The Ultimate Guide to Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead National Recreation Area offers a wealth of things to do and places to go year-round. Its huge lakes cater to boaters, swimmers, sunbathers, and fishermen while its desert rewards hikers, wildlife photographers, and roadside sightseers.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is a National Park Service (NPS) site with 1.5 million acres of mesmerizing landscapes, canyons, valleys, and two vast lakes of vibrant blue waters. This park is a playground for adventurers who love hiking, watersports, fishing, boating, scuba diving, and more.

This national recreation area offers a chance to see the Hoover Dam, enjoy the waters of Lake Mohave and Lake Mead, and retreat into nature in one of the park’s 9 designated wilderness areas.

Where Is Lake Mead National Recreation Area?

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is located in southeastern Nevada and northwestern Arizona. The closest major city to this park is Las Vegas, 26 miles away. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead National Recreation Area opening hours and seasons

This national recreation area is open year-round, 24 hours a day. The visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This facility is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. 

Driving to Lake Mead National Recreation Area

There are nine access points to this national recreation area so the route you choose will depend on the area from which you are coming and the entrance you want to utilize for your arrival. The best and most popular entrance is the one that takes you to the visitor center. U.S. Highway 93 is the main road used by those driving to the park. 

Getting around Lake Mead National Recreation Area

The best way to get around this park is by private vehicle. This vast recreation area has so many sites and attractions to explore; the best way to do this is by driving to the different areas and exploring on foot.

Of course, another good way to explore the park on the water is by boating or paddling on the bright blue waters of Lake Mohave and Lake Mead. The National Park Service offers printable and interactive maps to help you plan your itinerary. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to see and do in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

This national recreation area covers 1.5 million acres of canyons, lakes, valleys, and mountains. There is no shortage of adventure at this park. Check out some of the most popular activities and sights at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. 

Boating

Over 290 square miles of waterways are within the boundaries of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Lake Mead and Lake Mohave provide some of the best boating opportunities for those who love to explore the park on the water. Whether you want to speed through the open water or float in a private cove, there are many fun and relaxation opportunities here. 

Boat rentals are available at the marinas on Lake Mead and Lake Mohave. Many types of boats are available to rent, including sports boats, fishing boats, paddle boats, pontoons, and houseboats. These locations also rent out water skis and wakeboards for even more adventures. 

Tip: Be sure to read the park’s boating rules and regulations to ensure you have a fun, safe time.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canoeing and kayaking

Thanks to all the water within the park’s boundaries, canoeing and kayaking are popular activities at this national recreation area. The views from the calm lake waters and majestic mountains surrounding them are breathtaking.

The Black Canyon Water Trail and Mohave Water Trail are the most popular trails for paddling but there are also many hidden coves throughout the park just waiting to be discovered.

Guided tours

A variety of guided tours are offered at this national recreation area. The park’s visitor center is a wonderful place to learn about the various tour options.

Some of the guided tour options include cruises, ranger-led hikes, and hunting and fishing adventures. The most popular tours include the Cruise to the Hoover Dam and the Float Down the Colorado River. There are also self-guided options should you choose to explore on your own. Taking advantage of the many tour options is a fantastic way to learn about and explore this impressive area. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking

Although most visitors are attracted to Lake Mead National Recreation Area because of lakes Mead and Mohave more than 87 percent of the park protects a vast area of the eastern Mojave Desert. Perhaps the best way to explore this diverse ecosystem is on foot, traveling across open expanses of rock formations that contain all the colors of the rainbow.

Which trail is right for you? There are a variety of hikes that vary in difficulty and length. These trails are in the Lake Mead and Lake Mojave areas. The hiking trails show off the park’s diverse ecosystems and take hikers past incredible rainbow-colored rock formations, canons, and washes.

Some of the favorite trails include the Historic Railroad Trail, River Mountains Loop, and Owl Canyon. The best time to hike here is from October to April. The temperatures are cooler during these months and the journey is much more enjoyable. Visitors are not recommended to hike during the summer months as the temperatures are dangerously high. 

Scenic drives

There are two main scenic drives in Lake Mead National Recreation Area: Lakeshore Road and Northshore Road. These drives travel through the mountains, canyons, and desert basins. Driving these roads offers visitors excellent opportunities to enjoy the views and capture photos of the bright blue waters and colorful mountains.

Visitors also enjoy stopping for picnics while driving along these roads. Cyclists, pedestrians, and wildlife use these scenic roads, so stay alert and mindful of those sharing the road with you. 

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Visitor center

The Lake Mead Visitor Center is an excellent place to visit before starting your park adventures. This facility is just a few miles north of the Hoover Dam and has so much to offer park visitors. 

Park rangers are stationed at the visitor center to help you plan a fantastic adventure or answer any questions. You can obtain park maps brochures, get a national park passport stamp, or turn in a Junior Ranger booklet to earn your Junior Ranger Badge.

There is also a store inside this facility that is run by the Western National Parks Association. This store offers guests a chance to buy books about the park, Native American arts, crafts, jewelry, posters, clothing, and postcards.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best times to visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area

You’re guaranteed an unforgettable trip any time you’re able to visit this national recreation area. There are better times than others to plan a trip here especially if you hope to participate in particular activities. Take a look at the best times to visit this park.

Best time to visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area for summer fun

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is an exciting place for summer fun. The best time to visit during the summer months is in June. The high temperatures typically reach the upper 90s and the lows dip down to the low 70s. There is an average of 0 days of precipitation during the time making the summer adventure opportunities never-ending.

Best time to visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area to avoid the crowds

The best way to explore a new place is without having to worry about crowds and traffic. If you want to experience this national recreation area without crowds, plan to come in November. This time of year is the least busy making it a perfect time to enjoy the park at your own pace. 

Best time to visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area for ideal weather

Weather can make or break a trip, so planning around typical weather patterns is a great idea. If you want to experience this park when the weather is ideal, plan to come in April. The daily lows are in the mid-50s and the highs are in the upper 70s. It typically only rains an average of 1 day in April but it’s wise to come prepared for rain just in case.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual events in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

This national recreation area hosts several events on a regular basis throughout the year. Some of the regularly scheduled events include star parties, guided hikes through the wetlands, and hikes to Majestic Canyon. There are also some annual events.

National Public Lands Day Litter Cleanup

Each September, Lake Mead National Recreation Area participates in the National Public Lands Day Litter Cleanup. This free event is an excellent way for visitors to positively impact the park and help remove litter from the beaches and other areas. A benefit to visiting on this day is that participants will receive a voucher to visit a federal public land at no charge. 

Rage Triathlon

Each year in April, the Rage Triathlon takes place at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. This race has taken place since 2001 and offers a fantastic way to experience this park. It winds through beach campgrounds and along river and mountain trails. The Rage Triathlon is considered one of the region’s most scenic desert landscape triathlons.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead National Recreation Area has an abundance of options for those who want to stay within the park’s boundaries or in a nearby town. Check out some of the best places to stay both in and near this recreation area. 

Inside the park

There are many options for accommodations within this national recreation area. From campgrounds to resorts and lodges, the options are many. Check out some of the different places to stay within this park.

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Campgrounds

Spend your next camping adventure on the lake. With over 900 camping and RV sites at 15 different locations, there is a variety of desert and lakeside landscapes sure to please everyone. Lake Mead National Recreation Area’s campgrounds offer restrooms, running water, dump stations, grills, picnic tables and shade. RVs and tents are welcome.

Most of the campgrounds can be reserved but there are a few that are only available on a first-come, first-served basis. Some of the campgrounds are operated by the National Park Service such as Boulder Beach, Callville Bay, Cottonwood Cove, Echo Bay, Las Vegas Bay, and Temple Bar.

Concessioner campgrounds including recreational vehicle hook-ups are also available within the park. These campgrounds include Katherin Landing and Willow Beach.

Bottom line:

If you prefer to set up camp and sleep under the stars, you will find so many options at Lake Mead that you may have difficulty narrowing down where to pitch your tent.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Cove Resort and Marina

Cottonwood Cove Resort and Marina is a beautiful option for those wanting to stay within the park’s boundaries. This Spanish-style resort is right off the shores of Lake Mohave and offers red-roofed motel rooms and lots of amenities for a comfortable stay. 

This lodging option features covered outdoor patios with tables and chairs for lounging and taking in breathtaking sunsets and lakefront views. There are also outdoor barbecues for those who prefer to cook outdoors. 

Another unique choice for visitors who want to get off the grid is renting a houseboat during your stay. This is a great way to experience the lake and take a break from the duties of home.

Lake Mohave Resort at Katherine Landing

Several types of accommodations are available at Lake Mohave Resort at Katherine Landing. Visitors can choose from mid-century-style rooms, a full hook-up RV or tent site, and even private homes. This resort has gorgeous views of the desert scenery and Lake Mohave.

The lodge offers standard double or standard king rooms. These rooms feature a private bathroom, air conditioning, coffee makers, and satellite televisions to make you feel at home. There is also a spectacular restaurant on-site to take care of any cravings you may have during your stay. 

Visitors who stay here can enjoy world-class boating, water skiing, scuba diving, wakeboarding, and fishing for largemouth, smallmouth, and striper bass. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Temple Bar Marina Resort

Temple Bar Marina Resort is located on Lake Mead on the Arizona side of the park. This resort offers lake view lodging, an RV park, access to hundreds of beaches and coves, an on-site store, gift shop, café, bar, and launch ramp. This is an incredible option for a home base when visiting this national recreation area. 

Temple Bar has standard motel rooms and cabins for those who want a more traditional type of stay. Visitors can choose from standard rooms with lake views or desert views, fishing cabins, or suites with kitchen access. Whatever type of stay you prefer this resort has a perfect solution for your travel needs. 

Towns near Lake Mead National Recreation Area

There are several towns near this recreation area for those who prefer to set up a base camp outside the park’s boundaries. Whether you seek a quiet, small town or a lively, larger city, there’s a perfect place for you in these towns.

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Boulder City, Nevada

Boulder City is a charming small town with a rich historical heritage, only 6 miles from the park. For those wanting to stay near the recreation area, this town has a variety of options for dining, lodging, and entertainment.

This city has a variety of accommodations including RV resorts, contemporary hotels, and budget-friendly motels. Whether you’re looking for a unique stay in a themed motel, a luxury stay in a hotel, or a relaxing visit to a resort, there are plenty of options in this city. 

Food enthusiasts are in for a treat in this city. A variety of restaurants, including cafes, sushi bars, diners, and Mexican taquerias are scattered throughout this town.

For recreation, there are incredible opportunities available in this town. From kayaking to golfing, visiting museums, and exploring several types of parks, there’s no shortage of fun here. You are also in the perfect location for exploring famous landmarks like the Hoover Dam. 

Boulder City is an ideal home away from home for those visiting Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Its proximity to the park and its incredible opportunities for food, fun, and lodging make the choice of where to settle an easy one. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Henderson, Nevada

Henderson is located approximately 19 miles from the national recreation area. This city is a great place to make a home base during a visit to this park. It has perfect options for those traveling with family, friends, or solo. 

The accommodations in this town range from luxury hotels to smaller, more affordable motels to 5-star luxury resorts. Whatever budget or type of stay you have in mind, you can find a perfect option for your vacation needs here. 

This city has fantastic restaurants including pizza parlors, formal dining rooms, authentic cultural cuisine, diners, and cafes. This city has something to offer every palate. 

If you’re looking for fun, this is the right place. Henderson has countless opportunities for outdoor recreation including hiking, playgrounds, splash pads, skate parks, and bicycle trails.

Where to eat in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

There are eight different restaurants within the boundaries of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. These restaurants serve a variety of cuisines and are located in or near the marinas. Here are two popular choices.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Harbor House Café and Lounge

The Harbor House Café and Lounge is a floating restaurant and bar right on Lake Mead. This dining option serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks daily. 

The menu seems endless at this restaurant. From freshly tossed salads to stacked sandwiches, breakfast specialties, and fish and chips, there’s something for every palate here. Some of the most popular menu items include the classic club sandwich, buffalo chicken wrap, and the Harbor Burger.

Be sure to stop by this café and lounge when visiting Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Not only will you enjoy a fantastic meal but you can also take in the gorgeous views of the surrounding slips, lake, and mountains. 

Temple Bar Café

Temple Bar Café is located at the Temple Bar Marina. This restaurant is open Thursday through Sunday and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Breakfast burritos, stacks of fluffy pancakes, signature sandwiches, juicy burgers, and sizzling pizzas are just some of the items on the menu here. Customers rave about patty melt, Rueben sandwiches, homemade biscuits and gravy, and home-cooked weekly specials. 

For a delicious meal in this recreation area, you won’t regret a stop at Temple Bar Café. It’s a great place to rest up and refuel for more adventures in the park.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead National Recreation Area facts

1. Lake Mead National Recreation Area was established in 1964. This was America’s first national recreation area. 

2. Lake Mead National Recreation Area is the third largest NPS area other than the parks in Alaska. This recreation area covers 1.5 million acres. 

3. This area was occupied by desert Indian cultures that existed 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. It’s believed that the ancestral Puebloan people were the first to inhabit this land. These people group hunted game, gathered edible plants in the area, and practiced farming.

4. Lake Mead is a large reservoir on the Colorado River. This lake was formed by Hoover Dam located in Black Canyon. Lake Mead is the largest U.S. reservoir by volume coming in right before Lake Powell. 

5. An abundance of animals call Lake Mead National Recreation Area home thanks to its diverse ecosystems. These animals have special adaptations that help them survive the harsh environment. Some commonly seen animals here include the Desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, desert tortoises, Gila monsters, and 19 species of bats. 

Final thoughts

Whether you seek outdoor adventure or solitude in nature, Lake Mead National Recreational Area is a bucket list location. With so many options to hike, fish, boat, view wildlife, attend a guided program, and tour amazing places, it’s easy to spend several days exploring this beautiful park. Book your trip to Lake Mead today and discover what brings in millions of visitors from around the world each year.

Details

  • Area: 1,495,806 acres
  • Established: October 13, 1936
  • Recreation visits in 2023: 5,798,541
  • Entrance fee: $25 per vehicle, valid for 7 consecutive days

Worth Pondering…

Most travelers hurry too much…the great thing is to try and travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open … with real inward attention. …you can extract the essence of a place once you know how.

―Lawrence Durrell

8 Colossal Facts about Hoover Dam

Constructed nearly 90 years ago the magnificent Hoover Dam still stands strong and serves the Southwest with power production, flood control, and irrigation

The Hoover Dam can be called both a monument and a marvel reaching a staggering 60 stories toward the sky and at one time reigning as the world’s largest dam. This symbol of American engineering ingenuity—initially constructed to control the Colorado River’s floodwaters—attracts more than 7 million visitors each year to the Arizona-Nevada border to catch a glimpse of the dam’s massive curved wall and its waters below. Read on for six facts about the Hoover Dam from its original name to its dramatic World War II history.

Hoover Dam with shadow of Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Flood damage was a major reason for the Hoover Dam’s construction

The Colorado River helped carve out the American West and Southwest flowing for 1,450 miles and providing water to seven states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California, and Nevada. However, thanks to snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains the river was also prone to flooding. One such example of this flooding occurred between 1905 and 1907 when the Colorado River broke through its banks and flooded 100,000 acres of farmland in Southern California.

This was around the same time that the Bureau of Reclamation started planning for a dam in the Boulder Canyon region on the Colorado River. Plans were set in motion but flood control was not the only thing they had to think about. Water supply was another main reason for building the Hoover Dam.

Lastly, the Hoover Dam was built for power. Although this was not as vital as preventing flooding or providing irrigation it is a function of the dam that continues to this day.

Hoover Dam with shadow of Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Building the dam meant first building an entire city

Constructing a large-scale dam meant hiring a massive workforce: By the end of the project, the employee roster swelled to 21,000 people. An average day had 3,500 workers reporting to the construction site though that number rose during busy periods like in June 1934 when as many as 5,218 men reported to the jobsite per day. Bringing in that many workers and their families meant the federal government had to have a plan—which is how the town of Boulder City, Nevada came to exist.

In December 1928, President Calvin Coolidge authorized the creation of Boulder City on federal land specifically to house workers. Construction of the town’s buildings began in 1931. Families were housed in cottages while single men slept in dormitories and meals were provided in a jumbo-sized mess hall that served 6,000 meals per day. Boulder City was also equipped with a state-of-the-art hospital to handle jobsite accidents, a fire department, a train station, and a movie theater.

Hoover Dam with shadow of Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Constructing Hoover Dam required massive amounts of concrete

Building a structure as large as the Hoover Dam requires massive amounts of construction materials. The dam reaches 726 feet tall, a whopping 171 feet taller than the Washington Monument and the dam’s base is as thick as two football fields are long. Reaching those dimensions required engineers and builders to use a substantial amount of concrete—so much that the sheer volume (4.5 million cubic yards) could be used to pave a cross-country road starting in San Francisco and ending in New York City.

Ultimately, the dam had a $49 million price tag—about $882 million today—with an additional $71 million for its power plant and generators. However, the dam’s construction costs were fully repaid with interest by 1987 thanks to the sale of the electrical power it generated and continues to generate.

Hoover Dam with shadow of Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Hoover Dam originally had a different name

Hoover Dam gets its name from President Herbert Hoover though it nearly had a different one thanks to the influence of the Great Depression. Before becoming the 31st President in 1929, Hoover was a successful mining engineer and businessman familiar with the Colorado River; as secretary of commerce he had proposed damming the river to prevent flooding and to provide water for Southern California. Once underway, the dam which was overseen by Hoover during his presidency was called the Boulder Canyon Project. However, in September 1930, Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur announced at a ceremony marking the start of construction that the dam’s name would be changed to honor Hoover’s role in its development.

Construction continued through the Great Depression but Hoover’s presidency did not. President Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the Oval Office and in 1933 his pick for secretary of the interior decided to backtrack on the name due to personal animosity and public anger over Hoover’s handling of the Great Depression, once again calling it the Boulder Dam. Both names were used interchangeably until April 1947 when President Harry S. Truman approved the final name: Hoover Dam.

Hoover Dam with shadow of Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Hoover Dam was heavily guarded during World War II

In the lead-up to World War II, the federal government became increasingly worried that the Hoover Dam would be a target of sabotage from Axis forces knocking out its ability to provide electricity and water. In 1939, public officials discussed shielding the dam by closing its power plant to the public while also heavily restricting and scrutinizing employees who entered.

In November of that year, the State Department received word from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico that German agents had plotted to bomb the dam hoping to knock out its high-voltage power lines and slow aviation manufacturing in nearby Los Angeles. A massive effort to protect the dam was soon underway including the addition of floodlights, installation of nets that could snag approaching boats, and increased patrols on Lake Mead which was closed to the public. However, the government’s move to protect the dam remained classified with public officials claiming rumors of foreign sabotage were “ridiculous” and unfounded. The incident was kept under wraps until 2001 when historians uncovered unsealed documents at the National Archives.

Lake Mead © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Lake Mead is the country’s largest reservoir

Dams rely on reservoirs (man-made lakes) that store water. As Hoover Dam is one of the largest dams in the world it makes sense that its reservoir would be massive and it is; Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. The expansive lake is multipurpose; it provides drinking water for nearly 25 million people and its 550 miles of shoreline have been used by outdoor enthusiasts since it became the country’s first national recreation area managed by the National Park Service in 1964.

Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Hoover Dam can be admired from the bridge

While there are more than enough things to see and enjoy at Hoover Dam, visitors can also marvel at and even walk across the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. As the world’s tallest concrete arch bridge, it is the first concrete-steel arch composite bridge in the United States and towers 880 feet over Hoover Dam.

The 1,905-foot-long man made bridge connects both Nevada and Arizona roadways so it’s fitting that it’s named the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge as it honors a hero from each state. With 30,000 cubic yards of concrete and 16 million pounds of steel, the massive engineered wonder is the widest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Visitors who aren’t afraid of heights can even walk across the bridge for some great photo opportunities of Hoover Dam and Black Canyon below.

Hoover Dam as seen from Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Visitors can tour Hoover Dam

A Hoover Dam tour is a fun and interactive way to see and learn what Hoover Dam is all about. Tours are guided and allow visitors to explore lesser-known parts of the dam and lasts longer than the Powerplant Tour.

The Hoover Dam Tour includes a one-hour guided tour of the powerplant and passageways within the dam itself while the Powerplant Tour is a 30-minute tour of the powerplant only. Both tours include admission to the Visitor Center.

Hoover Dam tours cost $30 per person. Hoover Dam Powerplant Tours cost $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and those ages 4 to 16. Military members pay $12 for admission or free if in uniform. Children under 4 are also admitted for free. Parking costs $10.

If you’re short on time or budget, skip the Hoover Dam tour and walk across the Top of the Dam for free. Visitors will enjoy sweeping vistas of the bridge and surrounding geographic features along with vertigo-inducing views looking straight down the dam.

Worth Pondering…

This is our history—from the Transcontinental Railroad to the Hoover Dam, to the dredging of our ports and building of our most historic bridges—our American ancestors prioritized growth and investment in our nation’s infrastructure.

—Cory Booker