Wow. What's bigger than the pool at Mandalay Bay, more colorful than the costumes at Mystère, more mysterious than the nightly on-stage disappearance of Lance Burton's Corvette, and more, ah, venerable than Wayne Newton? Think outside the Strip, now - about thirty minutes outside. I'm talking about Lake Mead. Surprised?

One of the nice things about Las Vegas is that, despite its size, it offers opportunities to get quickly out of town and enjoy some peace and solitude at places like the Lake. Of course, you can go to the beach at Sandy Cove on a summer weekend and be just as surrounded by rowdy revelers as you would have been back in the Hard Rock. But don't worry - it's a big lake. And the best way to get away from the crowds is by boat.

Lake Mead Cruises has operated Velocity since 2001. The new twin-hulled stainless steel craft is 57 feet long but easily makes 25 knots or so. You need that kind of speed for this excursion; did I mention it's a big lake? There's a lot to see, and we had six hours.

We boarded Velocity just before 9 a.m., and after a safety brief from Captain "Chris" Christenson, first mate Dave cast off the lines and we got underway.

LMC (www.lakemeadcruises.com) has its own marina at the lower end of the lake, not far from Hoover Dam. This concrete monstrosity (the dam, not the marina) has awed visitors for decades, towering above them in Black Canyon or dropping away dizzyingly below them from the observation area along the top. However, from the surface of the lake, you don't see much of it - even with the water level 58 feet below normal, as it was today. When the lake is full, this view might remind you of one of those "infinity" swimming pools in which the water blends seamlessly into the sky - until you remember the 700 foot drop on the other side.

Lake Mead consists of several expansive basins - whole lakes unto themselves - connected by narrow canyons originally carved out by the Colorado River. After viewing the Dam, we headed up Boulder Basin and saw the beautiful reds and browns of "Paint Pots" and a section of unusual eroded sandstone formations known as "Castle Cove."

The Southwest is reportedly in the fifth year of a seven-year drought, and the lake is serving its intended purpose: saving a large quantity of water for a - well, a non-rainy day - to provide electricity and a steady water supply. In "The Narrows" of Boulder Canyon we saw up-close the layer of bleached rock exposed by the low water. The sheer scale of this place is amazing: the white stripe doesn't look nearly 58 feet high until a houseboat glides by beneath it, looking like a child's toy.

We kept an eye out for bighorn sheep, which occasionally appear on the crags above. Soon The Narrows broadened into Virgin Basin. (Should we watch for virgins?) To our left, the enormous Overton Arm of the lake extended north up the original course of the Virgin River. The crew told us of early settlements established along the Virgin, and we tried to imagine what life must have been like in such isolated, rugged surroundings. (Heck, it's hard enough to imagine life without the internet and Krispy Kreme!) To our right, the Gypsum Reefs and the mesas near East Point looked like a seaside Monument Valley. Continuing into Temple Basin, we passed the spectacular Napoleon's Tomb, Delmar Butte, and Temple Rock. The latter two were on the north shore, and I knew their color would change in the late-afternoon sunlight when we returned this way.

After Virgin Canyon and Gregg Basin, we entered Iceberg Canyon. I saw no icebergs, of course, but the sharply angled rock, pushed up by volcanic and tectonic pressures over the ages, did resemble actual bergs. We got almost to Driftwood Island, where the lake bends southeast to meet Grand Canyon National Park, before the shallow water forced us to turn around. That was okay - it was time to head for our lunch stop, anyway.

The captain soon spotted a small herd of wild burros on the north shore. (Don't worry; this had nothing to do with lunch.) At Sandy Point, Dave laid out a nice spread of sandwich fixings as we swam at the beach. The water in the upper lake was bright green from seasonal algae blooms - strange but perfectly harmless.

As we passed back through Virgin Canyon, the green water, white stripe, deep brown canyon walls, and vivid blue sky made quite a picture. The afternoon sun was pleasantly warm, and the breeze was perfect. I sat on the bridge with Dave and pestered him with questions while enjoying the view. He told me about the time they rescued a lady who had jumped off of her jet-ski for a dip only to watch helplessly as the desert wind took it far away. Did I mention it's a big lake?

I was right - the Temple and Delmar Butte were redder in the late sunlight. Good thing my digital camera holds over 200 pictures. We swung into Little Gypsum Cove, just above The Narrows, for a look at the soft-rock layer that was eroding out from under the harder sandstone layers above it. This area surrounds visitors with a fascinating display of geologic history. Funny that it's so close to a city in which everything is new.

The westering sun was making the water sparkle as we re-entered Boulder Basin and headed for the marina. Captain Chris circled around the Desert Princess as the large stern-wheeler glided across the smooth surface. The Princess and her smaller sister, the Desert Princess Too, are operated by Lake Mead Cruises from the same marina, taking guests on day and evening cruises year-round. These boats cruise at a more sedate pace, of course. To really get an appreciation for the full extent of Lake Mead, you need a little Velocity.

Lake Mead Cruises is an authorized concessioner of the National Park Service.

By Robert LaGrone, Las Vegas Correspondent.


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