There’s no shortage of activities to enjoy along the shores of Lake Mead. The expansive reservoir is flanked by mountains for hiking, surrounded by beaches for exploring, and filled with water for boating. But we feel like biking. And after a visit to the Lake Mead Recreation Area’s Visitor Center, we have a recommendation: the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail.
About the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail
Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail derives its name from the series of five tunnels that visitors encounter along its length. Before this was a public thoroughfare, it was part of a railway track connecting Las Vegas to Boulder City and the construction site of the future Hoover Dam. In 1931, the contract to build the railway was granted to a consortium of six major western firms united under the pointed name Six Companies, Inc. The Six Companies, Inc. Railroad facilitated the transportation of rock and concrete for the construction of the Hoover Dam and was abandoned with the completion of the project in 1935. While the tracks and other railway infrastructure are now pulled up, the leveled ground skirting Lake Mead is now an ideal path for recreation.
Biking the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail
The tunnel trailhead is located at the historic site of the busy railroad switchyard, Lawler Junction. Today, it is a parking lot just below the Lake Mead Visitor Center. From here, hikers, runners, and bikers launch down the 7½-mile round trip gravel trail with panoramic views of Lake Mead. Of course, that distance is a matter of personal choice because the trail can reasonably be split into two halves: the first 2¼ miles skirting the scenic Lake Mead and the following 1½ miles inland to the Hoover Dam.
The first half of the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail is a straight, flat, and broad gravel path leveled by the earthworks and tunnels constructed for trains but today, ideal for biking, running, or a leisurely walk. The trail is regularly dotted with interpretive panels about Lake Meade, the railroad, Hoover Dam, and the local wildlife.
The Inland Connection
The first 2¼ miles of the Historic Railroad Tunel Trail conclude with a gate that is locked each evening. From here on out, the tunnels stop, and the trail winds inland to the Hoover Dam. This part of the trail is still wide but rougher with the gravel road following the rolling, winding landscape. This is also bumpier than the first half where runoff has cut rivulets across the trail. Even so, it’s a relatively easy bike ride.
Near the end, 3-miles down the trail, the route splits between a narrow, steep shortcut to the south and a longer, flatter, one-mile switchback to the north. We took the shortcut to the Hoover Dam and the long way on the return trip. Each is bikable.
But the bikeability comes to a sudden stop at the 3½-mile point—just before the trail’s conclusion—at the top of the Hoover Dam parking lot. Here, the trail transitions to a narrow, steep cement walking path, and bikes are not allowed. Well, at least we’ll have to walk our bikes down this last stretch. Fortunately, here the trail also intersects a gravel road that connects to the paved, double lane Hoover Dam Access Road. There is no bike path but this section of the road is downhill and the speed limit is 15 mph. We even have to break for slower cars in front of us.
Since we are on the access road already, we go ahead and bike across the dam, technically crossing into Arizona and then back to Nevada. Had we planned ahead, this might have been a fun opportunity to catch a tour of the dam. Instead, after snapping a few pictures, we head back.
The Return Trip
The return trip is a bit more complicated. Since we took the Hoover Dam Access Road down, the return is not so obvious. Riding downhill in traffic is no big deal, but we are hesitant to ride back uphill on a narrow winding road with potentially impatient cars. Instead, we look for the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail terminus, which we know to be on the top level of the parking garage, of all places.
We bike into the parking garage and up to the fifth level (the top) where the back corner of the lot connects to a narrow footbridge and a paved series of switchbacks. This is the end of the walking trail that we avoided earlier by riding on the road. While we can’t bike this section, we can walk the bikes up the protracted ramp. It’s a surprising workout with our 70 lb bikes. But once we are at the top it’s a simple matter of retracing the trail back to its start. Keep an eye out for the earlier trail split at the 3⅓-mile point and take the switchback for the more level trail, otherwise, we are on the steep narrow shortcut. It’s not the end of the world. Just a little less convenient.
Be sure to check for a wind advisory before launching on the trail. Our trip out to the dam is nice and pleasant, but by the time we return, a lake wind whips up and roars up the mountainside. The railway tunnels become wind tunnels and the exposed flat strait always can’t be wide enough with gusts pushing travelers towards the path’s sharp cliff edge. In hindsight, we would have thought twice about taking this trail if we know there would be such powerful wind gusts. The trip out is delightful, the trip back…hair-raising.
Even so, this is a delightful trail that I would recommend to anyone. Feel free to hike as much or as little of the trail as you want as the entire route has interesting views and distractions. Even with our bikes, the trail takes most of the morning. So we are ready to get back on the road by the time we return to our campsite.
As part of the Lake Mead Recreation Area, the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail is close to so many recreation opportunities around the lake and Las Vegas, Nevada, a short drive away. The trailhead is an easy 1¾-mile bike ride or hike along the River Mountains Loop Trail to Boulder Beach Campground and Lake Mead RV Village. Beyond the Recreation Area, see nature at its finest with a one-hour drive east to Valley of Fire State Park or west to Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive.