It is difficult to overstate just how close Las Vegas is to both glitz and the wilds of Mother Nature. One such example is the watery wonderland that is Lake Mead National Recreation Area (America’s first and largest, by the way). Straddling the Nevada-Arizona border, Lake Mead has 1.5 million acres of land that includes both Lake Mead and the connected Lake Mohave. The short, 40-minute drive makes this camping, boating, fishing, swimming, and hiking paradise a local favorite, and an easy trip for visitors. With so much space available for so many activities, the 7.5 million annual visitors don’t crowd the place at all. Read on for the ultimate trip planning guide.
There are only 40 protected areas designated as national recreation areas (NRA) in the United States, established by Congress to preserve places with scenic and natural resources. The first of these was the Boulder Dam Recreation Area, created by a 1936 agreement between the US Bureau of Reclamation (builders of Hoover Dam) and the National Park Service (NPS). The massive reservoir and dam had (obviously) disturbed the environment, so the new designation gave the National Park Service a new way to conserve land while allowing visitors to enjoy the outdoors. As the Bureau of Reclamation began constructing more dams near urban areas, the NRA system grew.
The damming of the Colorado River to create what was then called Boulder Dam formed the 115-mile Lake Mead, and in 1953, the Davis Dam was constructed to form Lake Mohave, both to provide hydroelectric power and water to Arizona, Nevada, and California. Both lakes and nine surrounding wilderness areas became the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in 1964. This landscape joins the varied ecosystems of the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin Desert, and the Sonoran Desert, and is protected by the National Parks Service. Most visitors are avowed water-lovers, who come for jet skiing, lazy days on houseboats, and kayak tours of the lakes' little inlets and 500 miles of shoreline.
What to See and Do
If you have plenty of time out here (say, you’re spending a few days on a houseboat, camping, or staying in town in Boulder), you’ll want to book a few experiences around Lake Mead.
Hoover Dam: Naturally, if you’ve never visited, you’ll want to spend at least a half-day at Hoover Dam, taking a tour, marveling in the vertiginous drop from the top of the dam (and enjoying the view from the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge that now looks over the entire dam).
Kayaking/Canoeing: For those who love to see it all from the water, you can take an incredible tour that includes Hoover Dam and Black Canyon from Willow Springs Marina, where you can sign up for rafting tours that launch below the dam and end at Willow Beach. You can rent a canoe or a kayak at the marina and take a shuttle to the dam. One of the most magical experiences you can have is kayaking Emerald Cave, located 2 miles upstream from Willow Beach (in Arizona). In the afternoon light, the small cave—which fits only two or three kayaks at a time—glows emerald green. A number of outfitters rent kayaks and do kayak tours; Kayak Lake Mead offers trips in the Black Canyon, to the Crane’s Nest Rapids (not actually rapids), into Arizona Hot Springs, and a 22-mile round-trip in the Black Canyon all the way to Hoover Dam for experienced paddlers.
Boat Rentals: If you come with your own boat (or want to rent one), there are multiple marinas at Boulder Basin, East Lake Mead, Overton Arm, and Lake Mohave. You can rent motorboats, fishing boats, houseboats, jet skis, and other watercraft at most of the marinas. Boating Lake Mead, Callville Bay Marina, and Willow Beach Marina are just a few good sources for rates, rentals, and requirements.
Hiking: There are a lot of hiking opportunities around the park; the Mojave Desert ecosystem makes up the vast majority of the park and 900 plant species and 500 animal species live here. You’ll see rainbow-colored rock formations, and if you’re lucky, see some of its unique wildlife, like Desert bighorn sheep and the famous desert tortoise (Nevada’s state reptile. Yes, we have one!).
Some of the most popular hikes around the 185,000 acres of the Lake Mead NRA include the Historic Railroad Trail, an easy 7.5-mile round trip walk that goes through the old railroad tunnels near the Alan Bible Visitor Center (near the Lake Mead Visitor Center). You’ll find a not-too-strenuous cycling road along the River Mountain Loop Trail, a 35-mile paved trail that loops around River Mountain and connects with the Lake Mead NRA, Hoover Dam, Boulder City, and the Las Vegas Valley. Do as much or as little as you’d like; there’s even an equestrian trail.
Fishing: Anglers can fish for largemouth and striped bass, although the fish you’ll see most frequently are the carp that feed fearlessly on junk food around the marina docks. You’ll need to make sure you’re checking the licensing requirements for the state you’re fishing in (since the lakes are divided between the Arizona and Nevada state lines). You can check the requirements at the NPS website. There are also great campsites and surprisingly good beaches, including Cottonwood Cove Beach in its Lake Mohave section.
How to Visit
Lake Mead National Recreation Area is open year-round, 24/7. The Lake Mead Visitor Center, located in Boulder City, is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. There are entrance and lake use fees, which you can pay for online or at the entrance stations.
One of the best ways to get your bearings in this massive recreation area is to visit the visitor center, where rangers will give you the lay of the land and even help you do some additional planning. (Kids will love the junior ranger program.) Don’t miss the exhibit with the relief map of the park, learn about the animals that live there, and watch the park’s film all about life in the desert.
It’s an easy drive from Las Vegas to the nine main access points at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. To get to the Lake Mead Visitor Center, just follow US-93, 4 miles southeast of Boulder City. The drive shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes from the Strip. There’s actually a Mississippi-style riverboat that cruises Lake Mead—the Desert Princess—and the National Park Express operates a round-trip shuttle to the cruise area. There’s no public transportation to Lake Mead, but most of the tour operators send shuttles to resorts on the Las Vegas Strip.
Tips for Visitors
- Make sure you check all fees for motorized boats if you’re bringing your own. They have to be licensed. And remember that licenses for fishing differ depending on which state you’re fishing in since the area straddles the Arizona/Nevada state line.
- Hikers should stay on protected trails, which are marked with yellow signs that remind you the area can be explored by “human power only.” As fun as the NRA is, it’s also a protected area with fragile natural biological habitats.
- The weather in this part of Nevada and Arizona can be punishing in the summer, reaching 120 degrees F (49 degrees C) in the shade. The best time for hiking is in the spring and fall. If you have questions about hiking, or want a ranger-led hike, call ahead to the visitor center. Ranger-guided hikes do take place in the hot months in the evening.