Enjoy Small Town Nevada Just 30 Minutes Outside Las Vegas

Boulder City, Nevada has the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, and a scary monster museum.

Colorado River below the Hoover Dam and Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge
Photo by Sam Morris, courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau
Photo by Sam Morris, courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau
Welcome to Two Days Away, our series featuring weekend-long itineraries within a five-hour drive of your city—because sometimes we all just need a little adventure fix.

Think of Boulder City, Nevada as the well-behaved neighbor to Las Vegas. There's just a 30- to 45-minute drive between them, but these two places couldn't be any more different. While Vegas invests heavily in indulgence and a highly publicized Sin City reputation, Boulder City is one of the rare Nevada communities that doesn't allow gambling. It has a small-town feel, an emphasis on the great outdoors, and a low-key atmosphere that's comfortable in its own skin and won't max out your credit card. In other words, nobody's trying to upsell you on bottle service.

While Boulder City is a quick and easy antidote to the chaos of Las Vegas, it's also a relatively short drive for road warriors traveling from Southern California, Northern Arizona, and other points throughout the Southwest. So pay a visit and spend a couple of nights in a destination full of charm, history, and sunshine, and enjoy all the fun things to do in Boulder City, one of the best Nevada cities.

Travel time:

45 minutes from Las Vegas
4 hours from Los Angeles, CA
4 hours from Phoenix, AZ

Hoover Dam
Nirian/E+/Getty Images

If you don't do anything else: Tour the Hoover Dam

The Hoover Dam isn't just the most identifiable landmark in Boulder City, Nevada; it's pretty much the reason the place exists. Boulder City was founded in 1931 as a home for workers constructing the engineering marvel (originally known as the Boulder Dam), which interrupts the Colorado River to form Lake Mead. It's so large that the amount of concrete used could create a sidewalk around the equator.

Back in the good ol' days, US Highway 93 used to actually cross over the top of the dam, and people would just hop out and snap photos. Now, there's a bypass bridge to the west. However, you can stop by the official Visitor Center, which has a series of exhibits and an outdoor viewing deck to snap killer pics overlooking the dam. Official tours travel through the landmark's underground tunnels, which are refreshingly cool during the hot summer months and reveal how the whole thing was built and operates today as a power plant.

Tom Devlin's Monster Museum
Photo courtesy of Tom Devlin's Monster Museum

Fill your days:

Outdoor activities in Boulder City

Thanks to the Hoover Dam, we have Lake Mead just outside Boulder City, Nevada. It's hard to believe it's been around for less than a hundred years because it's the primary water source for Las Vegas. Having an enormous, artificially created body of water over what was formerly a vast desert landscape adds up to some interesting aesthetics. The beaches tend to be rocky with rough terrain—no soft, white sand here—making the Lake Mead National Recreation Area more of a destination for boating and JetSkis than swimming and sunbathing. Kayaking and paddle-boarding are popular too. You can also let someone else do the driving with Lake Mead Cruises, which offers tours of the lake on the Desert Princess, a three-level vintage-style paddle boat with booze and food on board.

The best views of Lake Mead are from the Historic Railroad Hiking Trail, a two-mile walk or bike ride that follows the path where trains once carried supplies to the Hoover Dam. It's a relatively easy trek on flat terrain that passes through five tunnels. You can also gaze over the lake from Hemenway Park, which famously attracts bighorn sheep from nearby foothill dwellings to graze on the grass by a playground. The animals generally aren't dangerous and have no issues hanging around humans. Just respect their space and don't try to pet or feed them. In other words, they won't bother you if you don't bother them.

You can further appreciate the serenity of the Colorado River south of the Hoover Dam. Tour companies like Blazin' Paddles and River Dogz lead kayaking expeditions through the Black Canyon cliffs with stops at Emerald Cave (a cove where water illuminates in a unique way when hit by the sun), the Gold Strike Hot Springs, and Willow Beach. If you'd rather stay dry, Lake Mead Mohave Adventures has a Hoover Dam Rafting Tour with special security clearance to get an up-close look at the dam from the river. The "raft" is a comfortable motorized vehicle with plenty of seats and legroom, allowing you to focus on the scenery and snap photos.

Arts, culture, and shopping in downtown Boulder City

Downtown Boulder City is a timeless mix of residential and commercial properties that wouldn't look out of place in 1950s California. You'll experience throwback charm at the Boulder Theater. This old movie house was once the only air-conditioned building in town and is now home to concerts, special events, and the annual Dam Short Film Festival every February. The Haunted Boulder City Ghost & UFO Tour and monthly Best Dam Wine Walk are additional fun ways to get familiar with the neighborhood.

Downtown is thankfully short on national chains, so spend a few dollars at antique thrift shops like Goatfeathers Emporium, Bella Marketplace, or Sherman's House of Antiques. Pick up a different kind of collectible at The Flying Saucer (dedicated to Nevada's obsession with AREA 51 and space aliens) and the Boulder City Co. Store (a coffee shop that also sells Boulder City branded merchandise). The Fisher Space Pen manufacturing plant is just outside downtown with a gift shop selling the same pens NASA astronauts used to write upside-down in space. Beyond the shops, the downtown district is decorated with scenic parks, murals, and more than 30 sculptures that pay homage to Boulder City's history.

Railroads and monsters at Boulder City museums

The Nevada State Railroad Museum was built on the historic rail tracks that serviced Hoover Dam construction workers. Take a look at vintage equipment, cars, and locomotives with 40-minute train rides offered on weekends during select times of the year.

Tom Devlin's Monster Museum highlights horror movie villains and creatures past and present. The exhibits feature artifacts and the work of Tom Devlin, an accomplished Hollywood makeup and effects artist, who can be booked for a personal guided tour. Most visitors opt for a self-guided walk through the winding maze-like museum, which includes a rare set piece from Gremlins 2 and a small, on-site movie theater that screens documentaries from open to close.

El Rancho Boulder Motel

Eat, drink, and sleep:

Restaurants and bars in Boulder City

The restaurants in Boulder City, Nevada aren't fancy (like in you-know-where) but tend to be affordable, family-owned businesses that proudly serve simple, straightforward food. Fox Smokehouse has barbecue that competes with the best in Las Vegas. The owners also operate Fox Family Bakery for fresh breads and pastries. If you're craving a good burger, it's hard to beat The Dillinger, a mob-themed gastropub in what used to be a bank. Southwest Diner serves a more modest take on classic American comfort food in a retro roadside environment. Coffee Cup Cafe is a fun, quirky breakfast spot with an awesome house-made Bloody Mary and walls covered with license plates and coffee mugs brought in by customers. Chilly Jilly'z is an eclectic mashup of concepts featuring soft-serve ice cream, Dole Whip, and bakery bites alongside diner favorites. Make sure to visit the Cornish Pasty Co., a regional concept with savory English-style pastry pockets, Big T's Cantina for Mexican food and margaritas, and Dam Roast House & Browder Bookstore, a cafe with locally roasted coffee and books for sale.

If you're craving a cold beer after a long day of running around Boulder City, head straight to the Boulder Dam Brewing Co., which makes its beer on-site, or The Tap, a sports bar by the same people behind the Dillinger with a revolving lineup of craft brew on draft. Milo's Cellar is the best place in town for wine, with more than 300 options by the bottle. Your server may actually be a sommelier, so fire away with questions if you want something unique or offbeat. Anything pairs well with the charcuterie and melted brie.

Where to stay in Boulder City

Spend the night at the Boulder Dam Hotel, which dates back to 1933 and is loaded with history. The 21-room hotel is in the heart of downtown and within easy walking distance to shops, bars, and restaurants. The Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum is free to visit on the first floor, and you can grab a cocktail at Cleveland's The Lounge, a speakeasy-inspired parlor in the basement with live music.

Save a few bucks at a vintage-style motor lodge like Oasis Boutique Motel, Sands Motel, or El Rancho Boulder Motel (your best bet for nicer accommodations and a resort-worthy pool). Otherwise, book a room outside city limits where gambling is allowed at Railroad Pass (close to Henderson) or the Hoover Dam Lodge (close to the Hoover Dam), with historical artifacts in the lobby and casino.

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Rob Kachelriess is a full-time freelance writer who covers travel, dining, entertainment, and other fun stuff for Thrillist. He's based in Las Vegas but enjoys exploring destinations throughout the world, especially in the Southwest United States. Otherwise, he's happy to hang out at home with his wife Mary and their family of doggies. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.