Visiting Hoover Dam: A travel guide of what you need to know

Dam that’s one big concrete wall…

I’m sorry but I had to. No more puns, I promise.

For a giant wall of concrete, the Hoover Dam is surprisingly photogenic and a popular tourist destination. Set on the Colorado River, the dam offers a beautiful juxtaposition of man-made achievement and industrial function against wild beauty — and for me, a scary confrontation with my fear of heights.

The Hoover Dam has three main attractions; the dam, the surrounding Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.

Hoover Dam

Trigger warning alert — if you’re deathly afraid of heights (like me) then the Hoover Dam might not be the right tourist attraction for you. The Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge offers the most precarious vantage point, but it also gives you the best view of the scale of the dam itself. Although the dam offers more stable and solid ground to walk on, don’t think it won’t get your acrophobic heart racing. The station at the bottom is eight stories high. The dam is an impressive 726 ft (220 m) high and 1,244 (380 m) long. It’s 600 ft (200 m) wide at the base and 45 ft (14 m) at its crest.

Image of the Hoover Dam, Visitor's Center and the Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.

Image looking down the Hoover Dam to the power station and Colorado River.

The best tip someone gave me before I went was to drive over the dam and park in the outdoor parking lots on the Arizona side — rather than pay to park in the garage on the Nevada side. On the day, and at the time of day I visited, all of the touristy type things — the visitors center, elevators down to the power station, cafe, etc. — were closed. These are all on the western, Nevada side of the dam, and they all cost money. The parking garage costs $10 and it’s another $10 just to enter the visitor’s center.

I don’t feel like I missed out on anything by not seeing the visitor’s center and was perfectly content moseying along, snapping pictures and trying not to make myself nauseous from peering too far over the wall and down to the river below.

Image of the Hoover Dam from the parking on the Arizona side.

Even with all the tourists and beautiful surrounding landscape, it’s impossible to avoid the industrial function of the dam. Although I didn’t go into the visitor’s center, there are information posters around to educate you on the history and purpose of this impressive structure. For example, the posters taught me that the last time the spillway was used was in 1983 when the water level threatened to break the dam.

A panorama image of the spillway and Lake Mead Recreational area at the backside of the Hoover Dam.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead is the reservoir behind the Hoover Dam. It’s the largest reservoir in the United States in terms of water capacity and provides water to Arizona, California and Nevada. Although the Hoover Dam isn’t somewhere that I would recommend planning a whole day trip to, the Lake Mead National Recreation Area is certainly a place worth spending your time.

You can go boating, fishing, hiking and there are plenty of great places to camp.

The Lake Mead National Recreation Area spans 1.5 million acres and there are nine main access points. The visitor’s center is four miles southeast of Boulder, Nevada where you will also find some great camping spots and other lodgings if needed.

Image of the Arizona perspective of the Lake Mead Recreational Area behind the Hoover Dam.

Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

Although the dam was interesting and the reservoir behind it beautiful, I found the bridge to be the real knock out of the three. Spanning 1,900 ft (580 m) at a height of 900 ft (275 m) above the Colorado River, the bridge — which connects Arizona and Nevada — is striking.

The walkway up to the bridge is the first thing you see on your way down to the dam. If you’re coming from Arizona, then you actually drive across the bridge before turning off the highway toward dam. Don’t get too excited though, as you can’t actually see anything while you’re driving on it. It’s not until you park and head up to the pedestrian walkway that the magnitude of the bridge really hits you.

Now I will confess that I didn’t quite make it all the way across the bridge and over to Arizona. In fact, I think I barely made it 1/4 of the way across.

I am extremely afraid of heights — which this trip oh-so-kindly reminded me. But I did it — partially at least — and given that I live just over an hour away, I’m sure I’ll have a chance to try again.

Image of the Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge from the Hoover Dam.

Image of the view of the Nevada Sign from the Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge at the Hoover Dam.

View of the Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge at the Hoover Dam from the Nevada state side.

Hoover Dam — giant concrete wall or must-see tourist attraction?

Both really.

Although the signature attraction of the dam is the giant concrete wall, it’s definitely a destination worth of spending an hour or so at.

The Hoover Dam is an impressive demonstration of human engineering set in the wilderness of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. If you’re planning a trip to the Grand Canyon and heading to/from Las Vegas, then the Hoover Dam is a great place to stop along the way.

And if you’re afraid of heights, be wary, but don’t let that stop you.

Wilbs

Image peering over the Hoover Dam wall.

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