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Special dam access: Tour restricted and off-limits areas of the Hoover Dam

Who got a behind-the-scenes tour of the amazing Hoover Dam? We did. Now you can, too.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
5 min read
Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

The Hoover Dam is an engineering marvel.

For 83 years, it has held back the Colorado River and supplied power to California, Nevada and Arizona. Over 726 feet (221 meters) high, and nearly that thick at its base, its 6,600,000 tons of bulk create Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States. Amazingly it was finished 2 years early, under budget, and has continued to pay for itself via electricity generation. Only an hour's drive from Las Vegas, over a million people each year visit.

While you can walk around, across, and even take a tour down into the dam, security concerns restrict access to many areas once open to the public.

Using special government contacts (their media team), and covert communications channels (we emailed them), CNET was granted access to parts of the dam otherwise inaccessible to the general public. I got extensive photos of off-limits areas, and what is likely the only 5.7K 360 video ever taken from the face of the dam. Join me as we head down into the tunnels, tubes and concrete of one of the most impressive dams in the world.

Historic hydro: The Hoover Dam revealed

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Dam deco

State Route 172 curves around and along the red rock hills, then starts to descend. It feels like an odd place for a dam. This is desert. A final curve reveals a steep canyon drop-off, but that's not what catches your eye. The concrete arch of a bridge is the first thing you see, spanning high above. Coming from Las Vegas, as most visitors do, you've already left the highway that crosses that bridge. But since you can't see it from that point, its height and size is surprising. A hairpin twists you away, and now you're able to see the tops of the intake towers and, glowing golden-white in the sun, the dam itself.

It is an incredible sight, something so obviously man-made wedged between jagged rocks. It's only after you park and approach any of the numerous overlooks that the full extent and tremendous size reveals itself. Hoover is one of the few dams that you approach from well above, and then marvel at as it drops down away from you. Far, far, down away from you, hundreds of feet meters to the river below. 

I'm greeted by Chaz Pando, Doug Hendrix and Jamel Carry, all from the US Bureau of Reclamation, who are my hosts and guides for the day. After a few photos from the top of the dam, we descend into its depths. Gorgeous art deco ornamentation and designs make what could have been a boring slab of concrete into something far more. There's beauty in the function as well as in the form. Currently, tours of the dam only let you see the generators on the Nevada side, and just from a balcony. That's not for us.

Instead, we head to the balcony overlooking the generators on the Arizona side, and then drop down even farther. The generators are impressive from above, but up close, they're truly imposing. We leave this room and head along a rock-lined tunnel that, if my sense of direction is accurate, is deep inside the rock wall adjacent to the dam. Here, a viewing room sits above the huge penstocks, or intake tubes. It's an eerily lit rock tunnel nearly filled with a 30-foot (9m) steel tube. It's like something out of a sci-fi movie. Then it's back out to the generators and then outside. The dam seems even more colossal from below. The air feels heavy, not surprising given how much rock and concrete is looming above and around us.

There's one last stop before we head back up top, and I'm excited. The elevator stops halfway up, emptying out into a maintenance corridor that follows the gentle curve of the dam. We take a sharp right, ducking slightly to enter a circular tunnel that goes out to the face of the dam. Through slats I can see down the face to the roofs of the power plant, the the river as it continues south, and even the arch of the O'Callaghan-Tillman Bridge. It's a similar, yet different and unique view compared to the one from far above. Carefully, I thread my 360 camera and selfie stick through the slats, and record one of my favorite videos I've ever taken. It's simple, just a minute or so, but the camera is hanging out in front of the face of the Hoover dam. I'm amused.

Falling water

The Hoover Dam, and Lake Mead, have been under drought conditions for nearly two decades, thanks to climate change. As the average water levels continue to drop, and with downstream water requirements limiting how much can be stored, the dam's ability to function as a hydroelectric power plant diminishes. This power generation is secondary to its main purpose of regulating water, but it's green energy in a power-hungry world, and well worth preserving. New turbines are being installed that are more efficient at the lower "new normal" water pressures. New water deals and decent snowfall in the Rockies means that this is hopefully as low as you'll see the water level for awhile, but it's unlikely that we'll see a regularly-full Lake Mead. 

Looking to the future, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has proposed turning the lake and dam into a giant battery, using surplus solar and wind power to pump water from downstream back into the reservoir, to be resent through the turbines when needed. It's called pumped-storage hydroelectricity and it's not as crazy as it sounds.

Looking further, the dam will likely outlast everyone reading this. The concrete is still curing, still getting stronger. With an expected lifespan of hundreds of years, our descendants will likely view it as we view Roman aqueducts. Barring unforeseen natural disasters, it's possible it will last even longer, perhaps thousands of years. Could some future human, or probably human-cyborg hybrid, stare at this structure the way we look at the pyramids? Maybe.

In the nearer future, you can visit the dam yourself. Or check out the gallery above. 

As well as covering audio and display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips and more.

Also check out Budget Travel for Dummies, his travel book, and his bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines. You can follow him on Instagram and YouTube