National Park Service
Gypsum Cliffs, Lake Mead Diver at depth on the PBY Ringbolt Rapid Work Barge Diver at depth on the Aggragate Plant Submerged bus in Cabinsite Cove title=

Diving in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Moonrise over Lake Mohave Moonrise over Lake Mohave

There was a time not so long ago when the Colorado River poured down through the mountains, meandered through the desert, and emptied into the sea as rivers are wont to do. Now only the memory of a river reaches the Sea of Cortez, while the actual water peters out some miles north of Yuma, Arizona. The river has been tamed into a series of desert lakes with much of the impounded water being diverted to maintain lawns in Las Vegas and irrigate crops in California. The Grand Canyon is one of the few stretches of the old river that maintains any of its original integrity.

Although there is not much to like in a dam from an ecological point of view, the reservoirs the dams create are popular recreation areas. Lake Mead in Nevada is one such area within the National Park System, a lake formed out of the Colorado River and held back by the Hoover Dam. The dam was completed in 1935 and stands as a monument to New Deal engineering projects and short-sighted environmental planning. A year after it was built, Lake Mead opened as the first National Recreation Area and remains popular today.

The Lake Mead NRA is actually composed of two lakes. South of Lake Mead is Lake Mojave, made possible by the Davis Dam and what's left of the Colorado River. Together they cover 274 square miles of desert, a 20-minute drive from Las Vegas but just as close to some of the most unspoiled desert landscapes you can find in the Southwest. In some parts of the park you can observe thousands of water enthusiasts slamming into each other with jet skis and houseboats. Elsewhere you just might observe, as we once did, the ritual combat of bighorn sheep only a few hundred yards from our dive site, but away from the crowd.


BASICS

Location: Southern Nevada
Elevation: Lake Mead: 1,200 feet; Lake Mojave: 700 feet; Las Vegas, 2,020 feet
Skill level: Intermediate-expert
Access: Limited diving by shore, unlimited by boat
Dive support: Boulder City, Las Vegas, NV
Best time of year: Good year round
Visibility: Moderate to good (20-50 feet)
Highlights: Interesting rock formations, boats and other man-made objects placed underwater for diver interest.
Concerns: Elevation, heat, dehydration
Rules and Regulations

DIVING TIPS

Drink a lot of fluids. That is always good advice for divers, but in this desert it is critical: the air in your cylinders is dry, and the desert air is just as dry. Sweating in a full wetsuit at 120 degrees F will leave you all the more dehydrated, so drink all the non-diuretic fluids you can. Keep in mind that Boulder City is about 1,300 feet higher than Lake Mead (1,200 feet elevation) and 1,800 feet higher than Lake Mojave (700 feet). Las Vegas is only 400 feet lower than Boulder City. If you are planning to drive back to one of these places after diving, you should be using the 3,000-foot altitude conversions. Lake levels change drastically from year to year. Check with locals for current conditions.

Lake Mead has been the scene of many years of rod and reel fishing so beware of monofilament line tangled amidst the submerged brush. Carry a knife where you can get to it and don't use up that last few hundred pounds of air squirreling about in the brush. There's nothing like trying to cut yourself out of fishing line while holding your breath.

Dive Site MapLake Mead Dive Site Map Gypsum Reefs Wishing Well Cove Ringbolt Rapids Hatchery Cove Boulder Beach Boulder Islands

Dive Overview

Diving conditions can be quite good in the park. Visibility is always good below Hoover Dam in Lake Mojave, where the 52-degree water released from the dam provides one of the more thrilling swift-water diving experiences in the country. Water temperature is cool, even in the summer.

Lake Mead and Lake Mojave together provide many different kinds of diving experiences, some of which are worth a major detour in a diver's cross-country trek. Some good shore dives are reasonably accessible but to experience their full range you should have a boat. The nearest dive shop is in Boulder City and there are plenty of others in Las Vegas. The area surrounding the park is mountainous, so divers must pay particular attention to the difference in elevation between the lake and wherever they may be lodging. Decompression planning can be significantly affected. Also, this area is dry, dry, dry. Make sure you keep your innards wet, wet, wet to keep dehydration at bay.

 

Dive Sites

BOULDER BEACH

This area along the jetty has been set aside by the Park Service for divers. Accessible by car or boat, the area has a gently sloping bottom with various objects, such as small boats and compass course markers deliberately deposited for divers' interest. Depth ranges from 30 to 110 feet.

GYPSUM REEFS

This site has good drop-offs accessible by boat. Its visual appeal is the white gypsum rock formations that have eroded to form baroque shapes. to dive map

HATCHERY COVE

Near the Nevada State Fish Hatchery, this is a protected cove good for group outings. A 45-foot boat has been sunk there as a dive attraction.

BOULDER ISLANDS

A large cement tank used for water storage at the time of the building of Hoover Dam is located here. It is 12 feet high and 100 feet in diameter. Although it is open at the top, dive lights are recommended if you want to get inside it. You can get to it by boat off the tip of Big Boulder Island. Two vessels, 45 and 50 feet in length, have also been sunk here as a dive attraction. As of 2008, this the clarifyer tank is no longer submerged due to lowered lake levels.

WISHING WELL COVE

Located in Boulder Canyon, the narrow waterway leading to Boulder Basin, Wishing Well Cove is a popular area, so it should be easy to find just by looking for other dive boats. Sheer, stepped underwater drops and good visibility make this an excellent deep dive. Remember, however, air and water temperatures at Lake Mead can go to opposite extremes. You will need a full wetsuit if you are going deep. At the same time the air temperature can be 120°F in the shade and the surface water 83°F, too warm to cool an overheated diver. We have been put in the difficult position here of having to decide whether an overheated diver should be sent down to cool off or stripped at the surface. This is a knuckle-chewer of a decision that is best avoided.

RINGBOLT RAPIDS

This unique dive is easily the most famous at the park. A boat drops you off above the rapids below Hoover Dam and you descend into the flow. You can plummet to depths of 70 feet at considerable speed, an enjoyable if uncontrolled experience. This dive is possible only if water is being released from the dam at a moderate rate. Check with the dive shop operator in Boulder City to find out the release rate. If you are not familiar with the hydrology and peculiarities of the area it is best to do this dive with the assistance of a Lake Mead old-timer or through a Boulder City dive shop. It can be done reasonably safely, but remember that there will be a period of time when the river, and not you, is in control. There have been a few close calls, and worse, executing this dive.

WORK BARGE

An old work boat located in about 30 feet of water four miles below Hoover Dam on the Arizona side, the work barge is interesting to examine but an archaeological site protected by law. Look but don't disturb.

 

DIVING RULES AND REGULATIONS

Diver-down flag must be displayed while divers are in the water. Present park regulations also require a towed flag in upper Lake Mojave because of boat traffic.
Nevada and Arizona state fishing regulations are in effect.
A state fishing license is required and is available at most marinas.
Spearfishing is legal only for carp and striped bass. It is also legal to collect oriental freshwater clams which are excellent to eat. Saddle Island (Boulder Harbor side) in 40 to 60 feet of water is a good place to find these clams.
Diving is prohibited in designated boat harbors and areas near dam intakes and other active structures.

Last Updated: October 30, 2012