Water world: Take the plunge — and rediscover the lake you thought you knew
Psst. Here’s a secret: You’re missing out on Lake Mead. Sure, it’s a fine place for a beachy beer-and-barbecue session or some amateur shutterbugging at the dam. But, oh, how you’d be losing out if you stuck just to that. Dip below the surface and you’ll find so much more — eye-boggling rockscapes, eerie living history and, of course, splashier pastimes from kayaking downriver to lazing in hidden coves to sweating it out in deep sauna caves. Dive in — and rediscover this heavenly body of water.
Paddle, float, soak, explore and paddle some more (faster!)
Hoover Dam may have tamed the Colorado, but the river still bares its wild side on occasion. A day trip kayaking down Black Canyon will run your heart through all its gears — the murmur of a lazy downstream drift, the quickening that comes with discovery of a hidden cove, the hammer-hammer as you paddle hard! hard! to cut a berth around a sucking Charybdis of a current (don’t worry; I exaggerate).
But don’t forget to beach your craft for opportunities to explore. Gird your pores (and steel your nerves, if you’re claustrophobic) for a crouching hike into a sauna cave, and see how long you can literally sweat it out. Marvel at rock formations as you float down the river (The Ear, draped in fuzz and greenery, is an easy one — try instead to find Abraham Lincoln in repose). And while not as menacing as it sounds, Ringbolt Rapids will kick your heart — and your arms — into high rpms.
If your triceps are screaming for mercy near day’s end, you’ll have a welcome respite in the muscle-melting Arizona Hot Springs — just a few shambles up the sandbagged tiers that lead to the source spewing hot from the rock. (Warning: naked people, friendly but alarmingly naked, may be present.) Other features such as Dragon’s Back — a razor-rocked complex rearing itself riverside — pepper the placidity with some awe. One of the best sights is both placid and awe-inspiring: Emerald Cave, a serene grotto where the water ripples around you in a dancing blanket of green flame. Further down, as you wend your way to the terminal point of Willow Beach, keep an eye out for a piece of history stuck to the canyon wall: A tiptoe trail edging the canyon’s east wall that momentarily manifests itself as a spindly catwalk. That’s the path Lake Mead’s gauger would have to traverse to measure the day’s water level at the gauging station. A cliffhanger — literally. (Information on Colorado River kayaking trips is available at nps.gov/lake).
The lake — just the lake
The simple pleasures of open water
Here are some affirmative propositions about boating on the lake to consider as you’re skupping along the water’s skin that’s turned into a flecked tapestry of shimmering deep blue and gold, feathered cuts of spray tickling your face as you spread your hand to catch some more: 1) “Bathtub ring”? Let’s dispense with that dreary domestic nickname — the rippling band that bounds the lake gives it added dimension, a touch of flourish. Agreed? 2) Oddly, it’s easy to forget the lake is big; there are countless coves, crannies and blanket beaches perfect for pulling up and laying out — or dipping a rod in to see if the fish are biting. 3) Remember that the lake is an architectural tour, too — but I don’t mean the worthy mainstays of the dam and bridge. The shifting matrix of cliffs, caves, buttes and hills lure the imaginative eye well above the water line — proving once again that Lake Mead has plenty going above and below the surface.
(Information on boating on Lake Mead is available at nps.gov/lake)
A surprising display of otherworldly terrain
They look like dollops of frozen flame, or alien motherships run aground eons ago, now rotting in the earth’s crust at a dead tilt. Others: clustered keylocks and rocky labyrinths that puzzle the eye (and sometimes trick the feet). Pinto Valley is north of Lake Mead, not far from the lake’s northwest elbow, but there’s precious little moisture in this boulder-strewn outscape. Take plenty of water — and some tough shoes — as you’ll hike up washes and over sketchy wildlife trails.
The going is an unremarkable but pleasant enough slog — until you see those rusty outcroppings, hunched at strangely regular intervals. You’ll squeeze through shoulder-hugging crevasses and scramble over shelves of stone to reach these inscrutable stone giants — among them, imposing sheer rock, checkered and varnished slabs (hiding petroglyphs for the careful, patient eye), and outpourings of erosion-born pebbles that look like nothing so much as some earthen jackpot issuing from the sandstone itself. (Take Lake Mead Boulevard or Lake Mead Parkway to Northshore Road; park on a pullout near mile marker 25 several miles after the Callville Bay turnoff)
History emerges from a watery grave
The surveyors made an unbelievable announcement to the people of St. Thomas: We’re building a dam about 70 miles south of here, and we regret to inform you that your town is — well, we’re not quite sure how to put this, so we’ll say it straight — your town is … doomed. “A lot of people didn’t believe the water would get that high,” says Steve Daron, park archeologist for Lake Mead.
The story of St. Thomas is not a David and Goliath story. After getting the news of the impending flood, residents — many reluctantly — sold their land to the government, dismantled their homes and moved on. But others refused such a watery, whimpering death, and put up a token fight. The story goes that the last resident of the town was a quite a holdout — rowing away his tiny boat in June 1938 as the water of fast-forming Lake Mead kissed and lapped at his front porch. With water levels fluctuating over the years, the ghosts and shells of St. Thomas have risen time and again to wave hello from the past — and today it’s quite comfortably on dry land.
Don’t think of this as some grim, merely “educational” trip. St. Thomas grew vegetables and mined copper — a hardy settlement, but it was not without a sense of permanence and fun: The town also had a general store, a hotel, a post office and even an ice cream parlor (now, humorously enough, it’s the tallest ruin in town, standing almost defiantly among the spongy ground.) You’ll walk down the main street — the gray teeth of long-dead tree stumps standing, a bit sleepily, at attention — and peek into foundations that belie a town with seemingly big plans once upon a time: spacious houses, broad basements and deep cisterns. The whimsical, seashell-like curve of the steps leading up to what was once the town’s school harbors its own special brand of heartbreak. (And don’t forget to look up — you might see a red-tailed hawk looping lazily overhead.)
(Lake Mead Boulevard or Lake Mead Parkway to Northshore Road to St. Thomas Road, which is at the junction where Northshore meets Valley of Fire Highway)
Thanks to Lynn Davis of the National Parks Conservation Association; Steven
Daron, Roxanne Dey and Heidi Grigg of Lake Mead National Recreational Area; Kim Roundtree of Callville Bay Resort and Marina; and Izzy Collett and Jennifer Heider of Desert Adventures.