The Lake Mead National Recreation Area turns 50 Wednesday, and throughout the years it has cultivated a distinct landscape for the National Park Service.
The park, which was maintained by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Park Service after the lake filled upon completion of Hoover Dam in 1935, became the first recreation area adopted by the Park Service in 1964.
Since then, it has been a staple for future recreation areas across the country, and its diverse culture brings in millions of people every year.
“Lake Mead was a model for future recreation areas,” Park Service spokeswoman Christie Vanover said. “It’s such a precious resource in the middle of nowhere. But that’s what makes us unique. You can do things here that you can’t do at other units of NPS.”
Only 13 percent water and 87 percent land, Lake Mead National Recreation Area consists of nine wilderness areas and 1.5 million acres in Nevada and Arizona. A staff of 150 employees and about 4,000 volunteers maintain its beauty.
But one major project served as the catalyst that brought one of the Park Service’s most popular destinations into existence.
“Lake Mead and the national recreation area exist because of the engineering feat aimed at taming the wild (Colorado) river, the construction of what is now known as the Hoover Dam,” Vanover said.
More and more visitors flocked to the Southwest to set their eyes on the mighty Hoover Dam and the man-made reservoir that grew behind it. After World War II, families had more money to spend, and the tourism throughout the country boomed because of that, Vanover said.
Lake Mead was one of the locations that flourished from the same thriving American economy that hadn’t had any stability during the Great Depression and the war.
“People started to have more money to spend on recreation. It was good for the economy and for tourism,” Vanover said.
Despite the public’s growing thirst for recreation in postwar America, efforts to define Lake Mead’s status within the federal government were met with indifference from Congress despite a strong push by Sen. Alan Bible, D-Nev., to give the Park Service more control over the recreation area.
As early as the 1950s, Bible and Rep. Clarence Clifton Young, R-Nev., tried to push bills through Congress that would give the Park Service more control of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, but it wasn’t until Oct. 8, 1964, that their dream finally came true.
“Ultimately, members of Congress got together and agreed it was the right thing to do,” Vanover said.
The legislation involving the recreation area was simple: Provide recreational opportunities while maintaining the natural and cultural resources for future generations.
And just like present day, Lake Mead suffered a heavy loss in water elevation in 1964. According to the Bureau, the lake dropped 41 feet from January to October 1964, leveling out to 1,090 feet. And after nearly 80 years of fluctuating water levels, the lake’s capacity hovers around an eerily similar mark.
But even with the declining water level that the bureau is expecting to drop to 1,060 feet by 2016, there is still much more land to see.
As drivers travel down Lakeshore Drive in Boulder City, a two-lane road lined with sun-rotted guardrails and creosote bushes that smell like rain, they will eventually run into a variety of vistas, including Redstone and Boathouse Cove.
But that’s only a sample of the visuals the park offers, and part of that uniqueness is what separates itself from the Park Service’s 400 other units, according to Vanover. Visitors can see the native bighorn sheep, coyotes, desert tortoises, antelope squirrels and occasional bald eagles that make their way to Echo Bay.
Lake Mohave on the Arizona side of the park also draws plenty of tourists, including at Katherine’s Landing, where approximately 1 million people a year come to visit, Vanover said.
But as it goes with prime real estate, location has been an integral part of the recreation area’s success. It’s largely because of the bright lights of Las Vegas, Vanover said.
“Ever since our existence we’ve been in the top 10 visitation throughout the NPS, and a lot of that is because we’re so close to Las Vegas,” she said. “We’re a half day’s drive from Southern California, from Utah and from Arizona. It’s really an oasis for those in the Southwest.”
Lake Mead National Recreation Area has been used as a model for future units hoping to be taken under the government’s wing.
“If you look at the role the park has played in the area, they’ve always been a great partner. I would say they’re definitely a strong example of how it should be run,” Boulder City Mayor Roger Tobler said.
The recreation area has thrived through turbulent times, including a drying lake, a flat budget and a government shutdown that costs the Park Service 250,000 visitors in 2013.
Nevertheless, it maintains an average of 6.5 million tourists per year, 3 million more annually from when the Park Service was granted full control of the recreation area 50 years ago, Vanover said.
The park also has six concession-operated marinas, three lodges and a boat cruise. Vanover said visitors spend about $260 million in local communities around Lake Mead, contributing to nearly 3,000 local jobs.
“I think a lot of people, when they think of Lake Mead, they think of Boulder City and Hoover Dam. It’s a positive legacy for Boulder City to be so close to Lake Mead and the dam,” Tobler said. “It was definitely an important aspect to Boulder, especially when you look at how important recreation is to everybody.”
As the recreation area rings in its half century, park officials are proud of the path it has paved for not only the Southwest, but for the country.
Contact reporter Steven Slivka at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 702-586-9401. Follow @StevenSlivka on Twitter.