by Tom Garrison
© 2018 Tom Garrison
While my wife Deb and I generally choose hikes in less traveled or wilderness areas, we are not adverse to an easy hike exploring an historical site. This particular hike near Las Vegas involved railroads, some amazing engineering, and great views of Lake Mead. Come on, who doesn’t like railroad tunnels?
This short railroad was built in 1931 as a line hauling materials and equipment for the construction of nearby Hoover Dam. Both steam and gas locomotives were used on the heavily traveled line. The railway was used until 1935 with the completion of Hoover Dam. After that, its use was sporadic until 1961 and the next year the tracks were dismantled and sold for scrap. In 2015 the Historic Railroad Tunnels Trail was designated as a National Historic Trail. The five tunnels giving the trail its name are each approximately 300 feet in length and an oversized 27 feet high and 18 feet wide to accommodate huge equipment—quite impressive. It is the only section of the much larger Hoover Dam railroad system, about 30 miles, not underwater or highly disturbed.
The Historic Railroad Tunnels Trail is in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area (LMNRA). The nearly 1.5 million acre recreation region, administered by the National Park Service, follows the Colorado River corridor from the westernmost boundary of Grand Canyon National Park to just north of Laughlin.
We began this venture in mid-January. From St. George, Utah we drove south on Interstate 15 to Las Vegas and then took Interstate 515/95/93 south to Henderson, about a 2 1/2 hour drive. Since it was my birthday (we have a tradition of going on a hike for Deb’s and my birthdays) we celebrated by spending the night at a Henderson casino, lost some money playing video poker, and had a nice dinner.
Early the next morning we continued through Henderson and Boulder City on Highway 93. Outside Boulder City, and before Hoover Dam, we turned left (north) onto Lakeshore Road. At .4 miles from the turnoff, past the Lake Mead Visitor Center, we turned right (east) at the signed Historic Railroad Trailhead and large parking area, with pit toilets. The trailhead is outside the LMNRA fee area—it is free. The standard fee per vehicle to enter the LMNRA is $20.
Or, coming from Las Vegas, take Interstate 515/95/93 south to Henderson, exit east onto Highway 564/Lake Mead Parkway and drive about 8.5 miles to the LMNRA entrance station. Here you do have to pay the entrance fee. Past the entrance station stay to the right on now named Lakeshore Road for 11.6 miles to the parking area and trailhead.
At the trailhead and along the trail are several information signs about the railroad and surrounding environment. Be sure to take a few minutes to educate yourself about this amazing area and engineering feat.
The trailhead elevation is 1,470 feet, with less than 50 feet elevation change along the hike. The temperature was in the low 60s, perfect hiking weather, as we headed out under a hazy sky.
From the trailhead, on the west side of the parking lot, a concrete path leads to the LMNRA Visitor Center. About 125 feet along the concrete a rock lined dirt trail (signed as “trail”) branches off to the left and we took this trail. It soon merged with the east-west running historic railroad bed/trail and presently we came to a gate intended to exclude vehicles from the trail.
We continued through a rough area of colorful volcanic ash rock—mostly yellow and red with some green, orange, and tans mixed in. Next up were black volcanic cliffs. Except for the first section, the trail has very steep drop-offs, especially on the northern (Lake Mead) side. Don’t fall off the trail.
Approximately one mile in is a small sign on the right pointing out some massive broken concrete plugs in the ravine below. The plugs were removed when electricity generating turbines were installed in the dam. These plugs give an idea as to the huge size of the equipment being hauled along this railroad.
At about 1.3 miles along the trail we came upon the first tunnel—big. Approaching the passageway, the cliffs to the south become higher and steeper. Even though it was mid-day we were surprised at the depth of darkness in the tunnel.
While Lake Mead is visible the entire hike, the far-reaching views from the first and subsequent tunnels are spectacular. Being mid-winter, we only saw a few area residents, mostly birds.
Past the first tunnel the trail/roadbed continues eastward through four more tunnels. Between the fourth and fifth Lakeview Overlook can be seen atop the cliff above the fifth tunnel (the tunnel goes under the overlook).
The fifth tunnel has a bend in the middle that prevented us from seeing the end as we entered—dark and spooky. Just past the fifth tunnel is a gate and a little further a covered picnic table and public restrooms.
We began our return trip after the fifth tunnel, making it a 4.5 mile round trip hike. You can continue to the Hoover Dam parking lot (this section to the dam is only open during daylight), adding another 3.5 miles to the round trip. Deb and I spent a little over two hours on our adventure. We thought a mid-week hike would find the trail mostly deserted. That was true on the way in, on our return to the trailhead we saw at least 30 people starting their hikes.
This is a good respite from chasing dollars in the casinos or as a casinoless day trip. It is an easy hike steeped with history and great views. Alllll aboard for the Historic Railroad Tunnels Trail!
An avid hiker for more than 25 years, Tom’s latest book, Hiking Southwest Utah and Adjacent Areas, Volume Two was awarded 2nd place in the non-fiction category of the League of Utah Writers published book contest. It is available at Amazon.com and the Desert Rat outdoor store in St. George. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org