Over the Dam Bridge

Until just the past few weeks, all traffic between Las Vegas and Kingman, AZ. on US-93 had no choice but to travel over the top of Hoover Dam. And getting over the dam can be a slow and tortuous process, with steep grades and narrow turns as the road descends canyon walls down to the dam and then back up the other side. The speed limit on the dam itself is 15mph due to the amount of tourist congestion (mostly people from Europe taking advantage of the cheap dollar to see the wonders of the United States). Better plan on a late arrival... wherever it was that you were going.

Well Bunkie, that's all changed now that the new O'Callaghan/Tillman Memorial Bridge (the Dam Bypass Bridge) is complete and open to traffic. Built just 1500 feet downstream from Hoover Dam, it's supposedly the first (thus the largest) concrete and steel composite arch bridge in the USA and includes the largest concrete arch in the western hemisphere. It is, no doubt, a big bridge. The roadway is about 900 feet above the Colorado River making it the second highest bridge in the nation -- 2nd only to the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado.

We'd heard from other RVers who saw the bridge while it was still under construction... that they didn't think they'd be able to cross the completed bridge without going into spasms, getting a serious case of the vapors, passing out altogether, or some combination of the three. To say the least, that had Dar concerned as we thought our route into Arizona with the bus-house was going to be down US-93 and over this bridge.

So, Wednesday, we loaded up the car and headed off to investigate. The main objective was the bridge, but it's been a few years since we've visited Hoover Dam so we thought we'd renew our memories of it too.

Arriving in the vicinity we decided to jump right in and drive across the new bridge first-thing. In addition to the bridge, new sweeping approaches were built on either side that provide the comforting feel of an Interstate Highway -- 4 wide lanes with broad paved shoulders. As we approached the bridge, curving around rocky outcroppings, we suddenly found ourselves on the bridge... at least what we thought was the bridge. But due to the wide bridge deck and shoulder-high solid concrete walls on both sides, we couldn't see anything... especially from the low-slung Hocus-Focus. OK... there's the sky... and there's a couple rocky outcroppings... but where's the river??? where's the dam???... before I could say "whiskey tango foxtrot" we were across. As for the bridge itself, remember ALL the structure is below the road deck... none of it is visible as one motors across. The experience can be summarized as feeling like driving an Interstate Highway through a mountainous area. Well, that was a let down! I was looking forward to Dar screaming and hyperventilating... maybe even passing out. But it wasn't to be. Honestly, it was a non-event.

Driving across the new bridge... or is it an Interstate Highway through the mountains?

On the other side, the Arizona side, we found the old road back to the dam was closed. Apparently, through traffic on the old road is no longer permitted... and access to the dam and visitors center is from the Nevada side only. That meant we had to turn around and drive back across the bridge. As we did so we noticed people -- quite a few of 'em -- walking on the new bridge in a separate pedestrian lane on the side closest the dam. "Wow... I'll bet the views from out there are stupendous!"

The bridge design includes pedestrian access out onto, and all the way across, the bridge. That's right, you can walk out there, dangle your camera over the side and get all kinds of interesting photos of the dam, the powerhouses, the river, Lake Mead, and the canyon walls that contain it all. It was so secure-feeling that even Dar, who looks for alternate routes around almost all bridges, had no problem with it. In fact, she walked all the way across and all the way back... stopping many times to lean over the edge to look and take pics... wasn't bothered a wit. This seems very strange, doesn't it? It certainly did to me.

At the edge of the bridge... and not a bit nervous.

But I have a hypothesis and it's this: due to the scale of everything in the vicinity... the shadowing mountains, the high canyon walls, the big old dam... it's all of such immense scale that it makes the bridge feel like "no big deal". Even right out in the middle... where Dar had me hold her by the ankles as she stretched-out over the railing... over the edge... to get that perfect straight-down (900 feet) (almost the height of the Hancock Building in Chicago) shot of the Colorado River and the bridges arch far below... well, it just didn't bother her at all. Strange to say the least. We both agreed it must have something to do with scale.

But despite how the experience impacted the two of us, we're really glad we did it. Explorers never know exactly what we'll find or how we'll feel about the experience. It was just one of those things we had to do.

With the dam bridge experience behind us, we drove down the old road to the dam, parked, and walked around. With traffic now shunted to the new bridge, it's a much more relaxing experience. We even found a rocky outcropping above the dam for a quick lunch.

Lake Mead, the lake created by Hoover Dam, is very low. In fact, it reached a historic low-point just this past Sunday, when it eclipsed a previous low set during the drought-stricken 1950's. Right now, there is less water in the Lake than at any time since it started filling back when the dam was completed in 1937. In the photos we took of Lake Mead, that white-ish coloring in the rocks just above the water graphically shows the high water level of the pool... some 150 feet above the current lake level. Everyone is nervously watching precipitation levels in the mountains above the lake, hoping for some wet years that can reverse the trend. But the demands for water from the Colorado continue to increase. Besides Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson are dependent on the Colorado for continued existence. Some believe the current level of population in the dry southwest is simply unsustainable in the long term. I don't know if that's true, but others have told me that as the water level drops, the number of buzzards circling above populated places increases. Hmmm.

So anyway, back to the bridge: if you're planning a trip through this part of the country, don't alter your plans due to any fear of heights or large bridges. Unless you're paying close attention you might cross the bridge and not even know it.

Bridge?  What bridge?


Paul Weaver said…
WOW! What a dam experience! Now I have an addition to my bucket list!

Great blog!

Paul Weaver

Slightly Better than Most