Trail of the Month: November 2005
Historic Railroad Hiking Trail, Nevada
What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas—but in the case of Nevada's Historic Railroad Hiking Trail, you'll want to tell everyone you know.
Just 30 miles from Las Vegas and on the outskirts of Boulder City, the six-mile, gravel rail-trail hugs the hills on the southern shoreline of vast Lake Mead. The trail offers panoramic views of the manmade lake and snakes through five railroad tunnels on its way toward Hoover Dam. After Hoover Dam was completed in 1935, the railroad ceased operation, and in 1962 the tracks were removed. In 1995 the trail was opened for recreation.
Though the trail begins obscurely at Highway 93 and Pacifica Way, the best place to begin your trek is the Alan Bible Visitor Center trailhead at the trail's midpoint. Follow signs to pick up the trail at the edge of the visitor center's lower parking lot, just off Highway 93. If you turn northward, you'll experience a rough desert trail, coursing 3.6 miles through the Hemenway Valley, where jackrabbits bound over washed-out gullies, bighorn sheep graze and the usual desert-dwelling snakes and lizards are at home.
For the easier path, head southeast toward the lake. You'll pass through a high cut in the red, iron-rich, volcanic rock, blasted out in 1930 for trains to pass through, carrying stone to the Hoover Dam site. As the trail curves out toward the edge of Lake Mead, you'll find yourself several hundred feet above the grey-blue water. While the descent isn't a sheer drop, take care as there is no guardrail.
The lake views are spectacular all along the trail. Peaks of ancient volcanic mounds rise above the lake surface of this drowned valley like the humps of an aquatic beast. Far in the distance, the craggy, smoky blue South Virgin Mountains rise into the clouds. "Pioneer trails" from early dam construction parallels the trail intermittently. Just before Tunnel 1, look down the ravine to the right to see concrete plugs taken from Hoover Dam to install turbines.
In addition to the lake, the five tunnels are the trail's featured attraction. Each is 25 feet in diameter to accommodate the large equipment that passed through its walls. You'll come across the first and second tunnels in quick succession, and their dark interiors provide a cool respite from the desert sun. The Lake Mead National Recreation Area discourages hikers on any of its trails in the summer months, but fall and winter are prime touring seasons.
As you pass through Tunnel 2, notice that the ceiling and sidewalls have been reinforced. This work was done after the tunnel was burned by arson in 1990. Wildfire gives rise to much of the plant life along the trail; creosote and mesquite bushes, which are fire resistant, are scattered in green and brown bundles along the trail and on the surrounding hillsides.
In this unforgiving terrain, it's quite a marvel to imagine the sheer magnitude of force needed to blast the path. In Tunnel 3 the arches were shored up to support the massive weight from above. Fault lines are visible in the rippled texture of the sienna hillsides all along the trail, and particularly in the rock face about 20 feet before Tunnel 4.
Passing through Tunnel 5, burned in an arson fire in 1978 and only reopened in 2001, you come to the trail's end at the nearly three-mile mark, with high rock walls on either side and a chainlink fence blocking further passage. Though the trail stops just short of the dam, the plan is to complete its final mile in the next year. For now, you can only to turn around and head back the way you came—along a pathway rich with engineering history and stunning lake and mountain views.