover DamIt’s a major tourist attraction – we were lucky to be there early in the morning, we met only a few tourists and one bus tour. When you drive down the access road, you may be subject to being searched (or, your car is, because you might have explosives in there…). The next thing on the Nevada side of the dam is the visitor center, with a parking garage with hefty by-the-hour fees. On the Arizona side, there is a parking space which charges 7 Dollars a day, and just 150 meters or so further up the road you can park for free. A stair leads back down to the dam, so there really is no need to pay an arm and a leg for the hour you are going to spend here.

Aside from the quirky stuff (such as featuring a clock on each side of the state border, because Nevada and Arizona are in different time zones; and the public restrooms in mini towers leaning over the dam’s concrete wall), the intake towers are what makes this look so special and in a way still futuristic. The dam, on the other hand, which you can also cross by foot, doesn’t look like much – until you stare down into the Black Canyon and realize that the ground is over 220 meters below you. Looks can be deceiving…

2012-10-08-Hooverdam-2On the Nevada side there is a terrazzo floor embedded with a „star map“ (and a model of the solar system, which is true to scale). The map depicts the Northern Hemisphere sky at the moment of President Roosevelt’s dedication of the dam. The idea behind this very decorative element was that future astronomers (or aliens?) might be able to determine exactly when the dam was built/dedicated, even if humankind couldn’t tell this anymore. Evidently the engineers expected the dam to last for a very long time.

You can read a lot on the quite interesting history of the Hoover Dam on history.com and of course the extensive Wikipedia article. The sheer technological genius of this dam, and all the problems which were solved while building it, make for a good read.

Like most man-made reservoirs, Lake Mead is pretty low on water these days, due to very little rainfall and snowfall in winter, and the rising demand of all the states using its water, mostly for irrigation. Still, Lake Mead is a huge National Recreation Area, and we spotted many pick-ups with boats on the trailer heading for Lake Mead and Lake Powell, as far as in Phoenix and the Navajo Country. I live at the coast, so seeing boats isn’t new to me, but it felt strange to see boats somewhere in desert-dry rural Utah in the backyard of some Mormon farmhouse…

Now: the Hoover Dam Bypass. In the wake of 9/11, some people were afraid that the dam – which provides water and electricity for a huge area – might be a target for terrorist attacks, so it was decided to build a bypass route instead of having all the traffic on the highway pass the dam. Construction started in 2005, and the bypass, mainly a huge bridge, was finished five years later. If you drive across it, it doesn’t look so spectacular, but from the dam you have a pretty good view on this thing – stunning. It is named the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.

We took our time walking from the Arizona side across the dam to the visitor center and back, and visited a viewpoint overlooking Lake Mead after that. If you want to spend more time you can book guided tours, but be aware that these are not for the claustrophobes among us. While the powerplant tour may be booked ahead and online, the more in-depth dam tours can only be bought at the dam’s visitor center. We had other plans – with a short stop at the Nevada State Railroad Museum, we made it back to Vegas in the early afternoon.

Oh, and this guy, „the high-scaler“, is located at the visitor center – dedicated to the people who gave their lives during the construction of the dam.