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Boating Lake Mead and the Mighty Hoover Dam

By: Richard Crowder

The reaction when encountering Lake Mead for the first time, whether in a picture or in real life, is often one of shock. Shock, perhaps, at the expanse of crystal clear deep blue pristine water, but mostly at the surrounding landscape; the unusual reddish colour tones, the naked barrenness, the ruggedness, the cliffs, the rocky outcroppings, and the ledges appear almost extraterrestrial. And then there is that “bathtub ring,” that ring of bleached white rock extending above the water level up to the old high water mark. It takes a bit of time to take it all in and to wrap your head around this unique boating haven.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, part of the US National Park Service, is America’s first and largest national recreation area. The completion of the Hoover Dam in 1935 (originally named the Boulder Dam) and subsequent flooding of the Colorado River which forms the border between Nevada and Arizona, created the largest reservoir in terms of water volume in the US – Lake Mead.

When viewed from high above, Lake Mead appears essentially as a three pointed star with Virgin Basin at the hub of the star, Overton Arm pointing northerly, Boulder Basin to the southwest, and Temple Basin to the southeast curving upward at the end like a fishhook into Gregg Basin. Each arm/basin is roughly 30 to 40 miles long.

At the base of Boulder Basin to the southwest is Hoover Dam and close by, Boulder City, Nevada, the original townsite built to house, feed, and entertain some 5,000 workers needed to build the dam. Boulder City, now with a population of about 15,000 is roughly 25 miles southeast of Las Vegas and a half day’s drive to Los Angeles to the southwest and to Phoenix to the southeast.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area extends some seventy-five miles south from below Hoover Dam following the Colorado River to Bullhead City, AZ with its Davis Dam creating the extensive Lake Mohave and its boating amenities along the way. To the east it joins the immense protected area of Grand Canyon National Monument and Park. Lake Mead provides fresh water for the states of Nevada, Arizona, and California as well as to parts of Mexico.

Since it is within a National Recreation Area, boating on Lake Mead is not like boating anywhere else. It is rugged and stunningly natural with untouched surrounding rocky landscapes of ledges, mountains, and mesas. “Food, lodging, tours, marinas and many other recreational activities and amenities at Lake Mead National Recreation Area are managed by private businesses under long-term concessions contracts with the National Park Service." If you bring your own boat, several excellent launch ramps are available.

There are four marinas operating as concessions on Lake Mead; Las Vegas Boat Harbor Marina and Lake Mead Marina in Hemenway Harbor in Boulder Basin, Callville Bay Resort also in Boulder Basin but nearer to Boulder Canyon, now referred to as the Narrows leading into Virgin Basin at the middle of the three arms, and Temple Bar Marina located in Temple Basin in the southeast arm. All of these marinas are accessible by road and offer full service transient slips, launch ramps, all manner of boat rentals including houseboats up to even seventy-five feet, restaurants, accessories, and fuel.

Dramatic changes in water levels in Lake Mead over the years, at times on an annual basis caused by drought and occasionally by above normal spring runoff, have caused a few marina associated facilities to shut down and others to be relocated. These annual ups and downs in water levels eventually resulted in 2010 recording the lowest level on record followed by a gain of thirty-seven feet in just one season! From high water in 2000, annual droughts have caused the average water level in Lake Mead to drop by more than one hundred feet.

In 2008, in one of the biggest marina relocations, the 470 slip Lake Mead Marina was floated two miles south with its restaurant, stores, shops and boats still tied up in their slips. It left its Boulder Harbor location to join up with Las Vegas Marina in Hemenway Harbor, creating a 1400 slip facility.

In another example, Echo Bay Marina in Overton Arm was relocated on 2011 back to higher ground where it had been located four years previously. In a bizarre example, in 2007 Overton Beach Marina in the northern arm was floated south into Virgin Basin where it was split up with some slips headed southeast to Temple Bar Marina in Temple Basin and a larger section moved southwest through The Narrows into Boulder Basin to join Callville Bay Resort, a total distance of around forty miles.

So given all that, it is imperative you have a current chart on hand and a GPS navigation screen to check where the current water level is with respect to Datum, the reference water level used when creating the chart. If the current water level is five feet above Datum, then you can add five feet to any water depth shown on the chart, but if the current water level is five feet below Datum then you must subtract five feet from any water depth shown. NOAA chart 18687 is the appropriate chart.

This chart also indicates the incredible boating opportunities that await on Lake Mead. As you can imagine, it is generally a very deep lake but its many islands and coves, rugged shoreline, rocky cliffs, and sandy beaches offer endless exploration and idyllic cruising or watersports enjoyment. The chart even indicates favourite anchorages and swimming beaches. Some of the islands come and go depending on water level. Although you may not expect it because it is part of the US National Park Service, all forms of watersports are encouraged.

Fishing is encouraged and in fact “Lake Mead has become famous for its striped bass with an occasional catch weighing in at over 40 pounds. Popular fish include rainbow trout, catfish, sunfish, largemouth bass, striped bass, smallmouth bass and crappie. Rainbow trout are routinely released near Willow Beach on Fridays."

Lake Mead coastline and marina
Lake Mead offers incredible views along rugged coastlines

If you are in the area and short of time you can still enjoy the lake by taking one of the many cruises or dinner cruises. If you happen to be in Overton Arm, think about the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that crashed there in 1948 while said to be testing a prototype missile guidance system. The wreckage was found on the bottom by a dive team in 2001.

If you are just out for a drive, make a point to drive across the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, completed in 2010. It is over 1900 feet long and soars nearly 900 feet above the Colorado River just below Hoover Dam. It is the longest single-span concrete arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. It replaces the very congested two-lane drive across the top of the Hoover Dam that I have driven on and provides a much better viewing platform of the immensity of the dam, the river, the gorge, and of course beautiful and memorable Lake Mead.

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