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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Henderson and Hoover Dam

View Southwest USA road trip on zzlangerhans's travel map.

In our first two days in Las Vegas we'd done a pretty good job knocking out the essentials on my list. Now we had to decide which of the optional activities were best to complete. I had already reserved a time slot at the Lion Habitat Ranch in Henderson, a large suburb at the southeast corner of Las Vegas that is the second largest city in Nevada in its own right. The ranch was located in a rather desolate commercial area on the western side of town. I was a little dubious about the authenticity of a lion sanctuary in Las Vegas but stellar reviews and countless mentions on Vegas top ten lists convinced me that it would be a good experience for the kids.

I was disappointed right away to see that the lions were kept in concrete-floored enclosures with chain link fences. They looked bored and lethargic, possibly due to the hundred degree heat. As with every other day thus far in Vegas, this was going to be the hottest yet with a projected high of 106. We were as uncomfortable as the lions despite the misters placed along the pathway. I was grateful I'd decided not to shell out a hundred bucks for the chance to feed a lion when I realized it was just a matter of pushing a large pellet through the fence.

Things looked up a little bit when we got to Ozzie, a young but tall giraffe with his own shed-like enclosure. There was more shade here and one of the employees gave a talk about giraffes while Ozzie painted T-shirts (awkwardly) with a brush held in his mouth. The giraffe wrangler asked if anyone had a joke about giraffes and it dawned on me that I had read one just a day earlier on my phone when the kids were begging me to tell them new jokes. So there I was suddenly in the spotlight telling a long and slightly inappropriate joke to an audience of kids. A man and a giraffe walked into a bar and started drinking. After a while the giraffe drops onto the floor and the man starts walking away. The bartender yells "You can't leave that lyin' there!" and the man replies "That's a giraffe, not a lion" and walks on out the door. In the version I read the giraffe dropped dead but I thought it would be better to leave that part out. There were a few confused chuckles and then the kids got to feed lettuce leaves to Ozzie. Cleo went twice because Spenser was afraid of the giraffe. Afterwards we had popsicles at the gift shop and made our escape. I was somewhat surprised that the ranch had such good reviews considering how sanctimonious people tend to be about zoos and any other entertainment involving animals. I'm hardly obsessed with animal rights but I found the place quite depressing and uninteresting.

I found the Ethel M Chocolate Factory while researching if there was anything else to do in Henderson after the Lion Habitat. We've had some good experiences with chocolate making in Nicaragua and Belize. Ethel M has the atmosphere of a small, independent business but it is actually owned by the giant Mars candy corporation. Forrest Mars, the founder of the company, established the factory in honor of his mother after he retired and it was later bought by the corporation. There wasn't much going on in the factory when we arrived, probably because it was Sunday, but the showroom had an impressive collection of expensive boutique chocolates. Outside the factory is a surprisingly large and attractive cactus garden.

After lunch in a nearby Jewish deli we had to decide what we were going to do on the sweltering afternoon. 104 degrees seemed almost too hot even for a water park but we were so close to Cowabunga Bay that we decided it was our best bet. This was the second water park we'd been to in the United States after Kalahari in Wisconsin five years previously, and it was a far inferior product. The entrance fee was astronomical, of course, yet we didn't get to experience much for our money. The young kids area had very little seating and not much in the way of shade either. Almost all the rides had a height requirement that excluded our kids, and the one attempt we did make for a ride we were qualified for failed when the line barely moved over half an hour. I could see that they were using just one raft so one group would have to reach the end of the ride and the raft would have to be returned to the top of the tower before the next group could go. It seemed they were cutting corners everywhere possible except on the price of admission. We finally found our way to the wave pool, which the kids really enjoyed except for the inexplicable twenty minute intervals when the waves stopped coming.

Not far from Cowabunga but on the Las Vegas side of the border between the municipalities is Mystic Falls Park, a large atrium within the Sam's Town hotel and casino. Most visitors to the city don't get there unless they're staying at the hotel but since we were doing so much exploration by car it was inevitable that we would be driving in that area before the end of our stay in Las Vegas. We were fortunate in that the afternoon water and light shows had recently resumed after pausing for COVID. The indoor park was a very pleasant environment but even more impressive were the interior walls of the hotel facing the atrium. They had been given facades to resemble an array of tall Victorian townhouses such as one might have seen in a major American city around the beginning of the 20th century. The water show itself was a little bit of a let down but I was glad we'd visited just for the opportunity to see the creative design of the park and the hotel.

We had dinner at a highly-rated Vietnamese fusion bistro in southwest Las Vegas called Black Sheep. The dishes were fairly creative and enjoyable but the restaurant couldn't match up with what Mizumi had given us the previous evening. Even though we hadn't had a single extraordinary experience that day we still felt like we'd spent our last full day in Las Vegas productively. Back at the Airbnb we collapsed into bed feeling that we'd accomplished the goals we had set for exploring the city.

We had strong motivation for getting out of town early Monday morning. We still had to see Hoover Dam and we needed to be completely out of the Las Vegas Valley long before the temperature got close to its projected high of 108. That plan took a hit as soon as I'd lugged our heavy suitcases down four flights of stairs and packed them into the back of the SUV. Somehow the suitcases seemed to have grown an inch in the Airbnb and I couldn't get the trunk door to catch when I slammed it down. After a few vigorous attempts I realized there was something else going on besides the suitcases. The little bar which keeps the door in place when it's closed was in the closed position even though the trunk door was open, preventing the door from engaging with the latch. I tried to pry it out with several implements unsuccessfully. I even looked to see if there was a trunk release inside the car and couldn't find one. It was starting to look like I would have to unload all the suitcases and carry them back up the four flights to the Airbnb and then drive the car with an open trunk to the nearest Enterprise location for them to either fix the latch or give us a new car. Fortunately Mei Ling had the idea to tie the two parts of the latch together with a string which appeared secure enough for us to drive a limited distance without too much fear of losing the luggage.

We decided to deal with breakfast before the car where I made yet another mistake. I picked our breakfast restaurant Jardin based on ratings without realizing that it was also inside the Wynn. That meant we had to go through the whole time-consuming rigamarole of parking in the garage and then wandering through the endless halls of the hotel before we could even sit down. The restaurant was pretty, of course, but service was slow and we ended up paying double the normal prices for very average food.

By now we were well behind schedule. We found a nearby Enterprise and the guy at the desk came out to look at the latch. He got a pen in there and it almost immediately released, which infuriated me because I'd tried the exact same thing with no luck. However, as soon as I tried to open and close it once more the latch had stuck again. Suddenly Mei Ling realized we'd never tried pressing the latch release on the trunk itself and lo and behold it worked perfectly. The Enterprise guy had probably pressed it himself accidentally while poking at the latch. We were now able to open and close the trunk repeatedly without any problem, and it seemed that if we encountered the same problem again we could just press the latch release and fix it. We decided the best course of action was just to proceed with the car we had rather than waste the morning trying to get a new car. It turned out to be the right decision because the problem with the trunk latch never returned. I felt incredibly stupid for not thinking of something so obvious as pressing the trunk release, even to the extent of hunting for some non-existent secondary trunk release inside the car. Thank God it was Mei Ling who thought of the solution and not the Enterprise guy or I think I'd still be shriveling in embarrassment.

I was really lucky to discover our last stop in Las Vegas, or actually Henderson. I only came across Shan-Gri-La Prehistoric Park because I was scanning through Google Maps and came across the icon. Shang-Gri-La is the house of a retired teacher who has decided to fill his small front yard with enormous plastic and metal dinosaur replicas. If that was all there was to it I think it wouldn't have made much impression on my kids. The beauty part was that after we toured the dinosaurs he took them back to the garage where they got to choose plastic eggs from a rack on the wall based on a roll of the dice. There were some complicated rules but they all got to pick a bunch of eggs and keep the little presents they found inside. They were totally thrilled by the experience and kept asking me if we could go back for days after we'd left the city. Cleo still says it was her favorite place in Las Vegas. Shan-Gri-La really shows the impact one dedicated person can have on their community with a little motivation and creativity. I can't imagine how much money he must have spent on his dinosaurs and I made sure to leave a substantial donation in the box before we left.

I'd made a concerning number of mistakes during our first stop but fortunately they had only resulted in minor inconveniences. We had still had a great time in Las Vegas and learned a lot about the city. Destiny prevented me from committing my final error, a raft tour through Black Canyon at the base of Hoover Dam. As it turned out we were extremely lucky that the company had decided to cancel the tour for all of 2021 as it would have been unbearable to be out on the raft unprotected from the sun amid the brutal heat of mid-day. As it was I was quite concerned about walking with the kids outdoors as the temperature spiked to 108. I had taken several precautions as this would be our first time traveling in extreme heat. Aside from our wide-brimmed hats I had a large spray bottle full of water that I carried in my backpack and regularly misted the kids while we were outdoors. We kept a small cooler bag in the trunk full of water including a couple of bottles that I had frozen the previous night. The frozen bottles kept the other ones cool and were a welcome source of cold water once they had melted by the afternoon. Whenever we left the car I carried a backpack with about twice as much water as I thought we were likely to use.

The forgotten municipality of the Las Vegas Valley is Boulder City, which began as a home for thousands of the workers who built the Hoover Dam in the 1930's. It's a small, pleasant town within minutes of the dam and Lake Mead. Given the heat we didn't have much appetite for exploring the town. However, we did stop at Hemenway Park to see the wild bighorn sheep that come down from the mountains to graze. I was not really expecting them to be there but sure enough as soon as we parked we could see about a dozen of the beautiful animals relaxing in the shade under a large tree. It was funny to encounter them so easily as many people who don't know about the park go on hikes around the dam in the hopes of seeing them. On the way out of Boulder City we had some beautiful views of Lake Mead from the highway.

The best view of the Hoover Dam isn't from the dam itself but from the Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, the world's highest concrete arch bridge. The uphill climb to the bridge was a significant endeavor in the heat but we were sure to keep ourselves well-hydrated inside and out. Even though there was a solid railing on the concrete walkway of the bridge it was hard to lean over to take pictures of the dam. Even if there was no way I could fall over the railing, I felt like my hands were going to go numb and nervelessly release my phone into the Colorado River below us.

After walking the bridge we drove onward a little further to the garage for the Hoover Dam. The tours of the dam were closed because of COVID but I'm not sure if it would have been worth our time to see the internal works anyway. From the top of the dam we had a new perspective on the vast wall of concrete that held the enormous volume of Lake mead in check. We could also admire the futuristic span of the Tillman Bridge as it traversed the canyon high above the Colorado River.

The state line between Nevada and Arizona cuts through the middle of the dam and there are clocktowers on either side showing the time in each state. On this particular day they were the same because although Nevada is in the Pacific time zone and Arizona is in the Mountain zone, Arizona does not observe daylight savings time. On the way back to the garage Cleo started complaining a lot more about the heat and kept demanding to be sprayed with water. I didn't take her seriously because we hadn't really been out in the sun for long and it was an abrupt change in attitude, but once we got back to the car I could tell she really wasn't feeling well. An anti-nausea tablet and some air conditioning back in the car sorted her out but it was a reminder that I needed to take the heat and the sun very seriously on this trip. A short while later we were crossing the Tillman Bridge in our vehicle and wouldn't see Nevada again until the last day of our trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:23 Archived in USA Tagged las_vegas family_travel henderson tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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