Boulder City — The best dam town in America

At first glance, Boulder City, Nev., seems to be locked in a time warp.

The Hoover Dam is an engineering marvel of its own

The Hoover Dam is an engineering marvel of its own

At first glance, Boulder City, Nev., seems to be locked in a time warp. Old fashioned 1950s-style diners, family-run restaurants and independent retail stores line the compact main street business area, while brick houses dating to the 1930s fill the quiet streets of the small city of 15,000 people.

Initially created as a community to house the workers who built Hoover Dam, Boulder City was conceived by the U.S. federal government to be “a model city for the American people to look to.”

As such, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built the city and hired a city manager to have absolute control over it. Sims Ely, the man with the iron first who was hired to manage Boulder City in the 1930s, had a reputation for being both quirky and strict.

The original city ordinances of Boulder City prohibited prostitution, alcohol sales, membership in unions and all forms of gambling. While this may not sound out of place for 1931, you have to remember that this is Nevada we are talking about.

Although Hoover Dam was completed in 1936, the bureau did not release its control over Boulder City until 1958.

The city first legally permitted alcohol sales in 1969, but it has upheld the ban on prostitution and gambling to this day. Today, Boulder City has the distinction of being one of only two towns in the entire state of Nevada to legally prohibit gambling.

Even though Boulder City is located just 35 km from the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas strip, it seems like it is a world away. It has a quaint, small-town feel and an abundance of green spaces that make it a true oasis in the desert. Wandering the quiet streets, stopping for a bite to eat at Mel’s Diner, taking in a performance at the original Boulder Theatre, or visiting the old-fashioned candy shop are simple pleasures from days gone by.

It’s hard to say if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hit the mark when they tried to build the ideal American community, because it depends on who you ask.

If you like glitz, glamour and big-city thrills, you will likely prefer the nearby city of Las Vegas, but if you prefer a family-friendly, quiet town that seems to be a throwback to a quieter, gentler time, then you’ll probably agree with most of the residents of Boulder City that it is the best dam town in the state.

Visiting Hoover Dam

Once known as Boulder Dam, Hoover Dam was constructed by thousands of workers during the Great Depression and is today a major tourist attraction drawing nearly one million visitors on an annual basis.

At the time of its construction in 1931, a concrete structure of that size had never before been built and building techniques were unproven. Completion of the project cost the lives of more than 100 men, but the dam was considered an engineering marvel upon its completion and it is still considered to be a wonder of the industrialized world.

Today, the Hoover Dam generators supply more than 4.5 billion kilowatt hours of hydroelectricity annually to private and public utilities in the states of Nevada, Arizona and California. The dam’s reservoir, known as Lake Mead, extends 180 km behind the dam and provides water to three states and serves as an important recreational area for boating and other water-based recreational activities.

A guided tour of the dam takes you right inside the massive structure for a close-up look while providing a detailed history of the story of its construction.

For a great view of Hoover Dam, you can also climb up the steps leading to the pedestrian walkway of the Colorado Bridge that is part of the Hoover Dam Bypass Project completed in October of 2010. The signature bridge spans the Black Canyon (about 460 metres south of the Hoover Dam), connecting the Arizona and Nevada Approach highways nearly 275 metres above the Colorado River.

Regardless of whether you take the guided tour or just wander around the outside of the massive structure, a visit to Hoover Dam is certain to impress you. You can’t help being awed by the dam and the men who built it.

Lake Mead Recreation Area

Lake Mead is the largest manmade reservoir in the United States, extending 180 km behind Hoover Dam. The lake supplies water to three states, but it also serves as an important recreational area.

One of the best ways to see the lake is to enjoy a cruise on the Desert Princess, an old-fashioned paddle wheeler that offers sightseeing, brunch and dinner cruises almost daily. As you cruise along, you see the Arizona Paint Pots, an extinct volcano known as Fortification Hill, and Hoover Dam up close and from a different angle.

Bootleg Canyon

Boulder City has developed a number of cycling and hiking trails inside the city and within nearby Bootleg Canyon recreation area. Inside the canyon you’ll find a trail for almost every hiking or cycling level, but perhaps the most thrilling way to experience the canyon isn’t on foot or by bike at all. Bootleg Canyon Flightlines offers a unique zipline experience that lets you see the canyon from many metres above.

If you go:

• If you want to visit Hoover Dam, explore Bootleg Canyon and the Lake Mead Recreation Areas, and enjoy small town atmosphere, consider a stay in Boulder City. The Boulder Dam Hotel ( is a nice B&B that has room rates starting at US$67 per night, including a hot breakfast.

• A cruise aboard the Desert Princess ( starts at US$24 per person. The cruise provides good close-up views of Hoover Dam.

• A zipline experience in Bootleg Canyon will cost about U$149 per person. If you are staying in Boulder City, you can drive to the canyon. They also offer free pick-up from Las Vegas hotels. (

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.