Thursday, July 05, 2012

Family Vacation Series: Hoover Dam

By Kelly Vincent, Dixie Dollar Deals

This month my husband and I celebrated our ten year wedding anniversary.  For months I kept watching for great travel deals and dropping hints about great anniversary getaways, to which my husband was pretty ho-hum about.  Then two days before our anniversary, he said, “What do you want to do for our anniversary?”  After I gave him a guilt trip for waiting so long to ask me this, we decided that because we would have to unload our young, high energy children on relatives, a quick overnight trip would be best.  So, we opted for a last minute getaway.

View of the newly completed bridge from Hoover Da
Our anniversary getaway took us to Las Vegas to see Hoover Dam, something we had talked about doing over the last few months.  Sounds romantic, right?!  We drove south late in the afternoon on a Friday, and arrived just in time to get a table at Cheesecake Factory in Henderson before the dinner rush began.   For some reason, it is tradition for us to eat at Cheesecake Factory every time we go to Vegas.  After stuffing ourselves and getting our cheesecakes to go (mine: Reese’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake Cheesecake, his: Chocolate Coconut Crème Cheesecake), we checked in at Sunset Station casino.  We planned on taking advantage of our date night without kids by catching a movie at the theater located in the casino, but after realizing that we were still on Utah time and probably couldn’t stay awake, we skipped it.

The next morning, we checked out, grabbed some breakfast to go and drove the short 11 miles from Henderson, Nevada to Boulder City, Nevada.  From there it was a quick 5 minute drive to the dam.  After passing a security checkpoint, we got a view of the amazing new Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.  It was truly awe inspiring, and terrifyingly high.  Next we parked in a parking garage and descended down into a recently constructed building for dam tours.   Passing through metal detectors, we walked right up to the ticket booth and purchased the full one hour dam tour for $30 each (a shortened 30 minute Powerplant tour is also available for $11).   Next we were herded into a line for a photo in front of a green screen for a souvenir photo, then into a small movie theater room to watch a 10 minute view on the construction of the dam.  Watching the video, the history nerd inside of me began to grow excited at the history I would soon experience in person.  Because we purchased the full tour instead of the shortened tour, we had about 20 minutes before our tour group started.  We wandered around the exhibits detailing the history of the dam, and looked at the viewpoints of the dam and bridge from the Nevada side of the dam.

The mighty Colorado flows beneath our feet
Finally our tour started.  Our group of 20 tourists and tour guide piled inside an elevator where we were lowered several hundred feet in 70 seconds.  Our tour group consisted only of Americans, in contrast to the large group of Japanese tourists we witnessed going on the tour before ours.  When we exited, we walked down a tunnel carved out of bedrock to stand in a small room hovering over a large pipe.  We could feel vibrations below and realized that it was rushing water.  The tour guide explained we were standing in one of the diversion tunnels within the bedroom that funneled the water around the dam site during construction.  Now the water flows through the tunnel into the power plant.  From above the dam, you could not imagine the amount of water that was rushing from Lake Mead through the power plant to once again become the Colorado River.

Turbines turn water into electricity inside the power plant
Into another elevator, and lowered once again, we emerged into a large room that was the dam’s power plant.  From the overlook we could view all the turbines, large cranes and machinery used to turn water into power.  The tour guide explained how this was accomplished, but it went all over my tiny brain to comprehend.  Directly behind us was a large wall of concrete which we learned was the actual dam.  
Entering the dam from the power plant
After hearing a short presentation about the power plant, we were led away by our tour guide from the large tour group inside the actual dam for the rest of our personal tour.  We went down a long, tiled hallway that reminded me of European subway stations.  
Looking out the vent from inside the dam
Another elevator ride, this time ascending, delivered us to a small tunnel which led to a vent in the dam.  The tour guide told us to waive our hands out of the vent to the “cheap people” above.  Being at that vent reminded me a lot of that scene in The Fugitive where Harrison Ford swan dives from the dam to the water below.  Luckily the vent was sealed off rather well and prevented any of us from plunging to an untimely death.    
Steep, curving staircase
The guide led us down a tunnel and pointed out original graffiti from the construction workers.  We then came to a steep 60% grade stairwell that runs the length of the dam from top to bottom, curving the same curve of the dam.  The stairwell, we are told, was for the purpose of emergencies for evacuation.  Another purpose was to drain water seepage collected into pipes from within the dam.  We were told that although the dam is completely safe, and the concrete is still curing each day getting stronger and stronger, water still finds a way inside.   
Dam interior tunnel
Going back the way we came in, we passed a small box on the concrete floor that notified us that it was a seismic sensor (with a warning not to “kick“ the box).  I noticed that a small tube ran from this box along the ceiling throughout the length of the tunnel, monitoring any sign of seismic activity.  The tour guide stated the dam is strong enough to handle a 8.6 magnitude quake directly and withstand the impact.  
Water intake towers
Our last elevator ride brought us to the street level of the dam with the heat of the desert already sweltering.  Outside the elevator were the original ticket booths for dam tours, now just relics from previous decades.  We took a few pictures from the top of the dam, crossed the street to gaze at the fish in Lake Mead far below (drought over the last few years has left the lake level very low), and went into another building that housed a large model of the path of the Colorado River and the communities served from Hoover Dam in the Lower Colorado River District.  After a quick stop inside the kitschy souvenir shop to get a postcard and memento for our children, we opted to pass the overpriced food café to find a more reasonably priced lunch in Henderson.
Happy we survived!
Best dam anniversary getaway ever!

I left Hoover Dam with a new respect for the engineering and ingenuity that was required to build such a structure.  I was impressed with our tour guide and his deep understanding of how the dam functions.  I could also sense how much he truly loved taking people through the dam and pointing out all the intricacies.  I couldn’t wait to bring our children back one day, knowing they would be just as awed as I was.  Although I wouldn’t recommend taking young children on a dam tour, for older children it would an appropriate family activity.  It was a fun experience, relatively inexpensive, great for those short on time (tour and sightseeing can be completed within two hours) and definitely worth checking off a bucket list of things to see in the American West.

Kelly lives in St. George, Utah and writes Dixie Dollar Deals, a blog dedicated to finding the best deals to stretch your dollar in Utah’s Dixie!  She loves being a Utahn and exploring the back roads of Southern Utah with her family.  You can follow Dixie Dollar Deals blog, facebook or twitter.

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