The Good: One of humanity's amazing achievements, Quick, Scenic, Impressive, Inexpensive
The Bad: Tour is pricey.
The Basics: A giant achievement of human engineering and labor, the Hoover Dam is a wonderful place to stop en route to Las Vegas that one need not pay for!
"Some things need to be experienced to be understood."
Sometimes, I find myself trying to write a review of a very simple experience and I have a feeling that my readers think it is generally impossible for me to write a very helpful review about something that is simple with an economy of words. Yet, that is exactly what I am forced to do when I consider the Hoover Dam. If my visit to Carlsbad Caverns (reviewed here!) was a triumph of natural simplicity (you go, look at rocks and you leave) then visiting the Hoover Dam is a triumph of human ingenuity and the only way to experience it is to go, look at it, marvel and leave.
That's not entirely true; you can experience it through guided tours as well. On our recent trip through the Southwest to Las Vegas, my partner and I ended up going to the Hoover Dam. Because we were there before we made money on our trip, the Hoover Dam was one of the stops we did on the cheap and, as we discovered, that's actually the ideal way to do it. Between reviews here and people at the site coming out from guided tours underwhelmed, we felt we made the absolute right decision.
In fact, here's the digest version of the ideal Hoover Dam experience: watch a documentary on the Hoover Dam (PBS has them fairly frequently) or read a book on it, then go and see the Hoover Dam. In fact, the reason this is ideal is this: documentaries are professionally produced, show you all the things that you'd otherwise have to pay for (and are actually the less impressive aspects of the Dam) and do it without corny tour jokes or guides that mumble. But the reason to stop and actually see the Hoover Dam is because documentaries cannot adequately convey the scope and only by experiencing that may one truly appreciate the feat that is Hoover Dam. Fortunately, for that, you don't have to pay a cent!
The Hoover Dam is located on US route 93 on the Arizona/Nevada border. If you're on 93 headed north into Nevada (the ideal way from US-40 for those travelers headed to Las Vegas) it is right there by the side of the road. The Hoover Dam is located on the Colorado River. Lake Mead is a reservoir right above the dam that is a freshwater lake that slowly drains through the Dam to generate electricity. The National Park is literally right by the side of the road.
Ease Of Local Transport/Parking
When one reaches the Hoover Dam, it literally comes up on the side of the road. The Hoover Dam is situated in an especially winding part of the Colorado River and Route 93. Because the interstate is essentially paved into the side of a cliff, parking is spread out throughout the horseshoe that the Dam is on. There are several parking lots right by the side of the road as one approaches the National Park. There are pulloffs which are free, but parking at the Hoover Dam National Park costs money (we parked at a close one for free and walked the rest of the way).
Getting around the Hoover Dam is pretty simple as there is one road: Route 93. This, however, is very narrow and as a result people tend to be pretty irked if you take long making a decision as to where you are parking. To avoid the hassle, parking at the Hoover Dam National Park might be a reasonable expense.
Here's where the review is real simple: the point of going to the Hoover Dam is to witness just how incredible humanity can be. There is history which one can learn from books - like how the project took just under five years to complete - but only going there and seeing how massive the structure is and how well-made it is can it truly be appreciated. Yes, the point is to go and gawk. There are paid tours (didn't take it!) and then there is just walking around and looking at what there is. There's the massive wall, the walkways over the bottled up river and there are tacky displays which illustrate the process.
The best one can do at the Hoover Dam is get out, walk around and allow themselves to be impressed. The Hoover Dam is an architectural marvel and this, like the moon landing, is just proof of what humanity can do when we apply ourselves. But it's not like a theme park; there aren't huge, different experiences to be had here. The experience is getting out, walking onto the public access areas of the Dam, which allow one to see the massive structure at many different angles, then leaving. The experience is a simple understanding that humanity tamed (and in many ways ruined) nature, but the magnitude and majesty of the project is simply stunning. Walk around, see the stones, and leave with a greater understanding of how unremarkable the current generation is when it comes to doing well, pretty much anything. Never have I felt like my generation has truly accomplished nothing of historic note as when I walked around the Hoover Dam.
If you don't take the tour, that's the Hoover Dam experience. It takes about an hour to complete and here's why it's worth it: my partner and I watched a documentary and I read about the Hoover Dam and it just seemed like another big project the U.S. government did at the height of the Great Depression. Seeing it, though, was truly overwhelming. To see the scale, to simply walk around it and realize that humanity did this . . . it was an epiphanic experience and people need those, especially those of us who are too often confined to books or computers.
In truth, as one who understood - from texts and documentaries - just what it took to make this place, just seeing it was enough and walking around it was overwhelming. Getting the tour and educated on site is more likely to be more of a distraction from the simple grandeur of experiencing the Dam by just looking around and being free to marvel.
There is a cafe in the visitor's center which has overpriced burgers and sodas and the like. We did not partake, but people seemed happy to have snacks. Given how sunny this area is bringing water is highly recommended.
There is a gift shop with the usual touristy stuff. We did not get anything here.
The Hoover Dam is two experiences: seeing it and taking a tour of it. Having taken the advice of several reviewers (and being poor) my wife and I just went and walked around as a pass-through on our way to Las Vegas, Nevada. It was an eye opening experience and to take an hour out of a trip through the desert to experience the Hoover Dam without paying money for it is a truly wonderful use of anyone's time. It might not be worth paying for the tours, but for anyone passing by, it's cool to not pass the Hoover Dam by!
For other destinations, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame
Verona Beach State Park
For other travel reviews, be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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