Nearly a million people visit Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border every year, but only a few stop to see the remains of the rail line that was constructed to build the dam. Called the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail, it offers an interesting walk or bike ride and provides great views of Lake Mead.
The 2.6-mile trail and its five tunnels are all that remains of a 30-mile rail system that was built in Nevada to haul materials and supplies to the dam. The remainder of the rail line either lies under water or has been nearly obliterated.
The contract to build the dam was awarded in 1931 to a consortium of firms called Six Companies. Besides a rail line from Las Vegas to Boulder City, which was built and operated by the Union Pacific Railroad, the project required rail lines from Boulder City to cement mixing plants, quarries and other facilities. These segments of the rail system were built by Six Companies and the federal government.
The Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail occupies a segment of the rail line that ran from Boulder City down Hemingway Wash to Himix, the name given to the concrete mixing plant on the rim of the Black Canyon, overlooking the dam. The distance from Boulder City to Himix was 6.7 miles, as the crow flies, but a vertical drop of 1,100 feet in elevation necessitated 10 miles of track twisting along the hills to keep the grade from being too steep for the locomotives. The federal government built this section of the rail system. Six Companies built other branches of the rail line, but they were abandoned after completion of the dam in 1935.
The line built by the federal government was sporadically used until 1961, when the last generator for the dam was hauled by train and installed at the power plant. The next year the tracks were dismantled and sold as scrap steel.
The tunnels and trail were nominated in 1984 to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, you can walk or bicycle along this historic railroad bed, and enjoy spectacular views of Lake Mead and the surrounding desert.
The easiest way to visit the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail is to start at the official trailhead located below Lake Mead’s Alan Bible Visitor Center outside of Boulder City.
As you begin your journey toward the dam, you will see a section of rough, rocky road to the right of the railroad bed that is believed to be the first section of pioneer road for construction of Hoover Dam. As you continue, look for a red mineralized area on the hillside to your right. A short scramble will bring you to an old mine where, I am told, the miners were looking for mercury. While not part of the dam construction history, it is still an interesting stop.
The trail passes through five tunnels, all about 300 feet long and 25 feet in diameter. The tunnels were bored oversize to allow transportation of penstock sections and large equipment to Hoover Dam. This section of the rail line was used in the movie The Gauntlet, starring Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke, for a scene where they were riding a motorcycle being chased by an assassin in a helicopter.
As you walk along the trail and approach the first tunnel, look down the embankment to the right, and you will see huge concrete plugs cut out of the dam to install the turbines. A closer inspection will show examples of the square reinforcing steel that was used in the construction. Upon entering the tunnel, check out the heavy vertical supports and horizontal planks used to prevent loose rocks from falling onto the tracks. The builders of the tunnels didn’t want any delays from rock falling on the tracks during the round-the-clock construction schedule.
Next you will arrive at tunnel two, which burned in an arson fire in 1990. Notice how it looks different from the other tunnels. It was sprayed with shotcrete to hold any loose rocks previously held in place by the now burned and missing timbers. Between tunnels two and three, another section of the old pioneer construction road is visible on your right. Continuing, you will pass through tunnels three and four, both about 300 feet long. Along this section keep an eye over the left bank for an old wheelset from railcars that were used on the line. Wheelset is the wheel-axle assembly of a railroad car. It is unknown if these artifacts are debris left from a wreck or just discarded parts.
Tunnel five burned in 1978 and was sealed shortly thereafter for safety reasons. In July 2001, the tunnel was restored and reopened to the public. At that time the trail terminated on the east end of tunnel five. However, it now continues to the Hoover Dam parking garage. From the east end of tunnel five, most explorers will retrace their steps to the trailhead where they started. However, if you are RVing with others, you have the option of arranging for someone to meet you at the parking garage and shuttling you back to your vehicle at the trailhead or dropping you off at the trailhead and picking you up at the parking garage.
Next time you find yourself RVing between Las Vegas and Kingman, skip the crowds, tour buses and traffic back ups and visit the historic railroad that built one of the largest dams in the world.
Dave Helgeson and his wife promote manufactured home and RV shows in western Washington. They spend their free time traveling and enjoying the RV lifestyle.
Join in their RVing adventures by following Dave’s weekly blog at rvlife.com.
IF YOU GO:
Two parking areas allow access to the west end of the trail. One is the Alan Bible Visitor Center at Lake Mead and the other is the Historic Railroad Trail trailhead. Both are located just off Lakeshore Road. From Las Vegas, take Interstate 215 to I-515 South. Follow I-515 south for 5.8 miles to Highway 93 toward Boulder City. After 9.6 miles, take a left onto Lakeshore Road. The first right after leaving the highway will take you to the Alan Bible Visitor Center. The second right will take you into the Historic Railroad Trail trailhead. Both have loop driveways and are safe to enter with longer RVs.
On busy days, big rigs will find it easier to park at the roomier Alan Bible Visitor Center.