LAS VEGAS — A consolation for tapped-out gamblers in this city of glitter and greed is that with a little gas money or the price of a tour bus they can see mighty Hoover Dam. It's a colossus beside which the MGM Grand and Caesars Palace become dots on the desert.
Standing massively astride the Nevada-Arizona line, Hoover and its surrounding attractions, including Lake Mead, are only 45 minutes away from Vegas, but what a difference. The whirl of slot machines is replaced by the whirl of giant turbines, and the frenetic pace and flashy neon of the casinos gives way to clear air and splendid rocks, both natural and man-made.
Kids will love Hoover's size and engineering marvels, which are explained by savvy government guides. The dam is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Interior.
A little history: Begun in 1931, Hoover Dam was completed in 1935 as a means of taming the wild Colorado River. It was the greatest dam constructed in its day and is still the Western Hemisphere's highest concrete dam.
Termed one of this nation's Seven Modern Engineering Wonders by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Hoover towers 726 feet high, is 1,244 feet long at its crest and 660 feet thick at its base.
Its benefits are awesome. The dam, named for Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States, controls floods; stores water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses; provides hydroelectric power generation, and creates a habitat for recreation, fish and wildlife.
Water stored in Lake Mead, created by the dam, irrigates three-quarters of a million acres of land in the United States and nearly half a million in Mexico.
Its hydroelectric facilities supply enough power for 500,000 homes in California, Nevada and Arizona, and its water helps meet the needs of 12 million people.
The two main ways to see this marvel are driving there and enjoying its wonders on a walking tour, or taking a Lake Mead cruise operated by Lake Mead Yacht Tours in Las Vegas, phone (702) 736-6180.
Gray Line runs a Hoover Dam tour out of Las Vegas Monday through Saturday for $17.60 per person and a combined dam tour and Lake Mead cruise for $28.35, lunch included.
But I would recommend driving here from Vegas (or Los Angeles, about 230 miles) and seeing the place at your own pace. If possible, avoid Saturday and Sunday. More than 22 million visitors have flocked to the dam since 1937 and they're still swarming in. Parking space is free but limited. A helicopter flight over the dam is available for $65 from Action Jet tours in Las Vegas (702) 796-6151.
Foot-sloggers can start by taking a leisurely stroll along Hoover's curved parapet for their first look at the dam in all its sweep and majesty. It's like gazing into a vast canyon. You can see hydroelectric power generated as waters rush through giant turbines and the sheer wall of concrete dazzles the senses. Electric cable towers are incredibly angled into surrounding mountains.
Then take time for the close-look tour offered by Bureau of Reclamation guides from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day and from 9 a.m. to 4:15 daily the rest of the year. For a $1 fee (children 15 and under are admitted free) they take you deep into the dam, lecturing all the while on the facility's workings. The guides may tell you more about hydroelectric power than you wanted to know, but the tour is exciting and educational.
You also can have things explained to you while sitting comfortably for a free, 10-minute taped lecture in Hoover's Exhibit Hall. The seats are perched above an elaborate scale model of the dam and the surrounding area. Lights hit high points on the model table during the talk.
A trip to Hoover Dam wouldn't be complete without spending some time at Lake Mead, America's largest man-made reservoir, which backs up 110 miles behind the dam and is twice the size of Rhode Island.
Mead, a federal recreational area administered by the National Park Service, is open to boaters, swimmers, sunbathers and fishermen. Hikers can traverse the surrounding desert and wildlife photographers have it made anywhere in the neighborhood. But be wary of rattlesnakes, scorpions and gila monsters even though park rangers say they won't bother you if you don't bother them. The rangers also warn that driving off designated roads is prohibited because it damages the back-country environment.
Loaded With Fish
I didn't fish but was told that the lake is loaded with largemouth bass, rainbow trout, striped bass, channel catfish and bluegill.
For those who want to linger a few days, motels surround the lake along with hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations in the towns of Henderson, Boulder City, Laughlin and Searchlight in Nevada, and Bullhead City and Kingman in Arizona. And Las Vegas is a convenient base for day-tripping to the dam and Lake Mead.
Campsites in the Lake Mead recreational area are $5 a night, with a maximum allowable stay of 90 days.