If you’ve never visited Lake Mead, be prepared to be astounded.
Most first-time sightseers are awestruck by the sheer size of this high desert lake, a part of the 1.5-million-acre Lake Mead National Recreation Area. With Arizona bordering its south shore and Nevada its north and west shores, it’s the largest man-made reservoir in the United States, and its waters are contained by the famed Hoover Dam, the highest concrete dam in the Western Hemisphere.
How high’s the water, Mama? Well, the dam towers 725 feet above desert bedrock, and it impounds water along 800 miles of desert shoreline. Its construction took more than 5,000,000 barrels (4,000,000 cubic yards) of concreteenough to pave a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York. When full, the lake contains 28,500,000 acre-feet of water, a volume equivalent to twice the total annual average flow from the Colorado River. That’s enough water to cover the state of Pennsylvania to a depth of a foot.
Hoover Dam, completed in 1935, was the first of many multipurpose dams constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation. In addition to providing flood control, water storage and hydroelectric power generation, it helped create the national playground. And what a place it is to play! It attracts visitors from all over the west and throughout the world.
Of the four desert regions in the United States, three of them the Sonoran, the Mojave and the Great Basin meet in Lake Mead recreation area, and contrary to appearances, the desert environments host a variety of plants and animals. Among the wildlife you may see, for example, are bighorn sheep, bobcats, coyotes, kit foxes, snakes and lizards as well as threatened species such as the desert tortoise and peregrine falcon.
"On a good day you can see over 100 bighorn sheep along the shoreline," says Greg Hines, a professional bass angler from Mesa, Arizona. "When water levels drop during summer draw downs, the sheep come down from the higher elevation to eat new grass in the backs of coves."
Larry Crim of Las Vegas, a member of Silver State Bass Club, has fished these waters for 30 years. He says it’s not uncommon to find coyotes with a bad sense of direction swimming in deeper parts of the lake. In other locations, "I’ve seen mountain lions, feral burros, mule deer, ringtail cats, eagles, and lots of tourists with sunburns," says Crim.
Pro angler Hines learned this lake well when he challenged daily dehydration by spending six weeks fishing the waters preparatory to winning a $50,000 bass tournament. "This is a huge body of water, and you don’t find fish hugging every shoreline or hiding in every cove. You’ve got to move around until you locate them."
For determined anglers, search efforts under brain-baking temperatures of 115 degrees or more can pay off in the form of striped or largemouth bass, two of the lake’s primary game fish.
"There are times you can actually become exhausted pulling fish in," says Crim who has been lucky enough to experience an angler’s fantasy of continual strikes. "I was just out of Temple Bar, in an area called the Hay Stacks, when stripers chasing shad started the whole cove boiling from bank to bank. My partner and I threw top-water baits and locked up with each cast until the boil disappeared as quickly as it started. By the time the cove was quiet, there were nearly 40 stripers in the bottom of the boat, many of which weighed up to 10 pounds."
Striped bass torpedoes decked out in pinstripes are constantly on the move, and in a lake with limited forage, they are forever looking for something to eat. To find the stripers, says Hines, "Look for activity like diving birds smashing surface waters or blue herons lined up along the bank." The fish can be anywhere from right at the surface during fall top-water feeding to 90 feet deep during cooler winter months.
Lake Mead anglers also chase the largemouth bass, and even the professional fishermen say that if you can catch largemouth bass at this lake, you can catch largemouth bass in any lake in any season. Despite the size of the lake, largemouth weighing over five pounds are a rare commodity.
Mead’s primary tributary is the Colorado River, which flows out of Grand Canyon into the eastern end of the lake. The Muddy and Virgin River tributaries join and form a section of the lake known as the Overton Arm, which continues for more than 20 miles. The remainder of the lake spans open areas separated by narrow canyonsBoulder Basin on the western end, Virgin Basin in the middle, and Gregg Basin on the eastern end. Grand Wash, a large bay at the end of Gregg Basin, is popular with anglers who launch out of Callville Bay Marina to fish coves, points and stair-stepping ledges.
Lake Mead, like many other of the larger western lakes, has canyon walls that act like funnels for gusty winds. While there are lots of coves and bays affording shelter from waters turned suddenly rough, you can get stuck in one of the sanctuaries for as long as the storm does.
There are many sources of information about camping, boating, fishing, lodging and other frequently asked questions at Lake Mead. One central source is the Visitor Center on US Highway 93 northeast of Boulder City, Nevada, near Hoover Dam. Books, maps, charts and other information on park services and activities are available there. The Lake Mead National Recreation Area office at 601 Nevada Highway (1-702-293-8907) is in business to help visitors.
Park Station Rangers at Overton Beach, Echo, Callville, and Las Vegas Bay in Nevada and at Temple Bar in Arizona can also be helpful. Nevada Game and Fish (1-702-39-2142) can tell you where the big ones are biting.
The nearest accommodations are in Boulder City and Henderson, both in Nevada. Las Vegas, about 25 miles away, offers hotel rooms and nighttime glitter should you find the twinkling stars at the lake aren’t bright enough.
Lake Mead guide and river map
Hotels/MotelsThere are hotels and motels in Boulder City, Henderson, Laughlin, Bullhead City and Las Vegas See map above for locations of cities. Click on the city above for. (Rates, availability and reservation online)
Boulder City, Nevada: the administrative offices for Lake Mead Recreation Area and NPS Headquarters for Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument are located here at the gateway to Lake Mead. The only community in Nevada that restricts gambling, Boulder City has all services, frequent art shows and other activities in its many parks. Many of our user have stayed at the Super 8 Motel in Boulder City.
Bullhead City, Arizona: this growing, sprawling city follows the Arizona shoreline of the Colorado River, part of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Bullhead City offers the closest, most complete services available for those enjoying Katherine Landing and the developed coves in the area. Click here for hotel information.
Henderson, Nevada: one of the fastest growing cities in the country, Henderson was once a factory town. Now sporting casinos, clean industry and a growing population in planned neighborhoods, Henderson offers all amenities to visitors. Click here for hotel information.
Laughlin, Nevada: with modern casinos towering along the western banks of the Colorado River, Laughlin is complimented by its sister city, Bullhead, Arizona on the eastern bank.
Las Vegas, Nevada: a city of nearly half a million people known for its reputation as an entertainment capital. Legal gambling, world-class plays, musicals and other productions as well as family theme parks abound in this modern mecca of indoor fun.