12 Reasons to Drive to Boulder City

A quick and easy road trip from Vegas, Boulder City offers historic landmarks, outdoor adventures, and a lake to beat the heat.

We get it. Summer's here and you want to go on vacation, but flying is a mess and driving is more expensive than ever, even as gas prices drop. Just a 45-minute drive from Sin City, Boulder City could be your best bet for a road trip getaway from Las Vegas. It's an easy drive that won't max out your credit card and feels a world away from the bright lights of Sin City. It's got the Hoover Dam, outdoor adventures, and the blue waters of Lake Mead. Everything except gambling—which is actually banned inside city limits, making this Nevada destination feel not so Nevada-ish. Just remember, Boulder City gets just as hot as Vegas, so plan accordingly and bring plenty of water and sunscreen. Ready for a healthy dose of summer fun and a little bit of history? Here's what to do when visiting Boulder City.

Hoover Dam
Hoover Dam | Tupungato/Shutterstock

Tour the Hoover Dam

The Hoover Dam isn't just the most identifiable landmark in Boulder City, 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, the amount of concrete used could create a sidewalk around the equator.

Tours of the Hoover Dam are back on after a pause during much of the pandemic—an understandable move, since crowds share close quarters in large elevators. You'll travel through underground tunnels (refreshingly cool during the hot summer months) and learn how the whole thing was built and operates today. Tours connect from the Visitor Center, which has a series of exhibits and an outdoor viewing deck overlooking the dam for photos.

Lake Mead Cruises
Lake Mead Cruises

Enjoy the water at Lake Mead

When it's time to hit the water in Las Vegas, you're either paying for bottle service at a pool party on the Strip or taking a drive out to Lake Mead near Boulder City. 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 Lake Mead more of a destination for boating and JetSkis than swimming and sunbathing. Kayaking and paddle-boarding are popular too.

Lake Mead is also suffering from drought and historically low water levels. At times, you get the feeling you're in a giant slow-draining bathtub with the previous high-water marks leaving "rings" throughout the surrounding sandstone. Only one launch ramp (at Hemenway Harbor) is currently active. Always check in with the National Park Service for the latest conditions. If you'd rather let someone else do the driving, Lake Mead Cruises offers tours of the lake on the Desert Princess, a three-level vintage-style paddle boat with booze and food available on board.

Boulder City antique shops | Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock

Explore downtown Boulder City

Historic downtown Boulder City often feels stuck in time—a mix of residential and commercial structures that wouldn't look out of place in 1950s California. You'll experience throwback charm at the Boulder Theater, an old movie house that was once the only air-conditioned building in town and is now home to concerts, special events, and the annual Dam Short Film Festival.

Overall, the neighborhood is refreshingly low 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 that helped NASA astronauts 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 history.

El Rancho Boulder Motel
El Rancho Boulder Motel | Photo by Sydney Martinez, Courtesy of Travel Nevada

Spend the night at a Boulder City hotel

Boulder City is usually a day trip for anyone driving in from Las Vegas, but there's nothing wrong with spending the night to make the most of the area—especially if you're getting up early to enjoy the outdoor scenery. The Boulder Dam Hotel is the most historic option, dating back to 1933. The 21-room hotel is in the heart of downtown and within easy walking distance of shops, bars, and restaurants (helpful since the in-house lobby restaurant is currently closed). Save a few bucks with a night at a vintage-style motor lodge like Oasis Boutique Motel, Sands Motel, or El Rancho Boulder Motel—the latter is your best bet for nicer rooms and a resort-worthy pool. Otherwise, spend the night outside city limits where gambling is allowed at Railroad Pass (close to Henderson) or the Hoover Dam Lodge (close to the Hoover Dam), with historic artifacts in the lobby and casino.

Chilly Jilly'z
Chilly Jilly'z

Grab a meal at Boulder City's best restaurants

The restaurants in Boulder City don't get too fancy, but many are affordable, family-owned, independent businesses that serve great food. Fox Smokehouse has barbecue that competes with the best in Las Vegas. The owners recently opened Fox Family Bakery for fresh-baked breads and pastries. If you're craving a good burger, it's hard to beat The Dillinger, a mob-themed gastropub in a space that used to be a bank. Southwest Diner serves a more modest take on classic American comfort food in a retro roadside environment. If you're looking for breakfast, the Coffee Cup Cafe is a fun, quirky spot with a killer house-made Bloody Mary and walls covered with license plates and coffee mugs brought in from customers. Chilly Jilly'z is an eclectic mashup of concepts, featuring soft-serve treats and Dole Whip alongside bakery bites and regular lunch and dinner menus that get fancier on Friday and Saturday nights. Recent newcomers to Boulder City include the Cornish Pasty Co. a regional concept that serves a variety of savory recipes inside 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 a mix of new and used books for sale.

Nevada State Railroad Museum
Nevada State Railroad Museum | Photo by Sydney Martinez, Courtesy of Travel Nevada

Learn about railroads, dams, and monsters at Boulder City museums

If you're going to play with trains, do it in a big way. The Nevada State Railroad Museum was built on the historic rail tracks that once serviced Hoover Dam construction workers. You had to get all that material and equipment there somehow, right? Take a look at vintage equipment, cars, and locomotives with 40-minute train rides offered on weekends during select times of the year.

Learn even more about the history of the Hoover Dam with a visit to the free Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum on the first floor of the Boulder Dam Hotel. The exhibits highlight the massive undertaking of the project, the men and women who sacrificed to make it happen, and society in the era of the Great Depression.

Want a cool museum that has nothing to do with the Hoover Dam? Boulder City has that too. 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. The man himself can be booked for a guided tour, but most visitors take a self-guided walk throughout the winding maze-like museum, which includes a rare set piece from Gremlins 2. A small, on-site movie theater screens documentaries (with candy and popcorn for sale) and the coffin door to the bathroom is a nice touch.

Milo's Cellar
Photo courtesy of Milo's Cellar

Find a good drink in Boulder City

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 own 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. Cleveland's The Lounge has a speakeasy feel, tucked away downstairs from the lobby at the Boulder Dam Hotel. Dark and moody, it's a great spot for craft cocktails and live jazz.

Historic Railroad Hiking Trail
Historic Railroad Hiking Trail | Spencer Tuttle/Shutterstock

Hike along a historic railroad

The Historic Railroad Hiking Trail is a two-mile walk that follows the path where trains once carried supplies to the Hoover Dam. It's a relatively easy, two-mile hike on flat terrain that passes through five tunnels with sweeping views overlooking Lake Mead. Just remember to bring plenty of water and keep your hike to early morning or early evening when visiting during summer. Parking for the trail is just outside the south gates of the Lake Mead Recreational Area (which means you'll avoid an entrance fee). You can also access the trail from the parking lot at the Hoover Dam Lodge.

Hemenway Park
Hemenway Park | Photo by Sam Morris, Courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

Hang out with sheep at Hemenway Park

Get an up-close look at Nevada's state animal in an unexpected place. Hemenway Park famously attracts bighorn sheep from nearby foothill dwellings to graze on close to ten acres of reliably well-maintained grass. The animals generally aren't dangerous and have no issues hanging around humans. Just respect their space and don't try to pet them. In other words, if you don't bother them, they won't bother you. Snap as many photos as you like, but the experience is best enjoyed when you relax, hang out, and appreciate the uniqueness of the environment. Hemenway Park, on Ville Drive near U.S. 93, also has tennis courts, basketball courts, and a playground, as well as shaded areas for picnicking, so you can munch on a meal along with the sheep. A wide-open view of Lake Mead is a nice bonus.

Hoover Dam Rafting Adventures
Hoover Dam Rafting Adventures

Experience nature along the Colorado River

Lake Mead has its perks, but you may appreciate the relative serenity of the Colorado River that’s further south of the Hoover Dam. Tour companies like Blazin' Paddles and River Dogz lead half- and full-day kayaking expeditions through the Black Canyon cliffs that include 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. You can even sign up for a see-through version with Vegas Glass Kayaks. Keep in mind, this particular stretch of the Colorado River runs between the Hoover Dam and Davis Dam (north of Laughlin, forming Lake Mohave), so expect to put in some grunt work to make up for the minimal currents. However, the cold temperature of the river helps take the edge off the summer heat, especially when booking a sunset or twilight tour. 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 snapping photos.

Go on a spooky ghost tour

Did you know Boulder City is haunted? Nearly 100 people (and at least one dog) died during the construction of the Hoover Dam, setting the stage for decades of ghost stories and sightings. The Haunted Boulder City Ghost & UFO Tour is a one-hour guided walking tour of downtown—after dark, of course. Along the way, you'll learn about the spirits that roam city streets, mob hits, and the woman who became Boulder City's first convicted murderer. The tour also touches on UFO sightings and Nevada's role as the home of AREA 51. Even if you don't buy into any of this, the tour is a fascinating crash course on the sights and landmarks of downtown Boulder City.

Rail Explorers
Photo courtesy of Rail Explorers

Ride the rails with Rail Explorers

Who needs a train when you can take your own ride down the tracks? Rail Explorers offers a series of tours with self-pedaled vehicles (given an added boost of electric propulsion) that travel eight miles round-trip between the Nevada State Railroad Museum and Railroad Pass casino. The journey requires minimal effort, making it easy to appreciate the surroundings, especially during sunset and twilight tours. Before turning around, you'll take a break underneath string lights in an outdoor lounge area, so feel free to bring along some drinks and snacks. Rail Explorers also has a morning "Summer Soaker" tour throughout the season that basically turns your journey into a big water fight. Towels not included.

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Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas in Thrillist for more than seven years. In addition, his work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Leafly, Supercall, Modern Luxury, and Luxury Estates International's seasonal publication. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.