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Cover Story

Lake Mead National Recreation Area Celebrates 50 Years
by Taylor Nunley
Public Affairs Assistant

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Wilderness Act of 1964. Lake Mead National Recreation Area was established October 8, 1964, as the National Park Service's first national recreation area. With more than 350 million visitors over the past fifty years, the 1.5 million-acre park is the largest national recreation area and one of the most visited units of the National Park Service.

"The national recreation history starts with Lake Mead and the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1935," said Jim Holland, park program and management analyst. "The Bureau of Reclamation was not in the business of managing recreation, so they partnered with the National Park Service to manage the recreation side of the reservoirs that were established behind Hoover Dam in 1935 and Davis Dam in 1953."

In addition to the establishment of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the Wilderness Act was enacted by Congress on September 3, 1964.

Over the next decade, as the Las Vegas Valley grew, so did park visitation. In 1976, nearly seven million people visited Lake Mead National Recreation Area to enjoy premier water recreation activities that are a rare experience in a desert setting.

The summer of 1983 brought record breaking water levels at Lake Mead. More than two feet of water was recorded flowing over the raised spillway gates of Nevada and Arizona. This is the first time the spillways were used.

"When they built the Hoover Dam, that was something no one expected to happen. The lake's elevation of 1,224 feet is pretty amazing to think about today," said Mike Boyles, Park Resource Management Specialist. In 2014, the projected average elevation is 1,091 feet.

In 1986, the park's general management plan was finalized, which was designed to accommodate increasing visitor use while protecting the area's most outstanding natural and cultural resources.

Visitation continued to increase to a record breaking ten million visitors in 1995. Simultaneously, water levels began to fluctuate up to ten feet per year, and projections for low water were on the horizon. Launch ramps began to close and marinas began to relocate to areas where deeper water was prevalent.

While a shift was occurring on water, in 2002, history was made on land when more than 185,000 acres of Lake Mead National Recreation Area were officially designated as wilderness through the Clark County Conservation of Public Land and Natural Resources Act.

"Having designated wilderness gives those areas an extra level of protection," said Boyles.

In 2005, an amendment to the General Management Plan was prepared to plan for predicted drought conditions. Lake Mead reached its lowest levels in history in 2010 when the elevation dropped to 1,081 feet.

Today, the drought continues. This has led to increased visitation at Lake Mohave where lake levels remain fairly constant. Despite the decline, Lake Mead's surface area is still around 140 square miles, which is equivalent in size to the city of Las Vegas.

As the largest water-based recreation area in the desert Southwest, Lake Mead National Recreation Area continues to be one of the most visited units of the National Park Service and a major economic driver for travel and tourism in gateway communities.

The fiftieth anniversary of Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Wilderness Act of 1964 reminds visitors the importance of the recreation area to the Southwest. The park allows people to escape the urban centers to find solitude and have a wilderness experience.

"You don't have to hike that far or drive that far to be isolated from a lot of the urban sounds and feels," Holland said. "I think wilderness really complements Southern Nevada and having Lake Mead is really an asset for people."

To learn more about Lake Mead National Recreation Area, visit

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