Built to move large equipment during the construction of the dam, this former rail line offers panoramic views of Lake Mead and snakes through five railroad tunnels on its way toward Hoover Dam.
The best place to begin your hike, is at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area Alan Bible Visitor Center trailhead.
The flat area before the gate is the approximate site of Lawler, the railroad junction where the Six Companies Railroad (built to haul aggregate for the concrete used in the dam, power houses, and ancillary works) met the U.S. Government railroad that ran from Boulder City to the edge of the canyon above the dam. The Lawler junction probably consisted of a short section of double track, three turnouts, and a shed for switch tenders and a telegraph operator.
On the easy wide path you first pass through a high cut in the red, iron-rich volcanic rock. The cut was blasted out in 1930 for trains to pass through, carrying stone to the dam site.
As the trail curves toward the edge of Lake Mead, you’ll find yourself several hundred feet above the grey blue water.
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.
Just before tunnel 1, look down the ravine to the right..
…to see concrete plugs taken from Hoover Dam to install the turbines.
Each of the five tunnels along the trail is 25 feet in diameter to accommodate the large equipment that passed through.
In this unforgiving terrain, it’s impressive to consider the sheer magnitude of force needed to blast the path.
Pioneer trails from early dam construction parallel the trail intermittently.
You 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.
The timbers are in remarkable condition considering that they have been here for some 80 years.
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.
The tunnels were once designated as fallout shelters for Boulder City because they were so big.
A few years ago while on a 4-day Lake Mead houseboat trip, I came across an article talking about this hike. It was a little too hot to hike it back then but I always knew I would make a return trip in order to check it out.
Power generated from nearby Hoover Dam is pushed out to Las Vegas and beyond.
I was kind of bummed I didn’t see any Big Horn Sheep like I did on the houseboat trip we took a few years ago.
Tunnel 5 supposedly has a bat colony living in it, but I didn’t see any while passing through.
I also didn’t see a single person until after I went back through all the tunnels on the way back to my car.
The 5th tunnel is longer than the others and has a sharp bend in the middle that prevents hikers from seeing the other end, making this tunnel much darker than the others. This tunnel burned in 1978 and only reopened in 2001. The trail continues all the way to Hoover Dam if you follow it past the fence at the end of tunnel 5.
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 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 worked on 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.
Thankfully it wasn’t too hot but after rushing back through all the tunnels in order to make it to my 9:15am Hoover Dam tour, I was drenched in sweat and wishing I would’ve worn shorts.
Length: 3.7 miles from trailhead to Hoover Dam Parking Garage. If you’re ever in Vegas or Hoover Dam in the fall, winter or early spring, the Historic Railroad Trail is a must.