Trail of the Month: March 2012
Nevada's Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail
Looking for a safe bet in Las Vegas? You won't find it at the gaming tables or the slot machines in casinos along the Strip. But if you head just 30 miles southeast of the city toward Hoover Dam, you'll find a sure winner in the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail (sometimes referred to as the Historic Railroad Hiking Trail).
This seven-mile trail hits the jackpot on several counts. One, as the name suggests, is the history: Built over one of the rail lines that serviced Hoover Dam, this corridor played a role in one of America's most famous construction projects. Two is the scenery: The trail offers breathtaking views not only of Lake Mead—the huge body of water created by the dam—but also the harshly beautiful desert around the lake. Three is the natural life: It's not unusual to encounter desert bighorn sheep scaling the rugged hills, bats clinging to tunnel walls, and lizards slithering or scampering across the path.
"Having Hoover Dam as a destination is a marvelous pot of gold at the end of the trail," says Jim Holland, a park planner at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service that manages most of the trail. "But it's the combination of the spectacular outdoor setting, Hoover Dam and the fact that the trail is not too long that makes it one of the most popular trails in southern Nevada."
Holland's connection to this trail stretches back before his birth. His grandfather moved to the area in 1930 to help build the dam; he was one of thousands of unemployed men who were lured to Nevada by the prospect of steady wages in the midst of the Depression. Settling first in "Ragtown," a makeshift workers' camp on the banks of the Colorado River, Holland's grandfather helped construct what was then the tallest dam in the world. The elder Holland stayed on and put down roots in Boulder City, a company town for workers about eight miles from the dam, and where Jim Holland grew up.
The rail line's history also goes back to the early 1930s, when the government and its contractors were beginning to work on the dam. They needed a way to transport construction materials from Boulder City down to the dam site on the Colorado River, so they laid tracks across the desert and blasted cuts and tunnels through the red volcanic ridges above the river. The five tunnels on the trail are each 25 feet wide and about 30 feet high, large enough to accommodate the huge sections of pipe, generators and other materials that were carried down to the dam. (Years later, Holland recalls, the tunnels were designated as fallout shelters for Boulder City because they were so big.)
After the dam was completed in 1936, the rail line saw only intermittent use, and the last train trip was in 1961, to transport a new generator to the dam's hydropower station. (The electricity generated here is still a major source of energy for Los Angeles and other parts of southern California.) The tracks and ties were removed in 1962, and the grade was largely neglected for the next three decades. In the early 1990s, the superintendent of Lake Mead recreation area assigned Holland the task of creating a recreational trail on the unused railroad line. With the help of grants from the federal Transportation Enhancements program, work to stabilize the tunnels and smooth the grade got under way, and the first section of trail opened in 1995.
In the following years, the trail was gradually extended to the parking lot adjacent to Hoover Dam, and joined on its other end (toward Boulder City) with about 3.5 miles of the River Mountains Loop Trail. The park service has installed several trailside informational kiosks, and plans are in the works to add more, so that trail users can learn additional history of the dam.
Not surprisingly, the dam is the big draw here. More than a million people visit each year to marvel at its huge size—the 726-foot-tall structure is still the highest solid concrete dam in the Western Hemisphere—and listen to stories about how it was built. The vast majority of these visitors drive on a nearby highway, so the rail-trail offers a more peaceful entrée to this engineering marvel. (Hoover Dam and a zone immediately around it are managed by a separate federal agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the portion of trail on these lands is only open from dawn to dusk as part of security measures to protect the dam.)
But the trail has many other pay-offs besides a 6.6-million-ton monolith. "It's pretty awesome," says John Holman, chair of the River Mountains Trail Partnership, a local coalition that helps build and support trails in the area. "Where else can you hike through five 300- to 400-foot-long railroad tunnels and have the views you've got? This whole trail was carved out of the edge of a mountain overlooking Lake Mead. You have all kinds of different colors and shading and variations in the light. In spring, you've got wildflowers along it. Tunnel five has a bat colony. You can also see bighorn sheep on the trail. So it's extremely unique."
Both Holman and Holland emphasize that the best seasons to visit are spring and fall, when temperatures are mild. If you plan to come in the summer, time your excursion for the early morning; daytime temperatures regularly exceed 105 degrees in this season. And be sure to have plenty of water and sunscreen on hand year-round.
Whatever the timing of your next trip to Vegas, take a gamble on the historic railroad trail. The odds are decidedly in your favor.
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