Lake Culture at the Driest Desert in North America

Hoover Dam holds back Lake Mead, which is greatly diminished from 1980s lake levels as evidenced by the bleached rings encircling the river. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

By Barbara “Bo” Jensen

I’ve left Kingman, Arizona—and everything familiar—behind me. As I head northwest up U.S. Highway 93 toward the Arizona-Nevada border, the volcanic Black Mountains stand like a vanguard to my left. Nothing grows but spindly creosote bush, not even the familiar desert sage. Stopping to stretch, I feel like I’m on the surface of Mars, my steps crunching across coarse orange sand as I walk back to my car.

I’ve come to kayak at Lake Mead, America’s first National Recreation Area, and suddenly I’m not sure I belong here because even though I live in the high desert of New Mexico, I’ve never seen a landscape so barren, so seemingly inhospitable to human life. This is the Mojave Desert, the driest desert in North America, with average annual rainfall on the desert floor of only 3.5 inches a year. Who on earth, I wonder, decided to create a lake in the middle of the Mojave Desert?

The short answer is: we did, by building Hoover Dam. I park at the Hoover Dam Visitor Center and walk the pedestrian bridge overlook. Originally called Boulder Dam when it was built, this WPA project employed 21,000 people from 1931 to 1936 during the Great Depression. The dam would provide flood control for the Colorado River and generate hydroelectric power for the growing city of Los Angeles, almost 300 miles to the west. Once the river was dammed, the new reservoir, Lake Mead, flooded multiple deep rock canyons, its 290 square miles of total surface area second only to Lake Powell, and with more 29 million acre-feet of water, the largest manmade lake by volume in the United States.

Lake Mead in the middle of the Mojave Desert is a shimmering oasis. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

I hike the Historic Railroad Trail, a high, level path along the route of the supply train to the dam’s construction site. Men with dynamite blasted multiple tunnels through solid rock for the train; those tunnels now provide habitat for bats and cool shade for hikers and bikers. In between tunnels, I look out over the water.

To create a massive lake in the middle of the Mojave Desert is to create a shimmering oasis. Incorporated in 1911, tiny Las Vegas surged in population when the lake filled. Lake Mead soon became the primary water source for many cities in Nevada. In 1951, a second dam was constructed lower down on the Colorado River to make Lake Mojave. Including downstream users, over 25 million people now rely on water from the Lake Mead system.

The Las Vegas Wash, a 12-mile channel reclaimed from that city, is a well-intentioned attempt to return water to Lake Mead. I take Lakeshore Road up to a hot, dusty parking area for “Wetlands Trail.” Sitting here in my air-conditioned car in 97-degree heat, the sign feels like a prank. But sure enough, walking the short trail, I soon reach an overlook above Desert Wetlands Park.

The Historic Railroad Trail is a series of tunnels that once ferried workers by train to the dam’s construction site. The tunnels now provide habitat for bats and cool shade for hikers and bikers. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

The view is stunning. Here the Las Vegas Wash sends water rushing over rock ledges into pools that support lush green vegetation. Willows wave languidly in a cool breeze, and a thick stand of reeds sways in unison. Songbirds sing over each other’s voices, as if giddy in their watery habitat. The idea is for the wetlands to clean the municipal runoff, “allowing Mother Nature to filter the water received from the urban landscape,” according to the Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee. The microbiome I see before me is encouraging, but this narrow wetland is only a couple of miles long, not nearly the scale needed to reclaim the water being lost from Lake Mead.

Population growth combined with climate change has brought Lake Mead to a crisis. The white “bathtub ring” around the shore tells the tale, delineating the high-water mark of 1,225 feet from 1983, years before the Southwest’s great drought began in 2000. By the end of May 2021, the lake’s water level had dropped below 1,075 feet–the Colorado River had reached historic “water shortage” designation. The federal Bureau of Reclamation is predicting continued water losses into 2022. The first intake structure drawing water for homes and businesses sits at 1,050 feet.

“Heat Kills!” the signs warn as I walk back along the Railroad Trail to my car. By June, most of the hiking trails in this 1.5-million-acre recreation area had been closed for the summer due to the deadly desert heat that can reach 120 degrees. I drive up Northshore Road to Redstone, a picnic area at the edge of the Black Mountains in the Pinto Valley Wilderness, and find a shaded picnic table among the towering red rock formations. I study my map next to these 200-million-year-old sand dunes; a note on the map tells me, “At that time this area would have looked like the Sahara Desert.” In some ways, it still does.

After the construction on the Hoover Dam began in 1931, the resulting reservoir became Lake Mead named after Elwood Mead, the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner at the time. This body of water attracted thousands of visitors to the area, and it became the nation’s first national recreation area in 1964.

Lake Mead is a paddler’s paradise. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

It’s an intimidating landscape. In total, Lake Mead National Recreation Area preserves nine wilderness areas ringing the water, rugged gateways into the desert amid the Black, Muddy, Eldorado, and Virgin mountains. Over 900 plant species and 500 animal species somehow live here. I wonder how many are native; I certainly am not. As hot as it is already, I decide I will come back in the winter to explore the mountains, when the average daily highs are just under 60 degrees. I drive off to find lake access and a campsite.

Boulder Harbor is next to the convenient, 150-site Boulder Beach campground, where tents and pull-along campers and RVs all set up together, intermingled in snug spaces. I stayed there one night in my tent. Those seeking a little more space and quiet might want to check out the lesser-used campgrounds on Lakeshore Road, like Las Vegas Bay or Callville Bay, or the more remote Echo Bay or Temple Bar which were almost empty, their sites divided by flowering desert willows.

The next morning I get up early and go to see Boulder Harbor. The access roads down to Lake Mead’s boat ramps have been extended over long stretches of dry gravel, and rows of big rocks now mark the makeshift parking area near the water. I make a bumpy U-turn and retreat to a sheltered picnic overlook higher up the road to make myself a cup of coffee while I watch kayakers fight the choppy surf, and powerboats go roaring by.

“How you doing?” A man in his mid-50s greets me from a picnic table. He’s thickly built, with strong arms and grease-stained hands, a blue NAVY cap covering short, thinning hair.

“I’m good,” I said, setting my cooking gear on the next table. “That your rig?” I nod toward a minivan with two long kayaks strapped to the top.

“Yup,” he said. “Just got those cheap. Gonna fix them up.”

“Are those sea kayaks?”

“Sea kayaks, ocean-going, anything with a rudder, it means the same. You steer ‘em with your feet, inside they got pedals.”

“No kidding,” I said. “I’ve never used one.” I put my stove together and set a pot of water on top to boil.

Caves in Emerald Cove of Black Canyon allow kayakers to find a reprieve from the glaring sun. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

“Well, that rudder sure helps on rough water. I fixed a guy’s head gasket and he was short on cash, so he traded me those. I’ve been kayaking 30, 35 years, I figured, why not help the guy out. Gonna add some speakers to these for my tunes and lights, so I can stay out at night.”

“So, party boats,” I said.

“Absolutely,” he chuckles. “My friends and I like to haul a second boat behind to carry refreshments,” he laughs.

“Like a pack mule,” I said, grinning.

“Just like a pack mule,” he said.

I imagine him as a grizzled mountain man crossing this vast desert before the reservoir’s creation. He tells me about hauling gear by boat to barbeque steaks on beaches and islands. I make my coffee and take a long sip. His story about one party that involved 50 to 60 people, cabinet-sized stereo speakers and a laser light show in a back cove had all the makings of a wonderful tall tale. Or maybe kayaking, Las Vegas style.

“This place is about lake culture,” I said.

“You got that right,” he said.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is my introduction to this world of inland boating—ramps, docks, dockside bars and restaurants, speedboats and jet skis, RVs and big, dually wheeled trucks to haul your watercraft. I have never owned any of these vehicles. No wonder I feel out of place.

It’s about camaraderie, Navy Guy explains. “People just want to get out on the water with their friends, have some fun after a long week. It’s hot, dirty work, you know? At least what I do. Some guys’ll be fishin’, some gonna waterski. We just wanna cool off, enjoy some good food together and relax.”

Refreshment,” I say.

“Refreshment,” he said, with a grin and wink, taking a drink from an opaque water bottle.

After all is said and done, Lake Mead is set in an arid, unforgiving land. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

I think about his point of view later on as I launch my kayak at Willow Beach. I’m paddling up the 30-mile Black Canyon National Water Trail, heading upstream on the Colorado River between Lake Mojave and Lake Mead and through the edge of the Black Canyon Wilderness. It’s one of the designated quiet days on this stretch of river: no motorized boats allowed. The first hours of my solo trip are meditative as I listen to warblers in the bushes on the banks, watching for desert bighorns on the cliffs above, then spying on huge fish lazily swimming below. The water often shimmers in spectacular citrus hues of green and yellow as sunlight reflects off the submerged rocks. Other people in single and double kayaks paddle along ahead of me and behind me, and I can hear the murmur of their friendly conversations. Midday, we pull up onto various small beaches along the river for lunch; laughter rings out across the water.

By late afternoon, I am returning downstream when I hear a commotion around the bend near Emerald Cave. Oars joined across their awkwardly aligned boats, a group of college-age young people in five or six canoes have linked up, passing unidentifiable beverages from their coolers while loudly discussing whether or not they can access the cave. A young couple in another canoe paddles nearby.

“Join us! Join us! Welcome to Canoe-palooza!” the group calls out. The couple laughs, then paddles over, much to the shouted delight of the cheering, genial crew. I float past, laughing and shaking my head as Canoe-palooza breaks into muddled song, their joy echoing off the canyon walls. River culture is much like lake culture, it seems.

What to do about Lake Mead National Recreation Area, this shrinking oasis in the desert? Below Lake Mojave, the Colorado River barely flows toward Mexico, a trickle that already often runs dry. Invasive species like quagga mussels and New Zealand mud snails have hitchhiked here on contaminated boats; they’re found in the river now, not just the lakes, upsetting the balance of an ecosystem we created that depends on us to find solutions. After all, much as we love to get together at Lake Mead, human beings are clearly the most invasive species in the Mojave Desert.