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$$ Saving money $$

In tight economic times you may want to have some fun on a budget, so in  this page you'll learn all about budget fun as well as some ideas on a moderate budget.  For a few hundred dollars a family can actually do a lot in the Lake Mead National Park area.  If you haven't been to Lake Mead, it's a big place, but most of the things to do are within 10mi of Boulder City, so we will focus on budget vacation ideas around this area, near Hoover Dam.

There are many things to see, do and experience, and we promise it will be a trip you'll remember, whether it be a weekend jaunt or a full week vacation.  Lake Mead inspires and fascinates people of all ages, genders and income brackets.  So read on and learn how to squeeze every penny of fun out of each dollar, the kids won't know the difference.

You can easily plan a weekend getaway and fill two days with various activities, each that are free or under $15/person.  Add that to a river float for $45/person and you will have memories that will last for years.

Camping, swimming, canoeing, hiking, and exploring can be fun, but beware of the extreme weather that can occur in the area.  Make sure you check the weather report for storms and temperatures before you set out on your adventure in the area.  This will minimize your risk of having a vacation disaster because it was too hot, or too windy, possibly stormy.  Check right before you leave for the least risk and have an alternative plan if weather looks risky.

Food Planning

To keep the food bill down simply bring your ice chest, or buy one in town (Boulder or Henderson), but don't get one of those cheap styrofoam type, those are forbidden in the park. Ice chests are cheap at Walmart in Henderson on your way to the lake.

We suggest buying food at the grocery store near the lake to simplify things. There are several stores that can save you big money simply by buying food and drink outside the national park. You can easily save $25 to $60 per day by planning out your food versus buying prepared food. 

Many folks just don't think about the food, but over the course of several days you will be glad you went through the extra planning effort.  Sandwiches, fruit, chips, trailmix and soda/water can be healthier too than most prepared food in town outside the park.  And if you didn't know, there's few choices for food inside the national park.  Inside Lake Mead National park you'll find restaurants at the marinas, but that's all. There are no other restaurants or fast food available, anywhere.  Planning ahead saves $$.  By the way, don't bring glass bottles into the park, they are forbidden.

If you're staying in town, or near town in a NPS campground, making a daily visit in the evening to stock up for food is OK.  Tastes can change on vacation from day to day. Nightly food runs into town lets you change the menu on the fly.  So don't assume you have to have all of your food figured out before you begin your journey.

NPS Entrance Fees-$5

It costs a mere $5 per car to get in the national park, good for all occupants.  If you bring water toys (PWC or Boat) it costs $10 to $15 more.  CLICK HERE to learn details of the fee schedule for entrance.  This gets you passage rights for 5 days, so if you plan to stay a week, beware that when you leave the park at the end of the week, you may need to pay again. This ticks off some folks when they only need to go back to pick someone up real quick.

While you're in the park rangers will rarely check your receipt.  They kindly ask you to tape it in  your windshield, but these receipts are printed so faint they are often unreadable.  In fact, when you leave and return, the NPS rangers usually don't look at the date on the receipt.  All you do is point to the receipt taped in your windshield and they usually wave you by.  Your receipt could be a month old and you could likely drive in without paying again if you don't look guilty.  I think they look at how faded the receipt is to determine how old it is, but that's just a guess.

FYI, there are no collection stations for national park entrance fees via:

1. Overton at North end of Lake Mead
2. Temple Bar Resort via Hwy 93
3. South Cove launch ramp through the remote town of Meadview. 
4. Willow Beach launch ramp via Hwy 93, AZ side, about 14mi SE of Hoover Dam.

The primary fee collections are for people coming from Las Vegas or California accessing the Boulder Basin area of the lake.

Visitor Center-Free

It's always best to start at the Alan Bible visitor center to learn about the area. This visitor center is unimpressive from the outside, but from the inside you'll appreciate what you will learn, and it's all free.  You will learn about Boulder City, a town that forbids gambling, originally constructed in the 30's to house and feed the workers that built the dam.  There was also a manufacturing plant there that made the huge penstock pipes that feed the generator turbines and route the bypass water around the dam during flood years (1983 for example). These pipes were huge, transportable by train a few miles from Boulder to the dam site.  To lay train tracks to the dam from Boulder City they had to dig tunnels through mountains big enough for the train with pipes. Those train tunnels are still there today and offer an interesting hike near the visitor center (more on that below).  Allocate 30-45min for the Alan Bible visitor center. Make sure you talk to the friendly rangers at the visitor center, they can tell you about the area, answering any questions you may have.

Camping is Great - $10

If you have camping gear...... bring it.  That's the great way to save money at Lake Mead, assuming it's the right time of year.  Tent or RV camping is cheap, only $10/night at NPS campgrounds.  But between May and October it can be too hot at night to sleep comfortably.  The NPS campgrounds have no electricity, they are dry camping only.  So if you have AC in the RV, you'll need to stay at a full hookup campground ($25-30/night). 

The best campground with full hookups is Lakeshore Village RV, about 10min from the town of Boulder, on Boulder Beach. They have plenty of campsites, some with a great view of the lake. Here you get the convenience of electricity, cable TV, water and sewer. They also have a nice little store for essentials in the campground.  Although this campground is full hookup, which is nice in the summer, they lack shade trees.  If it's trees you like, try the NPS campground right next door, it's very nice and shady, ideal in springtime.

You can learn about campgrounds HERE.

Hoover Dam Tour - $11

If you have never seen Hoover Dam, don't just drive by.  You really need to take the tour down inside the dam to see the generators and feel the dam vibrate it's muscles.  70+yrs after construction it's really an amazing piece of engineering that had no computers to engineer it.  This is dam proof of the ingenuity (pun intended) of the United States of America, showing that we can do almost anything if we put our mind to it.  The tours run $11 for adults, $9 for kids up to 16yrs, so a family of 4 it costs about $40 to take the tour. They also offer a longer 1hr tour for $30/person, must be 8yrs old to take this one.  It requires a mile of walking, exploring the bowels of the dam that not many people see.  Each 1hr tour is limited to 20 people.  If you can afford this longer tour, take it, you won't be disappointed.  Park on the East side of the dam for free parking, but have your driver drop off the family at the copper colored visitor center to get in line for ticket while the driver parks the car, otherwise it's $7 to park near the tour center.  Learn more about the dam and tour HERE.

Train Tunnel Hike-Free

Near the visitor center, just about 200yrs to the East you will see a parking lot, visible from the visitor center parking lot.  You can see a trail that leads up the mountain to a dirt road.  This dirt road is actually the train track pathway that originally ran from Boulder City to the dam.  About 1/2 mi from the parking lot down that dirt road you'll find the first of four tunnels, train tunnels.  This hike provides fantastic views of Lake Mead while exploring  historic tunnels where trains took gravel for the cement, as well as large penstock pipe to the work site.

Hiking this area is a treat on days that are cool enough for a good 2-3mi hike.  Make sure you take water on warm days to keep hydrated.  The tunnels are about 300' long and 25' in diamter. The likelihood of finding animals is very remote but it's a good idea to bring a flashlight to be safe, and keep a close eye on the kids (for snakes,  etc) and wear good shoes, not sandels or flip-flops.  You need foot protection from bugs like scorpions, etc.  Please don't get discouraged from these warnings, it's truly worth the hike to see this area.

See more info on the train tunnels HERE.

Hot Springs Hike-Free

About 4.3mi East  of Hoover dam on Hwy 93 you will see a parking area.  This is the trailhead for a 3mi hike to the Colorado River.  The trail goes to the West down a sand wash that ends at the river.  It's a nice hike on a cool day.  When you get to the river you need to hike downriver about 1/4mi where you will find a hot spring stream.  Follow the stream up the canyon and you'll find a hot springs pool.  It's about 102F and very refreshing to sit in.  Hike in your swimsuit if you intend to soak in the springs.  You'll likely find others there exploring which got there by canoe or raft.  It should be easy to find the hot springs.

Be careful while in the hot springs water.  Naegleria fowleria, an amoeba common to thermal pools may be present and could enter through the nose causing a rare infection and potentially death if untreated. Do not dive into pools, splash water, or submerge your head.  Click HERE to see pictures and learn more.

Swimming & Snorkeling

Swimming is loads of fun for kids of all ages. There is a huge swim beach on Boulder Beach near the ranger station, about 15min from the town of Boulder City.  From June to Sept you can expect warm water temperatures of 75 to 83F.

If you plan to do lots of swimming it may be worth buying some water toys in Henderson.  If you come from Vegas or California you'll travel through Henderson to get to Lake Mead. Swim fins, mask, snorkel, water rafts, water guns and noodles, all can be bought at Wal-Mart in Henderson.  For about $40 you can load up on all kinds of cheap water toys from China, good for a day of fun, maybe two ;-).

It's HIGHLY advisable to buy water socks for everyone, about $7/pr at Wal-Mart. This is cheap insurance to prevent injury to feet or toes from rocks.  The Boulder Basin swim beach should be fairly clear of broken glass, unlike the ski beaches to the South near Hemenway launch ramp.  At the swim beach they don't allow boats to moor on shore, hence the likelihood of beer bottles from boats shouldn't be prevalent in this area.  I've never seen a problem at the swim beach, but if you have PWC or boats and you are playing in the water to the South, please be careful.

 MORE BUDGET VACATIONS IDEAS AT LAKE MEAD