If you're going to go to Hoover Dam, go for the Hard Hat tour. It's quite a bit more expensive ($25, instead of the regular $8), but it is certainly worthwhile. Looking at this awesome machinery from a distance (as you can on the regular tour) is not much better than seeing pictures. You can only really get a feel for the raw power of the place by walking into the power plant, wandering through the man-made caves, and looking out an access vent from the middle of millions of tonnes of concrete.
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As the name implies, you have to wear a hard hat on this tour. You get to keep the hat at the end of the excursion, which is a nice souvenir, but hardly the main attraction. The real draw is the opportunity to walk through and experience the entire function of the dam. Along the way, if you pay attention, you'll notice things like the employee breakroom and the Union announcements bulletin board - not an attraction in and of itself, but it's a clue that the claim that the hard hat tour lets you see everything is really true.
The tour will first take you through the power plant, where you can see the drive shafts, flow regulators and such which provide all the power for the desert surroundings. You'll get to walk along the generator room, where a long line of electric generators, each the size of a house, hum relatively quietly compared to some of the other stops along the tour (one of which requires ear protection.)
After the power plant, you'll see the gigantic diversion tunnels drilled into the rock surrounding the dam, which diverted the entire flow of the river while the dam was constructed. Later, you'll go into the system of inspection tunnels which riddle the interior of the concrete dam. It's easy to become disoriented in the tunnels, which all look pretty much the same. You can take pictures down tunnels which run up, down, and sideways - they'll all look the same when you get home.
An advantage of the Hard Hat tour is the size of your group - only about twenty people. The smaller group size allows you to have a more personal interaction with your guide, as well as the other members of the group. This allows for more opportunities to ask questions, and less of a feeling of urgency while moving through the tour. Oftentimes on larger tours, the guides will discourage people from lingering in order to watch processes or examine something more closely, in order to keep the group moving. That's just not the case here.
This tour is definitely not for small children. The magnitude of the power and engineering contemplated along this tour is not something that I feel children would really appreciate, anyhow. There's also warnings for claustrophobics and people with pacemakers - and the claustrophobic warning is definitely legitimate.
An interesting side note: the dam has separate clocks on either side of the dam, denoting Nevada Time and Arizona Time. If you visit the dam during the summer, you'll notice that the time is the same on both clocks; Arizona does not use daylight savings time.
While I was visiting the dam, I also had the opportunity to check out the dam from the other side - on Lake Mead. We went on the lake with a friend from the area who had a speed boat. Safety precautions prevent watercraft from coming right up to the dam on the lake, but it's still entertaining. We also did a little waterskiing on Lake Mead, although I'd describe it more accurately as "being dragged mercilessly behind a boat."
If you're looking to get some more information about the dam before you go, you can look it up on the web at www.hooverdam.com.
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