Far off the beaten path, this desert drive embraces a host of unexpected treasures. Beginning with the watery playground at Lake Mead, it winds past eroded rock formations, multi-hued canyons, and old mining towns and ends with ancient trees that grow near a glacier.
1. Lake Mead National Recreation Area
For millions of years, the 1,400-mile-long Colorado River snaked its way untrammeled from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California. To tame the river and create what was once the world’s largest reservoir took nothing less than the construction of the dam that, at its completion in 1935, ranked as the world’s largest.
The Herculean task of building Hoover Dam took 18 months of excavation and tunneling to divert the river, 24 months to block the canyon with nearly 7 million tons of concrete, and up to 5,000 workers on the job around the clock.
Statistics are one thing, but seeing is believing. The guided tour, which begins at the Hoover Dam visitor center, allows visitors to appreciate the combined efforts of thousands of workers that was required to construct the 528-foot dam one sees today.
The crystalline waters of 110-mile-long Lake Mead — the vast reservoir that was created by the dam — are a mecca for swimmers, boaters, windsurfers, divers, anglers, and sightseers. As large as it is, though, the lake is just a small part of the 1.5-million-acre recreation area that surrounds the Colorado River as it flows from the show-stopping Grand Canyon all the way south through the seared desert surrounding Lake Mojave.
2. Valley of Fire State Park
Like a fanciful mirage, the many peaks, spires, and pillars in Nevada’s largest state park shimmer in jewel-toned hues. Wind and water over the course of millions of years sculpted the landscape here into a masterpiece of haunting beauty. Interpretive trails lead visitors past raspy red rocks where desert tortoises linger in cool recesses and beside smooth cliff faces where, a thousand years ago, Anasazi artists etched mysterious petroglyphs . North toward Overton, the Lost City Museum holds yet more remnants of the long-vanished Anasazi civilization that flourished in the region until A.D. 1200.
3. Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge
The desert stretches long and lonely as Rte. 93 runs north between the gaunt hills of the Sheep Range to the west and the sunbaked Delamar Mountains to the east. But underground water, in true oasis fashion, feeds Lower Pahranagat Lake and, 4 1/2 miles beyond, Upper Pahranagat Lake. Lush meadowlands and stands of cottonwoods crowd the narrow valley, which serves as a stop for migrating waterfowl and a nesting area for great blue herons, swans, and dozens of smaller species.