When it comes to hiking, not every trail has to include hundreds of feet in elevation gain or rock scrambling to be an adventure. This week, with a break from the wind and rain, we set out to enjoy seven miles of beautiful desert, oasis views, and a stroll through history, on the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail in Lake Mead’s National Recreation Area.
Located just near the Alan Bible Visitor Center outside of Boulder City, this mostly level trail winds along the desert mountain side and passes through five large tunnels.
While the trail itself is considered an easy route, providing less than 200 feet of elevation gain along a well maintained dirt path from start to finish, the approximate seven miles of distance claims priority for exercising physical stamina versus the traditional demands that many trails require. Completing the full dirt trail, we managed this hike in just short of three hours at a steady walking pace and enjoying plenty of stops for photos and nature inhabitant sightings.
Over the years I find that the more hikes and adventures I embark on, the easier it is to get lost in the ambiance of the climate and history surrounding the locations, and this trail is no exception.
Once part of a 30-mile stretch of railroad track to provide a 24-hour running route to transport supplies to and from the Hoover Dam from construction in 1931 to completion in 1935, the remaining segment of trail, now devoid of railroad tracks, serves as a scenic path still paying homage to its former glory.
After the dam’s completion, the 30-miles of track were abandoned with only occasional usage until it was eventually dismantled by 1962. It wasn’t until the 1980s that this former railroad track was turned into a designated trail and in 1984, the area was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
While the tracks are no longer in place, the remaining five tunnels which once allowed passage of large sections of turbines, generators and other dam construction equipment, rest along the route at approximately 25 feet in diameter.
These large tunnels contain timbers and cribbing support in their entries, providing incredible sights of the tunnel’s enormity and hints to their past significance. While all five tunnels contain timber and reenforced materials from their construction, the integrity of tunnel two was compromised in 1990 after an individual set fire to the timber. Thanks to restoration and a shotcrete material, the walls of the tunnel have since been repaired and remain safe to pass through.
Additionally, shipping containers now rest in the opening of some of the tunnels for what I presume is for further safety precautions from any potential falling timber or rock.
As we walked the path and enjoyed the incredible sense of awe passing through each tunnel, the enormity of the trail’s past history and conditions were something incredible to consider in perspective to our casual jaunt we were now enjoying.
While bare of wildlife at this time of year, during warmer months, these tunnels are said to be home to Mexican Free-tailed bats. At this point during the year however, small deposits of guano are all that remain as evidence of their previous habitants. Perhaps during a future warm weather visit, we will have the chance to safely view these flying mammals in their habitat.
As we made our way in and out of each tunnel, at one section of the trail, remnants of large concrete plugs, which were built as place holders in the floor of Hoover Dam, now rest amongst the sage and brittle bushes.
Along the stretch of trail between the tunnels, several interpretive signs share snippets of the route’s history to the Hoover Dam construction and the surrounding landscape.
Hoover Dam history aside, the vantage points along nearly the entire stretch of the trail shares the desert scenery of the Mojave Desert, now lush with various shades of green from the winter. This surrounding landscape displaying the remnants of earthquakes, volcanoes and ocean floors, all carved and eroded by wind and water over thousands of years.
In addition to the multi-colored desert landscape, the trail provides overlooks of Boulder Beach and Hemenway Harbor, and various mountain points within Lake Mead and the surrounding dessert including the River Mountains, Pyramid Island (which due to lower water levels is no longer an island, but rather another peak in the midst of the bordering desert), Callville Mesa, Boulder Islands and the Black Mountains.
Near the end of the first half of the dirt tunnel route we reached the Bureau of Reclamation rest area before continuing on the trail toward the dam itself. While this path allows for access to the Hoover Dam visitor’s area, we choose to head back before reaching the dam, largely due to our desire to give our legs a rest and to head into Boulder City for a lunch stop at the Boulder Dam Brewing Company brewpub.
Like many of the desert hikes we’ve enjoyed, we had the privilege of not only enjoying the scenery, but also viewing multiple packs of big horn sheep grazing along the cliffs alongside the trail. Seeing these beautiful animals amongst the desert landscape is never anything short of a marvelous experience and always reminds me to take a moment to be grateful for the opportunity to experience their presence.
Getting an early start, we were able to enjoy the trail and all the surroundings devoid of people, which tends to detract from the specialness of an outdoor escape. And for some moments it felt like we had the entire trail and the lake views to just ourself and the sheep.
For a simple morning excursion, this hike was the perfect option for covering some distance while providing an easy trek to connect to nature and officially kick off our hiking adventures for the spring season.