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Ride report: Lake Mead and Hoover Dam (11/22/2010)

With the opening of the new Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge over the Colorado River at Hoover Dam, the prospect of bicycling from metro Las Vegas to Arizona has become a whole lot easier. So I set out on a ride from Henderson through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area to the new bridge, which at about 900 feet above the river is the second-highest bridge in the country ... and the "highest and longest arched concrete bridge in the Western Hemisphere," according to this report from The Arizona Republic.

One of the recreation gems of Las Vegas is the River Mountains Trail, a 35-mile loop on the Nevada side of the Colorado River. All but 3 miles of it are now complete, and this provides a way for cyclists to get from Boulder City to Henderson without having to ride on the extremely busy 93/95/515 freeway -- something that was a white-knuckle experience for me last time I rode to Boulder City a few years ago.

But I instead began the day on highways, as a freshly-resurfaced Lake Mead Blvd. took me the 8 easy miles to the Lake Mead NRA entrance. The entrance fee is $3, but my receipt from a roadtrip the previous day was still valid. At midmorning, the road was almost empty, and the recent chilly winds had left striking vistas in every direction. The road itself was generally downhill toward the river but with short, moderately steep climbs every couple of miles to get up and over ridges. A smooth, paved shoulder of adequate width wasn't an official bike lane, but it served the role nicely.

About 6 miles into the recreation area, I noticed that a paved trail had appeared next to the road. Then I realized what I had done: The River Mountains Trail was actually a completely separate route through the recreation area, not the road itself! (And if you enter via the trail, there's no entrance fee.) In fact, that part of the trail had been so far from the road that I hadn't even noticed it. So I switched from the road to the trail at that point.

Car traffic was beginning to pick up by this point, so that decision was probably a good one to make. But the first thing I noticed was that the trail wasn't engineered for cars: The grades were steeper, the curves were tighter. And storms earlier in the month had left sand, rocks, and dirt strewn over parts of the trail, especially in the washes. The route also wasn't nearly as direct as the road, dropping down to bypass a quarry and then climbing back up to highway level to cross some more washes.

The exit from the recreation area was about 22 miles into the ride. I had seen trail maps that suggested an old railroad trail had been converted into bicycle use to provide easy access to the Hoover Dam area. But when I got to something that appeared to be the junction with that trail, all I saw was a graveled path labeled "Railroad Trail." Unless I missed something, the trail is suitable only for mountain bikes.

This meant that I had to get back onto U.S. 93 for the final few miles to the dam. (Making the left turn onto 93 required a wait of several minutes.) The highway is just two lanes wide here, and traffic was slow enough that I wasn't terribly nervous riding on the narrow shoulder, but it's definitely not something for beginners.

After a couple of miles, the new bypass began, and the highway changed into a freeway. The shoulder became wide and smooth, and it was a gentle downhill all the way to the highlight of the day: the new bridge.

Well ... a highlight in the sense that I can now say I've bicycled across the Hoover Dam bridge. Not so much of a highlight because, by design, you really can't see anything from the traffic lanes of the bridge. (Otherwise, drivers would be slowing down and stopping! Indeed, multiple signs warn drivers that stopping on the bridge is prohibited.) I did sneak one picture just before the beginning of the bridge, but to get any real views of the dam itself, you have to go to the parking area (and past the Homeland Security inspection checkpoint, which remains in operation and where they can search your vehicle if they so choose) and walk to the bridge pathway. I did this the next morning, and even at 9 a.m., the tourists were packed more tightly than the Golden Gate Bridge on the best day of the year.

(I didn't see any signs prohibiting bicycles on the pedestrian walkway, but it was so crowded that it wouldn't have been feasible.)

After bicycling across the bridge, however, what happens next? Because it's a freeway and there's a giant concrete divider down the middle, you can't just turn around and head back. Fortunately, the first exit in Arizona is only about a mile away, so I took the offramp and crossed under the freeway to head back in the opposite direction. Both ramps, however, had huge, scary cattle guards that I didn't feel safe riding -- or even walking -- across, so I very gingerly traipsed along the edge of each, one foot in front of the other.

Back in Nevada, the route is the same back to the recreation area. I could have rejoined the River Mountains Trail there, but the only access point was back down a steep hill, which would mean that I would have to climb it again. And the hill in front of me was plenty steep as it was: the climb into Boulder City, which gains almost 1,000 feet in just a couple of miles. This was still on busy U.S. 93, with two uphill lanes and a narrow but serviceable shoulder as lumbering, struggling semitrailers passed just a few feet to my left.

Finally, there was a trail access point about two-thirds of the way up the hill, so I switched over to the trail, which at this point was actually in a concrete flood control channel. After reaching the "top" in Boulder City, the trail continued to climb a couple hundred feet more, reaching a high point of 2,694 feet -- much higher than the highway route through the area.

But this is where the ride became lots of fun. From that top altitude, it was almost a steady, gradual downhill all the way back into Henderson. And with my memories of the 93/95/515 freeway from my earlier trip, I was quite happy to be off the highway and on a smooth, scenic trail that deposited me onto quiet residential streets in Henderson.

For the day, I racked up about 53 miles and 3,800 feet of climbing -- a hefty challenge, eased somewhat by the cool temperatures and relatively light winds. Now that I know the difference between the road and the trail, I might be more inclined to use more of the trail next time I do this ride.