One night in Boulder City, NV–Tucson for Christmas trip

We visited Boulder City in December 2023 as part of our Tucson for Christmas trip.

morning Airstream at Lake Mead

Boulder City might have been the biggest pleasant surprise of our Tucson for Christmas trip! We went there specifically to see the Hoover Dam and were delighted to find such a cute town. Also delightful: our campsite, with a spectacular view of Lake Mead!

We would have liked an extra day in Boulder City and do some hiking and explore more around the lake, but we were on a tight schedule in order to squeeze in several days in Death Valley before meeting family in Tucson.

Campground

the Airstream with the canyon mountains in the background
looking back at the Airstream from the lake side

We camped at Lake Mead RV Village and loved it. Our front-row campsite (can’t call it waterfront, but we had an unobstructed view of the lake) had a picnic table and fire pit and we spent as much time sitting outside as we could.

A few pros and cons about Lake Mead RV Village:

Pros

  • Sites are full-hookup, a requirement if you’re heading off the grid for a few days (ok not a requirement but it’s a heck of a lot easier to prep with full hookups)
  • The office sells firewood
  • Hoover Dam is minutes away, as is downtown Boulder City

Cons

  • The campground internet only allows two devices to connect
  • The stream of helicopter tours over Lake Mead and Hoover Dam is pretty obnoxious
  • The campground does not accept packages, which isn’t noted on their website, and their phones were supposedly down for the week before our stay when we were trying to call to confirm that we could have a package delivered there. We needed to replace part of our rearview camera and figured a big commercial campground would be a safe bet… and then spent the morning before we left chasing a UPS driver around Boulder City after the campground had refused the package. Shout out to the wonderful people at the Boulder City UPS Store who helped us find the driver!
sunset at our Lake Mead campsite with a campfire

Boulder Beach campground, a pretty NPS-managed campground without hookups is next door to the commercial campground. The beach is walking-distance from both campgrounds, but depending on the water level (it was loooooow when we visited) it might take awhile to get there.

Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam from the upstream side
Hoover Dam, with the O’Callaghan-Tillman bridge’s shadow

Hoover Dam (a controversial name–many wanted it called Boulder Dam) was built in the early 1930s with multiple goals: to generate hydroelectric power, to create a water reservoir, and to control flooding on the Colorado River. It’s a marvel of engineering: a curved concrete wedge 660 feet thick at the base and 45 feet thick at the top, 1244 feet long and 726 feet tall. Construction began after two supporting dams were constructed upstream, and the river was diverted into massive tunnels, exposing the riverbed, which was then excavated to the bedrock at a depth of up to 139 feet. The dam was built in vertical columns with cold-water pipes running through them, as concrete cools slowly and it was calculated that had they poured the dam’s concrete into a single form it would have taken 125 years to cure completely. The amount of concrete in the dam would pave a highway from San Francisco to New York City.

Hoover Dam intake towers in the Colorado River
looking upstream from the dam at the administrative buildings and intake towers

Visiting the dam was fascinating, but we were unprepared for the crowds. The long lines for security and parking and the visitor center gave it more of a theme park feel than we expected. As much as we wanted to see into the guts of the dam (and re-enact our favorite Hoover Dam movie scene), we couldn’t bear the thought of a large, slow-moving guided tour, so we paid $10 to do a self-guided tour through the visitor center and it was great! And then we got the heck out of there.

bypass bridge over the dam
the O’Callaghan-Tillman bridge, seen from the dam

You can walk across the dam for free, and if you pull off the highway above you can walk on the pedestrian path on the incredible Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. The bridge, opened in 2010, has the widest concrete arch in the Western Hemisphere, and is the second-highest bridge in the US (it was slightly nerve-wracking to drive the Airstream across it!). Before the bridge opened, highway traffic moved across the dam itself, which was slow-going due to security checks, tourists, and hairpin turns on both approaches. The bridge is beautiful, and next time we’ll walk across it for the view of the dam below and Lake Mead beyond.

Boulder City

the art deco entrance to downtown Boulder City
the Art Deco entrance to Boulder City’s historic downtown

Boulder City was created to house the dam workers and their families, rather than using Las Vegas as a construction base 30 minutes away. We didn’t plan to spend any time in town, but J found a brewery to check out, and when we drove into the downtown area we were impressed. It’s super cute! The town was carefully planned to bring a sense of optimism to the workers, although initially they figured only single men would live there and didn’t include schools or a hospital until later. Because it was a company town, alcohol and gambling were prohibited (Las Vegas provided that 30 miles away) and while the alcohol ban was lifted in the 60s, Boulder City continues to be one of only two locations in Nevada where gambling is illegal. Fun fact: the Boulder Theater, a live music venue in downtown, is owned by Desi Arnaz Jr.

beers at Beer Zombie brewing in Boulder City
Beer Zombie Brewing outdoor space

Beer notes from our beer guy:

There are two breweries in Boulder City proper. Given we wanted to spend a good amount of time at our spectacular campsite, we opted to skip Boulder Dam Brewing Co. With only six house-brewed beers on tap, none of which particularly appealed to us, and more of a restaurant feel, this was a relatively easy choice.

Beer Zombies is a Las Vegas-based brewery with three tap rooms in Vegas, one in Salt Lake City, and one in the heart of cute, little historic Boulder City. The Boulder City location has a small, somewhat-grungy interior zombie-themed tap room, with a bay door that opens onto a large patio that is a mix of concrete and artificial grass cut in half by a large fountain. When we were there, it was nice enough to sit outside and the spot seemed pretty popular. They had eight total beers and ciders on draft, including a double and a triple hazy IPA, plus a handful of house cocktails (margarita, mojito, etc.). Sadly, they had no sours on the draft menu during our visit, but they did have a “sour watermelon candy” sour for L in a can. We both enjoyed our beers and, based on our brief, mostly-auto-based tour of town, Beer Zombies seemed like the best place in Boulder City to hang out and enjoy a beer. 

salmon veggie grain bowl from The Tap in Boulder City
salmon and veggie bowl from The Tap

On the way home, we grabbed decently good salmon veggie bowls to go from The Tap and ate them while ogling the lake.

Lake Mead

the view from the Airstream door of Lake Mead
the view from our front door

The view of Lake Mead and Black Canyon from our campsite was dreamy. We didn’t interact directly with the lake (you can rent power boats, jet skis, kayaks, and paddleboards nearby, or just walk down to the beach from the campground) but we sure appreciated looking at it. The chilly weather meant few boats on the water, which was nice from a viewing perspective.

our campsite on Lake Mead

The construction of Hoover Dam backed up the Colorado River into Black Canyon to form Lake Mead in the 1930s. It’s America’s largest reservoir by volume, with over 750 miles of shoreline and a maximum depth (when full, which it is currently is not–the white “bathtub ring” in the photos, made by mineral deposition, shows the high-water mark) of 532 feet. It’s the second-largest reservoir by surface area, behind Lake Powell (where the banner photo of this site was taken). The lake supplies water to 25 million people and supports farming in Nevada, Arizona, California, and Mexico.

The low water levels have exposed some interesting finds: the ruins of one of the towns in the canyon submerged by the filling of the lake, and a bunch of dead bodies. There’s also a WWII-era B-29 at the bottom of the lake, being slowly corroded by the accumulation of tons of mussels after crashing into the lake in 1948.

mini Hoover Dam in downtown Boulder City
Boulder City uses the dam’s image all over town

In the morning, we prepped for going off the grid: filled the fresh water tank, dumped gray and black, filled water jugs. While we were sad to leave our sweet campsite, we were very excited about our next stop–our first visit to Death Valley National Park!

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