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Looking for a safe bet in Las Vegas? You won't find it at the gaming tables or slot machines along the Strip. But if you head just 30 miles southeast of the city toward Hoover Dam, you'll find a sure winner in the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail.
This seven-mile trail hits the jackpot on several counts. One, as the name suggests, is the history: Built over one of the rail lines that serviced Hoover Dam, this corridor played a role in one of America's most famous construction projects. Two is the scenery: The trail offers breathtaking views not only of Lake Mead—the huge body of water created by the dam—but also the harshly beautiful desert around the lake. Three is the natural life: It's not unusual to encounter desert bighorn sheep scaling the rugged hills, bats clinging to tunnel walls and lizards scampering across the path.
The rail line's history goes back to the early 1930s, when the government and its contractors were beginning to work on the dam. They needed a way to transport construction materials from Boulder City down to the dam site on the Colorado River, so they laid tracks across the desert and blasted cuts and tunnels through the red volcanic ridges above the river. The five tunnels on the trail are each 25 feet wide and about 30 feet high, large enough to accommodate the huge sections of pipe, generators and other materials that were carried down to the dam. Some tunnels are 400 feet long!
In the 49 months it took to complete the dam, the U. S. Government Construction Railroad hauled 35,000 carloads of materials and equipment weighing 2 million tons to the construction site. After the dam was completed in 1936, the rail line saw only intermittent use, and the last train trip was in 1961. Shortly thereafter, the tracks and ties were removed, and the grade was largely neglected for the next three decades. After much hard work to restore the passage and develop a trail, the first section opened in 1995. In the following years, the trail was gradually extended to the parking lot adjacent to Hoover Dam and joined on its other end (toward Boulder City) with about 3.5 miles of the River Mountains Loop Trail.
Not surprisingly, the dam is the big draw here. More than a million people visit each year to marvel at its huge size—the 726-foot-tall structure is still the highest solid concrete dam in the Western Hemisphere—and listen to stories about how it was built. The trail’s own history is a vital piece of the larger narrative. The remarkably constructed tunnels offer visitors a glimpse behind the scenes of what construction of such a massive project required.
The best seasons to visit are spring and fall, when temperatures are mild. If you plan to come in the summer, time your excursion for the early morning; daytime temperatures regularly exceed 105 degrees in this season. And be sure to have plenty of water and sunscreen on hand year-round.
Whatever the timing of your next trip to Vegas, take a gamble on the historic railroad trail. The odds are decidedly in your favor.
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