For history’s sake, take the route less traveled by
By Renée LiButti
Planning a visit to Hoover Dam? Well, of course you are! Each year more than five million people check out the awe-inspiring concrete behemoth that is a testament to man’s engineering abilities. Most of them will board a tour bus or drive their car directly to the dam site. But if you’re an outdoor enthusiast who delights in a vigorous walk, then there’s a much better way to go.
The Historic Railroad Trail is a 3.7-mile hike that begins on the outskirts of Boulder City. It follows an elevated railroad bed through five tunnels and ends on the top floor of Hoover Dam’s five-story parking garage. This is not only a great way to enjoy a series of fantastic overlooks of Lake Mead, but it also saves you from having to pay the $7 parking fee. A winning scenario, for sure.
Walk the talk (or better yet, talk the walk)
Ready for a little RR 101? You’ll appreciate the journey more if you’re familiar with its history – plus, you’ll be able impress others along the way with your train track trivia. The consortium known as Six Companies Inc. built the railroad in 1931. Originally, there were 30 miles of track connecting Boulder City to the Hoover Dam construction site. Trains were vital during the building process because they transported gravel (which was needed to make 4.5 million cubic tons of concrete!) into and debris out of the area. After the dam’s completion in 1935, the railroad was, for the most part, abandoned. In 1961 it officially closed down, and in 1962 the tracks were dismantled. Today, this hike is the only segment of Hoover Dam’s railroad system that still exists – the rest has either been altered greatly or is underwater. The Historic Railroad Trail was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
Okay, so where exactly should you begin? Take U.S. 93 south through Boulder City and then turn left toward Hoover Dam. The official trailhead is situated on Lakeshore Road near the Alan Bible Visitor Center (which, unfortunately, is closed for renovations throughout 2011). Alternatively, those who want to enjoy all the history without so much exertion can shave off a mile by way of a shortcut located behind the Hacienda Hotel & Casino. A sign on the chain-link fence in the parking lot to the right of the property marks a footpath that joins up with the Historic Railroad Trail shortly before reaching the first tunnel.
The views to remember
Upon starting out, you immediately appreciate the full, magnificent beauty of Lake Mead on the horizon. During the day, the surface of the water has a brilliant sheen, like that of a clear blue sky. Before long you approach an access gate and then the trail weaves along the Aztec Sandstone Mountains. This rugged desert landscape is breathtaking as well. The rocky hills exhibit hues of gray, creamy coral and burnt siena. After about a mile, the first tunnel draws near. Take a moment to examine the dynamite-blown corridor before you pass through. With a 25-foot diameter, it’s quite imposing. Chugging along, you go through four more tunnels, all of various lengths that combine for a total of 300 feet. Benches dot the trail, especially at points featuring stunning vistas of the lake and marina. Another thing to keep an eye out for is wildlife. Very often you can spot Nevada’s state animal, the desert bighorn sheep. They regularly descend the rocky ridges at midday and late afternoon to look for grass or water. Other wildlife common to the area includes lizards, antelope ground squirrels, snakes and scorpions. Upon exiting the last tunnel, your view of the lake disappears. The remainder of the trail proceeds along the desert floor, past a police access road, through the old switchyard and, finally, onto the top floor of Hoover Dam’s parking garage. This is where you have your first glimpses of Hoover Dam and the new bypass bridge. Feel free to explore the visitor center, walk across the crest of the dam, check out the bronze sculptures or buy tickets for an official tour before returning.
A fork in the path
The Historic Railroad Trail is already long, so you may not want to lengthen your journey any. But if you haven’t maxed out your energy reserves, consider a side trip to a modern-day engineering wonder – the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. It opened in October of 2010 and is the highest and longest arched concrete bridge in the Western Hemisphere. Near the switchyard, there’s a fork in the trail. If you opt to take it, you’ll walk for about a half mile before reaching what is clearly the smallest and most congested parking lot ever constructed for a major tourist attraction. Another opportunity to be thankful that you didn’t drive! Stroll along the walkway that leads past informative displays detailing the nearly six-year construction process, and then step onto the bridge. Those first few seconds will take your breath away. While perched 890 feet above the Colorado River and wedged between the rocky cliffs that form Black Canyon, the entire horizon opens up. Other than a helicopter, there’s no place to view Hoover Dam that offers such a dramatic bird’s-eye perspective.
Tips for trekkers
Before you set off, there are a few things to keep in mind. As with any hike around Las Vegas, you should carry plenty of water and drink often. Be watchful for signs of heat stroke. Other items to bring with you include snacks, sunscreen (the higher the SPF, the better), sunglasses, a hat with a wide brim – and, of course, a camera. You’ll be grief-stricken if you leave without a few shots of Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and the bypass bridge.
The Historic Railroad Trail is mostly flat with few changes in elevation. The only difficulty is due to its length. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, as you’ll spend at least four hours walking. The route is well-marked, well-groomed and fairly busy. You may encounter Boulder City residents out with their dogs or kids on this trail. The best time to go is in spring or fall when temperatures are moderate. It’s also best to hike on clear, sunny days because on cloudy days, some of the landscape’s rich colors are absent.
Fuel for hungry hikers
You’re guaranteed to burn a lot of calories on the Historic Railroad Trail, so why not indulge in a hearty meal before or after the journey? Instead of passing through Boulder City, stop and explore its charming “Old Town” area. If you’re interested in breakfast, try The Coffee Cup Café. This cozy eatery has a history that dates back to the 1930s and includes feeding the men who worked at Hoover Dam. Peanut butter waffles and pigs in a blanket are on the decadent breakfast menu. When Food Network host Guy Fieri featured The Coffee Cup Café on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” in 2007, he raved about the pork chili verde omelette.
Another fine place for a post-hike feast is Milo’s Cellar, a sidewalk café and wine bar. Open since 2003, the food here is sure to impress gourmands and gluttons. Two standouts on the menu are the Cultured Cowboy Salad, which has a unique BBQ/ranch dressing, and the Pollo Bella, a chicken breast sandwich with grilled portabella mushrooms. In addition, 50 beers and wines are served by the glass – giving you an opportunity to raise a toast to Hoover Dam. The perfect way to end an unforgettable day!
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