Greetings from Lake Mead National Recreation Area


I love ghost towns. Not the ones with live music, burger joints, and kitchy souvenir shops. No, I prefer the real ghost towns; quiet, desolate, devoid of human activity but filled with human history. I love wandering around the abandoned buildings, peeking into empty rooms, imagining what life was like when they were filled with life. Who were the people that lived there? But more interestingly, why did they leave? How could a place be so alive one moment and then… nothing.

So when I heard about this ghost town so close to my home in Las Vegas, I was intrigued. But what really fascinated me was the name of the town. It conjures up fantasies of powder sugar beaches, crystalline waters teaming with marine life, warm balmy breezes. St. Thomas. Yes, I’m going to St.Thomas today. But this St. Thomas lies in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Not exactly the Caribbean but for a winter jaunt in the desert on a cool cloudless day, this ghost town holds much promise.

One of the best parts of getting to St.Thomas is, well, getting there. From Lake Mead Parkway, I pass the park entrance of Lake Mead National Recreation Area and turn left on Northshore Road heading toward Overton. Once on that road, I could never guess that I’m minutes from Las Vegas. It is probably the most scenic road in this whole valley. Yes, in summer, it is the closest thing to inferno: dry, seemingly lifeless and truly hot. But in the cool reprieve of winter, every twist and turn is a delight. The colors of the mountains seem to change at every turn; the deep orange of Bowl of Fire, Redstone Dunes and Valley of Fire. But it’s the layers of rolling hills, black, grey, tan, orange that create a patchwork that spreads on for miles to the snow capped mountains. There are occasional glimpses of Lake Mead, its deep azure creating a sharp contrast between the mountains and the deep blue of the sky. It’s quiet as I meander along the road, my car windows rolled down, the cool crisp air hitting my face. The sky feels so immense here; I feel like anything is possible.
Lake Mead. I guess the notoriety of St.Thomas is all due to Lake Mead. But the history of St. Thomas dates back even farther than Lake Mead and I guess it’s that constant resurgence of this place that intrigues me. St Thomas, like everything here, lies in an area that was first inhabited by native peoples, the Anasazi. They chose this place because of its fertile soil that sits at the convergence of the Muddy and Virgin Rivers. Mormons were the first white settlers to actually settle in St Thomas and put the town on the map. They arrived in the late 1800’s and established a farming community. These hardworking folk thought that they had settled in Utah. Imagine their surprise (and anger) when Nevada officials came to collect 3 years of unpaid property taxes! Refusing to pay, they packed up their belongings, burned their homes to the ground and left for the Great Salt Lake. In the early 1900’s, St Thomas again emerged as a bustling salt mining and farming community. At one point there were up to 500 residents who built homes, a church, a school, grocery store, ice cream parlor…even a hotel! Huge cottonwood trees lined the streets and served as shade during the brutally hot summers. With no electricity or running water, these residents lived a simple life. But in the1930’s, plans moved forward for the construction of the Hoover Dam. Their tranquil lives were disrupted when the folks in St Thomas were notified that their community would be inundated by the waters of Lake Mead. In 1938, as the last settler paddled away from his home, St Thomas hid beneath 60 feet of water for years…until the recent drought. As water levels in Lake Mead have continued to recede, St Thomas has again emerged.

Today, the Park Service has embraced this little gem and given the town and its residents the honor due them. They maintain the three mile dirt road that ends up on a small bluff overlooking the town. From there, exploring the town is all on foot by way of a 2.5 mile walking loop. Interpretive signs are posted all along the way and tell the story of these hearty people, this unique place and history. I walk along the dirt path to the town and notice seashells everywhere; a reminder that this town was once Atlantis. Most of the buildings are just foundations but I look at the water cisterns, the bulging tree stumps, steps leading up to rubble and I imagine children playing in front of the school, mothers purchasing goods at the grocery store, families strolling to the ice cream parlor to refresh themselves in the warm evenings under the shade of the cottonwoods. I walk back to my car and think about how these people lived without so many conveniences and yet how hard it must have been to turn their backs on their homes, their community, their unique lifestyle. Sometimes, history puts things into perspective.

As I drive away, I glance back one more time to bid farewell to St. Thomas and secretly thank the people who toiled this land for sharing their home with me today. It surely did not disappoint.


Lake Mead National Recreation Area

This recreation area provides scenic vistas of Lake Mead and Lake Mohave with more than 700 miles of shoreline and a beautiful reservoir for boaters, swimmers, and anglers to explore. The surrounding desert features nine wilderness areas and isolated backcountry with a fantastic diversity of desert plants and animals and dramatic desert scenery.

State(s): Arizona Nevada,

Established: 1964

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