birdandhike.com logo
Home | Wilderness | Hiking | Lake Mead

Historic Railroad Tunnels Trail
(aka Historic Railroad Trail)
Hiking Around Las Vegas, Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Railroad Trail

Historic Railroad Tunnels Trail
Trailhead restrooms and info signs (view SE)

Overview

This pleasant 4.4-mile (round trip) trail follows an old railroad bed high above Lake Mead and runs through five 25-ft-diameter tunnels cut through volcanic ridges. With lots of bikers, joggers, and dogs, hiking here isn't a wilderness experience, but it is a fun walk through historic tunnels in a scenic desert setting.

The "railroad tunnels" portion of the trail starts at the trailhead and runs east to just beyond the fifth tunnel, which runs, literally, underneath the Lakeview Scenic Overlook, but it does not actually connect to the Overlook. From a public toilet, the trail continues all the way to Hoover Dam, adding another 3.5 miles to the round-trip hike.

Link to map.

Railroad Tunnels
Start of the trail is concrete path (view SW)

The railroad was built in 1931 and used for hauling equipment and materials during the construction of Hoover Dam. The railroad was used heavily until the dam was finished in 1935, but dam workers continued to use it until 1961. The tracks were dismantled in 1962, and the site was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. For more information on the history of the railroad, see a PDF (140 KB) produced by the National Park Service.

Railroad Tunnels
Dirt trail departs concrete path (view SE)

Watch Out

Other than the standard warnings about hiking in the desert, ...this hike is pretty safe, given that the trail is a wide, flat, railroad bed running at a gentle grade. There are, however, considerable drop-offs along the edges where, if you stumbled off the roadbed, you could tumble a long ways down the hillside. Watch for bicycles careening along the trail.

While hiking, please respect the land and the other people out there, and try to Leave No Trace of your passage. Also, even though this hike is short, be sure to bring what you need of the 10 Essentials.

Railroad Tunnels
Sign along trail: pets must remain on leash

Getting to the Trailhead

This hike is located near Highway 93 in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, about 1 hour southeast of downtown Las Vegas.

From town, drive out to Lake Mead. Drive south on Highway 93, through Boulder City, to Lakeshore Road. Turn left (north) onto Lakeshore Road and drive north 0.4 miles (just past the Visitor Center) to the large Historic Railroad Trailhead, on the right. Park here; this is the trailhead.

This trailhead is outside the fee area.

Railroad Tunnels
Trail merges with railroad bed from right (view SE)

The Hike

From the trailhead by the two large information signs (Table 1, Waypoint 01) on the west side of the parking lot, a concrete path runs west towards the visitor center. After walking on the concrete for about 40 yards, a dirt trail branches off to the left.

Taking the rock-lined dirt trail south, the trail bends to the left and merges with an east-west running, historic railroad bed. Just ahead, the railroad bed is blocked by a gate (Wpt. 02) intended to exclude vehicles from the trail, and just past the gate, the railroad bed cuts through a low ridge of yellow volcanic ash. On the hill above, the Hacienda Casino sticks out like a sore thumb.

Railroad Tunnels
Gate to block vehicles

The dirt trail from the trailhead to the gate is actually the roadbed of the Six Companies Railroad that ran from here to gravel pits, a sorting plant, and the Lomix concrete mixing plant. More of this old railroad bed can be seen running north-northwest across Lakeshore Road from the parking lot. Lomix, one of the two on-site concrete mixing plants, was down in the canyon on the Nevada side, about a 1/2-miles upriver from the dam and close to river level; it is now flooded.

The flat area before the gate is the approximate site of Lawler, the railroad junction where the Six Companies Railroad (built to haul aggregate for the concrete used in the dam, power houses, and ancillary works) met the U.S. Government railroad that ran from Boulder City to the edge of the canyon above the dam. The Lawler junction probably consisted of a short section of double track, three turnouts, and a shed for switch tenders and a telegraph operator.

Railroad Tunnels
Apparently, the gate is not always locked

Walking through the gate (Wpt. 02) and the roadcut, the trail crosses a wash that comes down from the south. The Hacienda Hotel (with its noisy helicopter rides) sits at the top of the wash. Through here and just beyond, the trail runs across a jumbled area of strikingly colorful volcanic ash. There is lots of color in the rocks, mostly yellows and reds, but including greens, oranges, tans, and pale gray. Farther out, the trail runs almost entirely along black volcanic cliffs. The dominant vegetation along this part of the trail is stunted creosote bush and white bursage with a few other shrubs mixed in. During spring, there can be many desert wildflowers along the trail.

From the gate, the trail runs out along the roadbed for about 1/2-miles to a trail junction (Site 03). Here, a "short-cut" trail comes down the steep, rocky hillside from the northeast corner of the Casino parking lot.

Railroad Tunnels
Broad, open trail

In another 0.5 miles, the trail arrives at the first railroad tunnel (Wpt. 04). Approaching the first tunnel, the cliffs get higher and steeper and the valley floor seems to fall away into the lake. Rounding the corner to the first view of the tunnel, look through it and notice the second tunnel in the distance.

At the far end of the first tunnel, there are nine 20-ft-tall wooden timbers on each side of the tunnel that are capped with a wooden arch. These timbers support the roof and prevent loose rocks from falling onto the roadbed. The timbers are in remarkable condition considering that they have been here for some 80 years. Originally, the eastern ends of all five tunnels were shored up with these timbers; unfortunately, arsonists burned the timbers in the second and fifth tunnels. Some of the arches have been damaged by falling rock (proving their value), and on the fourth tunnel, fallen rocks have deformed the arch.

Railroad Tunnels
First of several information signs along the trail
Past the first tunnel, the trail continues eastward along the roadbed and passes through four more tunnels. All along the wall of the canyon, and especially between the first and second tunnels, there is an amazing amount of bright green lichen on the black volcanic rock. Lichens are a symbiotic combination of fungi and algae that grow on the surface of bare rocks. It is hard to imagine that something like this can grow on black rocks in the desert. They are, however, growing on the shady side, and you can see that many other shrubs survive here too. The same species grow here as were back on the gravel flats at the trailhead, but here they look bigger and more robust, and there are species growing here that can't survive out on the flats. In particular, there are many pygmycedar shrubs along the cliffs.
Railroad Tunnels

From the trail between the fourth and fifth tunnels, Lakeview Overlook can be seen atop the cliff above the fifth tunnel (the tunnel goes under the overlook). Hikers can see the stonework along the edge of the overlook and wave at the people who drove up there. Some people scramble up the cliffs to the overlook, but it doesn't look very safe.

The fifth tunnel is longer than the others and has a sharp bend in the middle that prevents hikers from seeing the other end, making this tunnel much darker than the others.

Railroad Tunnels

Just past the fifth tunnel, the trail passes through a gate (Wpt. 05) with a sign saying that it is open during daylight hours. Through the gate, the trail runs around the back of the highway maintenance yard (public restrooms available) and on down the canyon for another 1.74 miles on a "trail" road to Hoover Dam.

From the fifth tunnel, consider going through the gate and then climbing up to the viewpoint (Lakeview Scenic Overlook), then either continuing on to the dam (Wpt. 12) or returning to the trailhead (Wpt. 01) by walking back down the trail.

The rocky knob on the ridge outside of the fourth tunnel makes for a nice place to scramble out and eat lunch.

Railroad Tunnels Railroad Tunnels
Railroad Tunnels
Road-cut through ridge; notice smooth left wall (view E)
Railroad Tunnels
The smooth wall is the trace of an earthquake fault (view N)
Railroad Tunnels
Sign about concrete plugs
Railroad Tunnels
Concrete plugs from construction of the dam
Railroad Tunnels Railroad Tunnels
Railroad Tunnels
Sign overlooking the Boulder Basin
Railroad Tunnels
Sign about mountains around the Boulder Basin
Railroad Tunnels
Bench before Tunnel #1 (view E)
Railroad Tunnels
The bench (view north towards marinas)
Railroad Tunnels
Sign at start of Tunnel #1
Railroad Tunnels
Start of Tunnel #1
Railroad Tunnels
Inside Tunnel #1, looking out at Tunnel #2
Start of
Timbers inside Tunnel #1
Start of
Close-up of timbers inside Tunnel #1
Railroad Tunnels
Bench beyond Tunnel #1
Railroad Tunnels
Bench and sign at start of Tunnel #2
Railroad Tunnels
Sign outside Tunnel #2
Railroad Tunnels
Start of Tunnel #2
Railroad Tunnels
Inside Tunnel #2, looking out
Railroad Tunnels
Bench beyond Tunnel #2
Railroad Tunnels
Sign beyond Tunnel #2
Railroad Tunnels
Approaching Tunnel #3
Railroad Tunnels
Start of Tunnel #3
Railroad Tunnels
Smooth left wall of Tunnel #3 is the trace of an earthquake fault
Railroad Tunnels
Close-up of smooth earthquake fault trace
Railroad Tunnels
Inside Tunnel #3
Railroad Tunnels
Bench beyond Tunnel #3
Tunnel #
Approaching Tunnel #4
Tunnel #
Start of Tunnel #4
Tunnel #
Inside Tunnel #4
Railroad Tunnels
Bench beyond tunnel #4
Rainroad Tunnels
Trail towards Tunnel #5
Railroad Tunnels
Bench near entrance to Tunnel #5
Railroad Tunnels
Grand scenery
Railroad Tunnels
Start of Tunnel #5
Railroad Tunnels
Inside Tunnel #5
Railroad Tunnels
Exit from Tunnel #5
railroad tunnels trail (photo by Alex Kosseff)
Gate outside Tunnel #5
Railroad Tunnels
Sign on gate: trail open only during daylight hours

Returning to the Trailhead

railroad tunnels
Gate, looking into Tunnel #5 (view NW)
Railroad Tunnels
Inside Tunnel #5 (view NW)
Railroad Tunnels
Tunnel 4 bypass
Railroad Tunnels
Tunnel 4 bypass
Railroad Tunnels
Looking back on trail to edit from Tunnel #4
Railroad Tunnels
Trail from overlook to start of Tunnel #4
Railroad Tunnels
Tunnel #3 with timbers and cribbing
Railroad Tunnels
Inside Tunnel #2, looking towards Tunnel #1
Railroad Tunnels
Light reflecting off smooth rock at road-cut earthquake fault
Railroad Tunnels
Jumble of volcanic rock and volcanic ash
Railroad Tunnels
Colorful volcanic ash
Railroad Tunnels
Returning, stay right towards trailhead
Railroad Tunnels
Returning, stay right on short-cut towards trailhead
more to come ...

Table 1. Hiking Coordinates Based on GPS Data (NAD27; UTM Zone 11S). Download Hiking GPS Waypoints (*.gpx) file.

Wpt. Location UTM Easting UTM Northing Elevation (ft) Point-to-Point Distance (mi) Cumulative Distance (mi) Verified
01 Trailhead 698891 3987304 1,570 0.00 0.00 GPS
02 Railroad Bed 699134 3987212 1,589 0.20 0.20 GPS
03 Trail to Casino 699877 3987543 1,595 0.53 0.73 GPS
04 First Tunnel (before) 700505 3987994 1,599 0.54 1.27 GPS
05 Last Tunnel (after) 701916 3987925 1,581 0.94 2.21 GPS
01 Trailhead 698891 3987304 1,570 2.21 4.42 GPS
. . . . . . . .
06 Trail Junction 702843 3988201 1,532 0.77 2.98 GPS
07 Trail Junction 703093 3987952 1,473 0.26 3.24 GPS
08 Trail Junction 703294 3988051 1,444 0.14 3.38 GPS
09 West Gate 703325 3988063 1,444 0.03 3.41 GPS
10 East Gate 703452 3988042 1,460 0.08 3.49 GPS
11 Parking Garage Top 703556 3987952 1,378 0.16 3.65 GPS
12 Dam View 703900 3988021 1,250 0.30 3.95 GPS
01 Trailhead 698891 3987304 1,570 3.95 7.90 GPS

Note: All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
Thanks for coming to visit!
© 2014 Jim Boone; Last updated 140301

Hiking Around Lake Mead Hiking Around Las Vegas Glossary Copyright, Conditions, Disclaimer Home

 

Google Ads