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'Nevada's Garden City''Nevada's Garden City'

Boulder City, NevadaBoulder City, Nevada

Boulder City is your no-hassles gateway to Lake Mead, Hoover Dam, golf, a zip line, nostalgic restaurant, and lower prices than Las Vegas.

  • Boulder City, Nevada, is the closest city to Lake Mead. Far from the crowds, you can rent a boat or personal watercraft to feel the wind in your hair. Lake Mead is so huge, you can feel like it’s yours alone. Photo by Andrew Cattoir, courtesy NPS.
  • Aerial view of Boulder City, its airport, and Lake Mead. Note the golf courses adjacent to the airport, the green city parks, and Hoover Dam on the right. Photo by Doc Searls.
  • I personally find the Grand Canyon, created by nature over an estimated five million years, more magical and impressive than Hoover Dam, created by people over five years, but I must also admit the dam is a testament to human tenacity in the face of a huge challenge. The concrete thick-arch structure is 726.4 feet high, 1,244 feet long and 660 feet thick at the bottom and contains 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete; total concrete in the dam and appurtenant works is 4.4 million cubic yards—enough to pave a two-lane road from New York City to San Francisco. In October of 2010, the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, also known as the Hoover Bypass, was completed to re-route Highway 93 and keep traffic off the dam. O’Callaghan was Nevada’s governor from 1971 to 1979. Tillman was a star football player with the Arizona Cardinals who, after 9/11, left the NFL to volunteer for duty in Afghanistan and was killed there by friendly fire. The bypass was the first concrete-steel composite arch bridge built in the U.S. and contains the widest concrete arch in the Western Hemisphere. After Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge, it is the second-highest bridge in America, crossing 840 feet above the Colorado River. Photo by Alexander Stephens, courtesy Bureau of Reclamation.
  • Rated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of America’s Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders, the dam is open for tours. On the two-hour Power Plant Tour, you get a combination of presentations by guides, audio and film presentations, and exhibits. Wander around and view the penstocks, which can admit nearly 90,000 gallons of water per second from the reservoir to the generators. There’s a theater, observation deck, bronze statues, and intake towers, and you can walk across the top of the dam. In this photo, Hoover Dam water enters Arizona spillway during 1983 floods, when Glen Canyon Dam (just upstream from the Grand Canyon) was nearly catastrophically overtopped. This is a sight that may never be seen again—compare it to the photo at the bottom of the page. Photo courtesy Bureau of Reclamation.
  • Lake Mead’s calm waters are perfect for kayaking. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Wildlife lovers must stop at Hemenway Valley Park, about a mile north of downtown. On hot days, as many as 100 wild desert bighorn sheep can frequent the park. About 30 years ago they started coming down out of the adjacent mountains to hang around the park for its shade and nutritious grass. Photo by Kennejima, courtesy Creative Commons.
  • Fishing is a popular pastime at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Photo by Megan Urban, courtesy NPS.
  • The Hoover Dam Lodge & Casino sits above the reservoir. Dramatic volcanic rock outcroppings block views of the lake on the ground floor, but the hotel tower’s large deluxe rooms have lake and mountain views. Four themed gaming areas let gamblers get their fix without the need to drive to The Strip. There’s also an arcade, pool, workout facility, four restaurants, and general store. The hotel can set up guided kayak tours of the reservoir, Grand Canyon helicopter tours, skydiving or ATV tours, or just point you to the zip line, golf courses, and other activities. Photo courtesy Hoover Dam Lodge & Casino.
  • The 34-mile River Mountains Loop Trail surrounds the River Mountains and connects the LMNRA, Hoover Dam, Henderson, Boulder City, and the rest of Las Vegas Valley. Look for Gambel’s quail, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and roadrunners along the way. Photo by Buck Laird.
  • You can zoom like a bird at up to 60 mph above Bootleg Canyon on the Flightlinez zip line. Four lines cover a mile and a half, water and training provided, 2 to 2-1/2 hours, sunset and full-moon flights available. Photo courtesy Flightlinez.
  • Built in 1933 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Boulder Dam Hotel hosted visiting VIPs, who slept in opulence compared to the spartan dam workers’ quarters. The hotel’s private baths and air conditioning were nearly unprecedented at that time, and it became popular with movie stars whose quickie divorces required Nevada residency. Howard Hughes also recuperated here after crashing his seaplane at Lake Mead. The hotel’s 21 rooms are a bit small by today’s standards, but they’ve been well maintained, and the Wi-Fi is the best in town. Seven unique, locally owned restaurants are all within a block of the hotel. Your stay includes a free pass to the museum as well as a cooked-to-order American-style breakfast in the onsite restaurant. Photo courtesy Boulder Dam Hotel.
  • The Boulder Dam Hotel houses the interesting Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum, a compact but well-curated museum that chronicles the staggering construction feat within the context of the Great Depression, which drove workers and their families into the harsh desert in search of a living. As to the politically motivated back-and-forth name changes (Hoover Dam or Boulder Dam), an anonymous citizen suggested another name: Whogivza Dam. Photo courtesy Boulder Dam Museum.
  • Milo’s Inn at Boulder is a Tuscan-inspired B&B with four rooms, right downtown. Each room has a fireplace, custom oversized queen bed, fine linens, Keurig coffee maker, and flat-screen TV; three also have large whirlpool tubs. Enjoy a complimentary glass of house-made sangria in the private outdoor garden where you’ll find a patio, fire pit, and water cascading from the awning into a koi pond. Two complimentary cruiser bikes are available. A full gourmet breakfast is cooked and served each morning in the courtyard. Onsite Milo’s Bistro & Cellar offers indoor and al fresco dining along with an outstanding selection of wine and beer. Smoked salmon carpaccio, ahi tuna tartare, wraps, salads, and especially the lobster roll are popular. Photo courtesy Milo’s.
  • The World Famous Coffee Cup Café is where locals head for breakfast every chance they get (weekends can be crowded), so it’s a good place to strike up conversations if you’re so inclined. Sit out front on a nice day and you can do a bit of people-watching. On the wall is a large signed photo of Guy Fieri, the Food Network star, who brought his 'Diners, Drive-ins and Dives' show here in 2008. Photo courtesy Coffee Cup Café.
  • The famous Pork Chili Verde Omelette, full of big chunks of pork, a perfect roasted green chilé sauce, and sinfully gooey cheddar cheese, all served with hash browns or a short stack of pancakes. Don’t like eggs? Order it on hash browns instead. If you’re craving sweet, go for the waffle and add chocolate chips, pecans, cinnamon, coconut, even peanut butter and bacon. Have your eggs like Sinatra (“My Way”) and add ham, steak, corned beef, bacon, sausage, or a burger patty. It’s not all sinful; dieters can order egg whites, toast, and grilled chicken breast. If you’re done flying, try the Famous Bloody Mary, garnished with a thick 2-by-4 slab of bacon. Terry says, “One day a girl came in really hungry. So, we shoved some bacon in her drink. And it stuck.” Photo courtesy Coffee Cup Café.

In 1997, when we bought a Cessna 210 and based it at Santa Monica, California, we thought nothing of hopping over to Las Vegas: about $35 in fuel, land at Mc Carran and park free, take the fixed-base operation’s free shuttle to town, free shuttle back, and home in an hour. Ah, those were the days. Now, tell approach you’re landing at Mc Carran and you’ll likely be parked in a long hold. On the ground, fuel costs over $8 a gallon, the ramp fee is around $50, buffets are $40-plus, and the rooms go for 10 times what we paid in the 1990s.

But there’s another destination that’s a throwback to old times. The airport has the valley’s lowest fuel prices, and it’s the closest to Lake Mead and Hoover Dam. A nearby diner dishes up an omelet so good this may become your new favorite “$100 hamburger” stop. The airport is Boulder City, the diner is the World Famous Coffee Cup Café, and the town is a nostalgia lover’s delight.

One of two large Art-Deco-era sculptures by Oscar J.W. Hansen titled “Winged Figures of the Republic” that can be seen at Hoover Dam. Photo by Andrew Pernick, courtesy Bureau of Reclamation.

Boulder City owes its existence to Hoover Dam, eight miles up the road. Originally known unofficially as Boulder Dam, the concrete-arch gravity dam was authorized by Congress in 1928 to control flooding and provide irrigation water and electricity. At the time, Las Vegas was controlled by mobsters, and the government did not want the dam’s workers or headquarters there. To house the workers and their families, a “model city” was carefully planned under government supervision to be a “clean living” environment. Gambling and alcohol were banned. Generous use of landscaping and parks, in keeping with Reclamation’s goal of “greening the West,” earned it the nickname “Nevada’s Garden City.”

Nowadays, Boulder City is one of only two Nevada cities that still prohibit gambling, though alcohol was allowed beginning in 1969. Kids play in grassy parks, and trees shade rows of neatly kept historic homes. Sometimes as many as 100 wild bighorn sheep show up in Hemenway Valley Park. Antique shops cluster near the town’s center, while its outskirts host a railroad museum that offers scenic desert rides on a vintage train. Special events include art festivals, car shows, barbecues, beerfests, wine walks, and more.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area (LMNRA) offers water sports galore, or, tour the dam to see how Vegas powers all that neon. For the absolute best views of Hoover Dam and the Colorado River, take a river raft float below the dam.

Oh, and did we mention the golf courses right next to the airport and champagne dinner cruises? Who needs fake Roman palaces and Venetian lagoons? But if you still want to go to Las Vegas, you can escape the airport hassles by landing in Boulder City and making the 34-minute drive.

On your tour of Hoover Dam, you’ll see the 17 generators whirling away to power hair dryers and all the other electric conveniences we’ve become used to; check out the intricate terrazzo floors as well. The massive rotating inertia of these generators provides an unusually high ability to sustain system integrity during moderate to severe system disturbances. Photo courtesy Bureau of Reclamation.

There are two local spots you can gamble, both technically outside the city limits. The Hoover Dam Lodge Hotel and Casino sits on private property within the LMNRA. On the other end of town, the Railroad Pass Hotel and Casino lies within the Henderson city limits. The Railroad Casino is adjacent to trailheads for the paved, 34-mile River Mountains Loop Trail that surrounds the River Mountains and connects the LMNRA, Hoover Dam, Henderson, Boulder City, and the rest of Las Vegas Valley and is perfect for bicycling. Look for Gambel’s quail, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and roadrunners along the way. Rent bikes at All Mountain Cyclery, where you can also get trail info, shuttles, and advice. In Bootleg Canyon, home to another hiking trail, you can also zoom like a bird over the canyon at up to 60 mph on the Flightlinez zip line.

Back in town, the Boulder Dam Hotel houses the interesting Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum. Milo’s Inn at Boulder is a Tuscan-inspired bed-and-breakfast. At The Dillinger restaurant, two shotguns fashioned into door handles set the theme. An ever-changing array of craft beers go down just right with the restaurant’s signature burgers named for thugs such as Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson, and Bugsy Siegel. The Yakuza comes with Asian slaw and a sauce “so secret we’re not even sure what it is.” But no mention of Boulder City is complete without the World Famous Coffee Cup Café, a true original, with an omelet to die for—Guy Fieri proclaimed the Pork Chili Verde Omelet “the bomb,” and I agree. Come on down and try it yourself!

This panoramic view of Hoover Dam from the Arizona side shows the penstock towers, the Nevada-side spillway entrance and the Mike O'Callaghan—Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. Note the “bathtub ring” due to low water levels, now lower than when this photo was taken in 2011. Ongoing drought and climate change will likely further reduce reservoir levels, already below 40 percent capacity. Photo by Crista Worthy.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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