Return of the Beach – A Once Popular Site Set for a Comeback at Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Aerial view of Willow Beach

Aerial view of the Willow Beach area. The new facilities will be near the trees on the near side of the water. Photo byby Double-0-Zero via Flickr.

The legendary phoenix may have risen from its own ashes, but a campground and other visitor facilities will soon be rising from the mud of recurring flash floods at one location in Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The mud has actually been dry for years, but there's good reason for caution in rebuilding at this location, and the project has an unusual twist or two.

Willow Beach, located about 13 river miles downstream from Hoover Dam, is arguably one of the most scenic locations at Lake Mead NRA. Located in Black Canyon on the banks of the former Colorado River (now the upper reaches of Lake Mohave), the site has long been popular with fishermen and boaters and—in an earlier era—with campers.

In the 1970s the area included a 187-site NPS campground, launch ramp, picnic area and a sizeable resort operated by a park concessioner. The resort included a marina, store, restaurant, motel, gas station, and trailer park with about 60 sites. On a nice weekend in the fall or spring, it was difficult to find a vacant campsite—or a parking place near the boat ramp.

Things are a lot quieter these days at Willow Beach—most of those facilities were removed several years ago. This is rugged desert canyon country, and access routes to the water and flat ground for development are both in short supply. In this terrain, those options are often limited to points where side canyons intersect the Colorado River, but roads and development in canyon bottoms face a serious problem: flash floods.

In 1974 nine people died when a disastrous flash flood struck Eldorado Canyon, a much smaller development a few miles downstream from Willow Beach. Within the next several years, several less dramatic but still damaging floods hit Willow Beach itself, prompting eventual closure and removal of the campground and most of the resort facilities.

Now the NPS is ready to reinvent Willow Beach with a major new development in slightly different locations, and it won't cost a lot of scarce Park Service dollars. Work is scheduled to begin in the next few months on a project funded largely by the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (SNPLMA). That program funnels revenue from the sale of specified public lands in the vicinity of Las Vegas to projects including "parks, trails and natural areas" and capital improvements at those sites.

These's been a bit of grumbling from some Nevada residents about use of those funds just across the state line in Arizona, but both logic and legal guidelines support the idea. The Nevada-Arizona border runs roughly down the middle of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and a significant percentage of visitors to the Arizona parts of the park come from the Las Vegas metro area. As a result, projects at Lake Mead NRA are eligible for funds from the SNPLMA, and there's no viable location for similar facilities on the Nevada side of this part of the park.

Current timetables call for the work at Willow Beach to be completed near the end of 2010, which will coincide with planned opening of a new bridge and rerouted US 93 that eliminates the dangerous and tortuous highway crossing Hoover Dam. That's the only road connecting far northwestern Arizona and southern Nevada, and the highway project will also make Willow Beach much more accessible to the Vegas area. Depending upon your point of view, that may or may not be a plus!

The plans for Willow Beach include construction of a new campground with approximately 40 sites, a picnic area, trails, interpretive displays, and restrooms. The concession facilities, ranger station, public parking area, and other NPS facilities will be relocated out of the flood plain. The former campground location, in the bottom of a nearby side canyon, will not be used.

New utility systems, including adequate wastewater treatment and a new water system, will be installed. There will be extensive flood protection measures, including an "early warning flood detection system." According the project summary:

Flood channels include concrete-lined and gabion-lined structural flood channels located within existing dry washes, excavated flood diversion channels, and smaller rip-rap drainage channels and other drainage structures.

Considerable dirt and rock will clearly have to be moved for this project, although some of it will be in previously developed areas. The magnitude of the work—and whether it will adequately minimize flash flood risks--is likely to generate some discussion.

The new campground itself will also raise questions in some quarters. There's an ongoing debate about whether facilities such as RV sites with hookups should be provided inside NPS areas or by the private sector outside park boundaries.

Project documents describe the new Willow Beach facility as a "full-service" campground; although tent campers are welcome, most of the sites will offer full hookups for RVs. That's at least consistent with existing concessioner-operated campgrounds at six other locations at Lake Mead. NPS campgrounds in the park don't offer those same amenities.

A recent news report was unclear about whether the new campground at Willow Beach would be operated by the NPS, but a phone call to the park this week determined that current plans are to contract operations to a concessioner.

Distance, terrain and climate all make a commercial campground on private property outside this part of the park impractical from a business standpoint, and if camping facilities are to be provided anywhere on the upper half of Lake Mohave, Willow Beach seems to be the most viable site. If you're not familiar with the area, a map may help you visualize the lay of the land.

Some park supporters will question the full RV hookup decision as opposed to a somewhat lower key "traditional" NPS campground. Others will welcome the extra amenities, especially during the hotter months of the year. Due to its location in the depths of Black Canyon, Willow Beach has a long—and very hot—summer, when daily highs above 120º are not uncommon. Tent camping under those conditions at Willow Beach has not been a very popular activity during most of the year. Most of the other campgrounds at Lake Mead are in less confined quarters, and enjoy more nighttime cooling even in the summer.

I worked at Willow Beach at the height of the area's popularity in the 1970s, and finding a campsite on the Fourth of July weekend was not a problem! The staff would sometimes joke that we needed to perform a mental status check on anyone tent camping there in the heat of June, July or August, when even nighttime "lows" can remain in triple digits.

Recent trends suggest camping continues to be a popular visitor activity at Lake Mead. Just-released figures show that although overall NPS campground stays were down slightly in 2008 compared to the previous year, Lake Mead reported overnight stays in concessioner campgrounds were up by 66,300; tent and recreational vehicle overnight stays in park campgrounds increased by 40,100 for the year.

Will this new development prove to be a sound decision at Lake Mead? My prediction is the result will be an increase in visitation to Willow Beach. Whether or not that's a good thing may not be known until the next big rain.

Comments

The Las Vegas area has a serious deficiency in public campgrounds within a short distance. While it's blessed with Zion, Death Valley and Joshua Tree all a 2-3 hour drive away, it's also stuck with a few Lake Mead campgrounds and often-frigid Mt. Charleston in close range.

This is great news. Opponents need to remember that Lake Mead is a recreation area, built around two manmade lakes — not a preserve of natural wonderment. Las Vegans should demand more public campgrounds in close range — Desert NWR, Mojave National Preserve (accessible from I-15, not I-40), and the Gold Butte / east shore of Lake Mead area.