The Colorado River forms two long lakes as it winds more than 144 miles through Lake Mead National Recreation Area. From Grand Canyon National Park, the blue waters flow around the extreme northwest corner of Arizona past black volcanic rocks, stark hillsides, and white, sandy beaches. Striking desert scenery and inviting waters make the area a paradise for boaters, anglers, water-skiers, swimmers, and scuba divers. Visitors sometimes sight bighorn sheep on the canyon cliffs and wild burros in the more level areas. Adventurous four-wheelers and hikers can explore the hills and canyons of the wild, seldom-visited country inland.
Some areas have an entry fee unless you have one of the national parks passes; otherwise it's $5/vehicle ($3 motorcycle, bicycle, or hiker) for a five-day permit. Motorized vessels cost $10 for the first one and $5 for each additional craft for five days; annual permits cost just twice as much.
The National Park Service provides boat ramps, developed campgrounds ($10 per night; water but no showers or hookups), and ranger stations at most developed areas. Park Service people and volunteers staff the Alan Bible Visitor Center at the turnoff for Boulder Beach, four miles west of Hoover Dam.
The boating and camping season lasts all year at the lakes. Most people come in summer, and though it's hot, swimmers and water skiers best appreciate the water then. Spring and autumn bring pleasant temperatures both on land and on water. In winter, you wouldn't want to hop in without a wetsuit, though topside temperatures are usually pleasant during the day. Scuba divers find the best conditions in winter (Oct.-April), when visibilities run 20-50 feet versus 10-20 feet in summer.
To get the most from a visit to Lake Mohave and Lake Mead, you really need a boat, as roads approach the waterline at only a few scattered points. If you don't have your own, marinas offer rentals, from humble fishing craft to luxurious houseboats. Boat tours take in some of the scenery of Lake Mead from near Boulder Beach. You can also glide through Black Canyon below Hoover Dam on a raft tour.
Both Lake Mohave and Lake Mead offer excellent fishing year-round for trout, largemouth and striped bass, channel catfish, crappie, and bluegill. Lake Mohave's upper reaches are especially good for rainbow trout. Both lakes offer hot fishing for striped bass—some specimens top 50 pounds. Most marinas sell licenses and tackle. Marinas and ranger stations can advise on the fishing regulations and the best spots to fish. Shore anglers need a license only from the state they're in. If you fish from a boat, you'll need a license from one state and a special-use stamp from the other.
An extensive network of back roads provides access to the lakes as well as scenic hills and canyons. These roads range from easy to challenging and require a high-clearance 4WD vehicle. Ask for the set of free maps that show the approved backcountry roads, which have signs with arrows and numbers. The maps also show locations of primitive campgrounds and indicate whether they have an outhouse. Back-road travelers may camp only in these designated areas. All vehicles in the recreation area must stay on the approved roads or highways.
Heading upstream from Bullhead City, you soon arrive at Lake Mohave. Squeezed between hills and canyon walls, the lake seems like a calmer version of the Colorado River. Though 67 miles long, Mohave spans but four miles at its widest point. Davis Dam, completed in 1953, holds back the waters; visitors can park at an overlook on the dam. At press time, the dam was closed to RVs, trailers, and large trucks.
Also known as Katy's Gulch to some folks, Katherine Landing lies six miles north of Bullhead City. A ranger station/information center (928/754-3272) near the entrance is open daily 8 a.m.-4 p.m. all year. Staff provide information on interpretive programs, local hikes, the Grapevine Canyon Petroglyphs Site (nearby in Nevada), and back-road drives in the area. Video programs are shown on request and regional books and maps can be purchased. Recreation facilities include a campground ($10), beaches (South Telephone Cove is best), hiking trails, fish-cleaning station, and a lakeside resort.
Lake Mohave Resort (928/754-3245 or 800/752-9669, www.sevencrown.com) provides a motel ($85-95 d in summer, $35-45 d in winter; add $20 for a kitchenette), house rental ($240), RV park ($18 w/hookups), restaurant (daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner), marina with boat rentals (fishing, ski, patio, and houseboats), store, boat ramp, showers, dump station, and laundry.
For an easy walk with some history, you can hike to Katherine Mine, about one mile roundtrip. Leave Katherine Landing and turn left 0.7 mile on the road just past the ranger station, park on the right opposite the turnoff for Telephone Cove, then walk up the wash. You'll see the white tailings all along the way and, where the wash opens up, the foundations and tanks of the mill on your right. The mine produced less than two million dollars of gold and silver between 1900 and 1940, but the mill, built in 1925, continued to process ore from area mines until shut down by the War Production Board in 1943.
Grapevine Canyon Petroglyphs Site and Christmas Tree Pass Road
Large and complex pictographs cover boulders on both sides of the mouth of Grapevine Canyon northwest of Bullhead City. From the bridge across the Colorado River, head west 6.3 miles on NV 163 to near Milepost 13, turn right 1.8 miles on unpaved Christmas Tree Pass Road, then left into Grapevine Canyon Trailhead. Continue west on foot about 0.3 mile along the easy trail beside Grapevine Wash to the site. Christmas Tree Pass Road offers fine scenery and views as it winds across the desert and up to the pass, about 7.3 miles from NV 163, then descends to US 95 for a total of 15 miles one way. The US 95 turnoff is between Mileposts 6 and 7, about 2.2 miles south of Cal-Nev-Ari. You could loop back to Bullhead City or turn north to Cottonwood Cove, Hoover Dam, or Las Vegas. High-clearance vehicles do best on this drive. Camping isn't permitted Lake Mead National Recreation Area, but you could camp on public lands west of the pass.
This developed area lies about halfway upstream on the main body of water on the Nevada side. If driving, turn off US 95 at Searchlight and go east 14 miles on NV 164. Cottonwood Cove Marina (702/297-1464, www.cottonwoodcoveresort.com) has a motel ($108 d, less in winter), RV park ($19.45-24.45 w/hookups), campground ($10), restaurant, marina with rentals (including houseboats), a boat ramp, and a public swimming beach.
Northward, the lake narrows at Eldorado Canyon, becoming more like a river. Trout frequent the cold river currents upstream. A paved road (NV 165) approaches Eldorado Canyon from the Nevada side, but there are no facilities.
Willow Beach Harbor
About a dozen river miles below Hoover Dam you'll reach Willow Beach Harbor (928/767-4747, www.foreverresorts.com) on the Arizona shore, a four-mile paved detour from US 93 from between Mileposts 14 and 15. Facilities include a picnic area, fish-cleaning station, store, boat dock, car and boat fuel, boat ramp, and rentals of ski, fishing, and patio boats. There's no motel or campground here, but boaters can reach nearby campgrounds on the river. A ranger station (928/767-4000) at Willow Beach is open irregularly, as staff are often in the field.
A half mile upstream by road, Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery (928/767-3456) raises large numbers of rainbow trout for stocking the lower Colorado River and Lake Mohave. Hatchery staff also study and propagate the endangered razorback sucker and bonytail chub, which are native to the Colorado River. You're welcome to visit the raceways outside daily 7 a.m.-5 p.m.
A Scenic Viewpoint just off US 93 offers a fine panorama of the Black Canyon area; it's accessible from both directions between Mileposts 12 and 13.
Black Canyon River Running
A popular float trip for canoes, kayaks, and rafts begins below Hoover Dam, following the swift Colorado beneath the sheer 1,500-foot cliffs of Black Canyon to Willow Beach (12 miles) or Eldorado Canyon (25 miles). A sauna cave and hot springs make enjoyable stops.
Boats can also continue across Lake Mohave to Cottonwood Cove (50 miles) or Katherine Landing (72 miles); this section below Eldorado Canyon isn't recommended for nonmotorized boats from April through October because of the prevailing southerly winds. Obtain permission to launch your boat below Hoover Dam at least three weeks and up to six months in advance from Black Canyon/Willow Beach River Adventures (Mon.-Fri. 10:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Pacific Time, 702/494-2204, www.BlackCanyonAdventures.com), who also offer raft tours and can recommend boat rental companies; see below.
Black Canyon River Adventures (702/294-1414 or 800/455-3490, www.BlackCanyonAdventures.com) rafts the river from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach daily for $73 adults, $70 youth 13-15, and $45 children 5-11. The price includes three hours on the river, lunch, and transportation from the tour office at the Hacienda Hotel near Boulder City; pickup from Las Vegas hotels is available for an extra charge. The rafts are wheelchair accessible.
Arizona Hot Springs Hike
This six-mile-roundtrip route follows a ruggedly beautiful canyon through layers of volcanic rock to the Colorado River and nearby hot springs. Highly mineralized spring water surfaces in a side canyon at temperatures ranging from 113º to 142ºF, which cools to a very pleasant 85-120º. Rangers warn that the water may contain dangerous amoebas; avoid trouble by keeping your head out of the water.
Allow four to five hours for the hike down, time to soak in the hot springs, and the trek back up. The 800-foot descent to the river is gradual, but you'll feel it on the climb out! Hiking isn't recommended in summer, when temperatures can reach hazardous levels. As for any desert hike of this length, bring water (one gallon per person) and wear a sun hat. Also, be alert for rattlesnakes and flash floods; don't hike if thunderstorms threaten. A map with a description of the hike is available from the visitor center and possibly at a box a short way in on the trail.
From Hoover Dam, drive 4.2 miles southeast on US 93 to a dirt parking area on the right, just south of Milepost 4. The trail goes west and drops into a wash, which deepens dramatically as you enter White Rock Canyon. Look for arches above as you descend the gravelly canyon floor. When you reach the Colorado River, walk a quarter mile downstream along the river and look for signs pointing the way through a narrow defile that leads over to a narrow canyon. Turn up this pretty little canyon, then climb a 20-foot ladder to reach the spring-fed pools. Boaters can pull in at the mouth of this canyon, where there's a campground.
When completed in 1935, this immense concrete structure ranked as one of the world's greatest engineering feats. It remains impressive today, especially when you contemplate the mind-boggling statistics: the dam contains 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete, rises 726 feet above bedrock, and produces more than four billion kilowatt-hours of energy per year.
With all these numbers coming at you, it's easy to miss the beauty of the dam. Look for the graceful curves, the sculptures of the Winged Figures of the Republic, the art deco embellishments, and the terrazzo floor designs. There's a lot to see here—outside on the dam, in the impressive visitor center, and at a viewing gallery of the power plant.
The Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge spans 1,900 feet across the Black Canyon at a height of 900 feet above the Colorado River; it's about 1,500 feet south of the Hoover Dam. Construction began in February 2005 and the bridge opened in 2010.
A statue stands guard on each side of the flag at Hoover Dam. Norwegian-born Oskar J.W. Hansen gave them eagle wings to represent America's construction skills, daring, and readiness to defend its institutions. He explained that the figures express "the immutable calm of intellectual resolution, and the enormous power of trained physical strength, equally enthroned in placid triumph of scientific accomplishment." Hansen also likened the feat of building the dam to construction of the great pyramids of Egypt. The two figures rest on black igneous rock and rise 30 feet; more than four tons of bronze went into their 5/8-inch-thick shells. The terrazzo floor surrounding the base contains an inlaid star chart that future civilizations can use to determine the date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the dam—September 30, 1935.
The large visitor center (702/494-2517 or 866/730-9097, www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam) on the Nevada side of the dam, offers a multimedia presentation, historic exhibits, a viewing platform, and a look at the generators. It's open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. except Thanksgiving and Christmas; admission includes a visit to the powerhouse gallery and costs $10 adults, $8 seniors 62 and up, and $5 children 7-16; no reservations needed. The easiest parking lies across the road from the visitor center and up the hill a bit. This parking structure—for cars only—will be appreciated in hot weather and by those not wanting to walk far; it costs $5. Several lots across on the Arizona side have parking; the one closest to the dam has a $5 parking fee, while those farther up the hill are free; RVs and vehicles with trailers can park at Lots 11 or 13.
Take the escalator or elevator from in front of the parking structure to the ticket office, theater, and exhibit hall on the lower level. A multimedia program in the theater illustrates construction of the dam. Head down into the dam via elevator for a look at the Nevada Powerplant Wing with its eight turbine generators. The main exhibit gallery, one floor above the theater level, introduces the people who built the dam and how they did it, along with narrations about their experiences. Exhibits also illustrate the plants, wildlife, and other aspects of the region. Continue upstairs to the third level and a viewing platform overlooking the dam and Black Canyon. Your ticket also includes exhibits in the old visitor center across the road.
The High Scaler Cafe and Hoover Dam Store in the parking structure offer fast food and souvenirs, as does another cafe and store overlooking the reservoir. Note the bronze High Scaler outside the parking structure.
Boulder City, Nevada
Originally built for construction workers of Hoover Dam in the 1930s, the town has an attractive downtown and a good selection of motels and restaurants. It's about eight miles from Hoover Dam; you can take the business route turnoff at the Nevada Welcome Center, then continue to the museum and services downtown.
The Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum (in the Boulder Dam Hotel, 1305 Arizona St., 702/294-1988, www.bcmha.org, Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sun. noon-5 p.m., $2 adult, $1 children, students, and seniors) will give you a feel for what it was like to be a worker on the dam. Exhibits include a documentary video, 3-D displays, interactive projects, photos, and artifacts from the dam's construction days. You'll also find a gift shop.
The 1933 Boulder Dam Hotel (1305 Arizona St., 702/293-3510, www.boulderdamhotel.com, $89-159 d) offers restored rooms and suites, an Italian-American restaurant (open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, $10-25), an art gallery, and other shops. Rates include breakfast and museum admission.
The Boulder City Chamber of Commerce (465 Nevada Way and Arizona, 702/293-2034, www.bouldercitychamber.com, Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.) is across the street from the hotel.
Lake Mead, held back by Hoover Dam, is the largest artificial lake in the United States and holds the equivalent of two years' flow of the Colorado River. Its shape forms a rough "Y"; one arm of Lake Mead reaches north up the Virgin River, while the longer east arm stretches up the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. Boaters enjoy lots of room on the 110-mile-long lake, and its countless little beaches and coves provide hideaways for camping and swimming. Largemouth black bass, striped bass, trout, channel catfish, bluegill, and crappie swim in the waters.
Alan Bible Visitor Center
Four miles west of Hoover Dam on US 93, near the NV 166 turnoff for Boulder Beach, the Alan Bible Visitor Center (601 Nevada Hwy., Boulder City, NV 89005, 702/293-8990, www.nps.gov/lame, daily 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) offers National Park Service exhibits introducing Lake Mead National Recreation Area's fishing, boating, wildlife-watching, and desert recreation opportunities.
You can watch a video program shown on request. Staff provide handouts and information on backcountry camping, roads, trails, and interpretive programs. A botanical garden surrounding the visitor center identifies plant communities found throughout the recreation area. Books are for sale, as are nautical charts and topo maps. The visitor center closes on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.
Historic Railroad Trail
A section of railway bed used during construction of Hoover Dam has become a trail with excellent views of Lake Mead. It's wide and nearly level, easy for both cyclists and hikers. The trailhead and parking are just down the hill from the Alan Bible Visitor Center. You can follow the path 4.5 miles one-way through five tunnels—cool in summer—toward Hoover Dam. The tunnels had been cut oversize to accommodate the huge penstock pipes and other equipment. In the opposite direction from the trailhead, you can head 3.6 miles to Boulder City via the old railroad grade.
Above Hoover Dam, the lake opens into the broad Boulder Basin. You'll find campgrounds at Boulder Beach, Las Vegas Bay, and Callville Bay. Most of the facilities like just off Lakeshore Scenic Drive, which begins from US 93 near the Allen Bible Visitor Center. Turn right after 1.2 miles for East Las Vegas Boat Harbor (702/565-9111), which has a restaurant, store, boat tours, and marina (fishing-, ski-, and patio-boat rentals). The triple-decked sternwheeler Desert Princess (702/293-6180, www.lakemeadcruises.com) leaves from here for a scenic 90-minute trip up the lake to Hoover Dam. The sightseeing excursions ($20) run two or three times a day; on some days you can sign up for a breakfast cruise ($32.50), dinner cruise ($44), or a dinner/dance cruise ($54). Children 2-11 travel at reduced rates except on the dinner/dance cruise.
Boulder Beach, two miles from the visitor center, offers good swimming with picnic sites; the campground ($10) lies on the south side of the beach. RVers can stay nearby in Lake Mead RV Village (268 Lakeshore Rd., 702/293-2540, $26-28 w/hookups and showers).
Lake Mead Lodge (322 Lakeshore Rd., 702/293-2074 or 800/752-9669, www.sevencrown.com, $75-175 d, less in midwinter) lies on the north side of Boulder Beach with lake views.
Lake Mead Marina (702/293-3484 or 800/752-9669) is half a mile farther north with a restaurant, store, and boat rentals.
You're welcome to drop in and see the trout and exhibits at the Lake Mead Fish Hatchery (off Lakeshore Road, 5.5 miles from the visitor center between Boulder Beach and Las Vegas Bay, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily). The Nevada Department of Wildlife raises trout here and sends most of them to Lake Mohave; others go to Lake Mead and scattered locations around southern Nevada.
Beyond the fish hatchery, you'll pass several viewpoints, some with shaded tables, overlooking Lake Mead. Las Vegas Bay has a picnic area and a campground ($10), but low water levels forced the marina to move to Hemenway Harbor. Callville Bay Resort & Marina (702/565-8958, 800/255-5561 houseboat reservations, www.foreverresorts.com) offers an RV park ($21.50 w/tax and hookups), snack bar, and a marina with boat rentals (ski boats, patio boats, houseboats, and personal watercraft). Two campgrounds in the area cost $10; pay showers are available at the resort.
This undeveloped cove on the Arizona shore has been closed to all land access during construction of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge.
Virgin and Temple Basins
Traveling upstream by boat from Boulder Basin you pass through six-mile-long Boulder Canyon, also called the Narrows, before emerging into Virgin and Temple Basins, the largest and most dramatic part of Lake Mead. Rock formations with names such as Napoleon's Tomb, the Haystacks, and the Temple provide scenic landmarks. Many narrow coves snake back into the mountains.
Temple Bar Resort (928/767-3211 or 800/752-9669, www.sevencrown.com), Arizona's only development on Lake Mead, takes its name from a rock monolith across Temple Basin. The resort provides fishing cabins ($55 d), a motel ($80-100 d, $100-115 with kitchenette), an RV park ($18 w/hookups), a restaurant, store, car and boat gas, airstrip, and a marina with boat rentals (ski, fishing, patio, and personal watercraft). The restaurant is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but lacks a proper non-smoking section. There's also a park service picnic area and fish-cleaning station near the boat ramp and a campground ($10) farther back in the trees. From Hoover Dam, go southeast 19 miles on US 93 to just south of Milepost 19, then turn left 28 miles on paved Temple Bar Road. A ranger station just before the resort is open occasionally; there's a short hiking trail here.
On the way you can detour north on an unpaved graded road to Bonelli Landing, a primitive campground on the Arizona shore of the Virgin Basin. Several 4WD roads branch off Temple Bar Road too, winding across the desert to both lake and inland destinations. Adventurous hikers can take the 4WD backroad 130 west to Mount Wilson Wilderness, where a former road continues a bit farther, then it's possible to continue cross country to the summit of Mount Wilson.
Two resorts lie along the giant Overton Arm, which branches north into the Virgin River. Echo Bay Resort (702/394-4000 or 800/752-9669, www.sevencrown.com) features a motel ($98.30-114.35 d w/tax, less in winter), RV park ($19.26 w/tax, hookups, and showers), restaurant, and boat rentals (all types). The Echo Bay area also has a park service campground ($10); campers can use the RV park's showers.
Farther north, Overton Beach Marina (702/394-4040) offers an RV park ($19 w/hookups; showers cost extra and are open to the public), snack bar, store, and a marina with boat rentals (fishing, ski, patio, and personal watercraft).
Valley of Fire State Park (about five miles west of Overton Beach, 702/397-2088) is noted for its impressive rock formations consisting of 150-million-year-old red Jurassic sandstone. The park is open year-round, with visitor center exhibits (daily 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.), two campgrounds ($14 with showers), picnic areas, and hiking trails. Entry fee is $6 per vehicle, $1 for pedestrians and bicyclists.
You can view Native American artifacts from Pueblo Grande de Nevada at the Lost City Museum (13 miles north of Overton Beach, 702/397-2193, daily 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., $3 adults 18-64, $2 seniors) on a hill at the south edge of Overton. Built on an actual Virgin Anasazi site, the adobe museum includes a reconstructed pithouse and pueblo, pottery, jewelry, lithic tools and other artifacts and historic exhibits. Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s excavated artifacts from many prehistoric sites, some now lost beneath Lake Mead.
Upstream, the lake narrows in Virgin Canyon before opening into Gregg Basin, the uppermost large open-water area of Lake Mead. The basin has no campgrounds or resorts; facilities are limited to a picnic area and paved boat ramp at South Cove on the Arizona side. By car, you reach South Cove by heading south 19 miles on US 93 from Hoover Dam, then turning left 45 miles on a paved road. You'll pass through Dolan Springs (www.meadview.info) holding a small motel, RV parks, restaurants, and stores. Joshua trees up to 25 feet tall grow along part of the way; the tree looks like a strange cactus but really belongs to the lily family.
Pearce Ferry, accessible by dirt road off the road to South Cove, offers primitive boat ramps and campsites at the upper end of Lake Mead. Grand Canyon National Park begins just upstream. Low lake levels at press time forced a temporary closure.
Grand Wash Bay extends north into Nevada above Iceberg Canyon and lacks any services. You'll need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle and a good map to reach this lonely spot, as much of the road follows sandy washes. Check road conditions and weather forecasts before attempting this route.
On to North-Central Arizona