Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hike 2015.089 -- Saint Thomas Ghost Town, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, NV

Hiked Saturday, November 21. 3 miles.

Settled in 1865, Saint Thomas was abandoned in 1938, as the waters rose behind Hoover Dam. Once Lake Mead was filled, the town was under 60 feet of water. During several droughts since then, the town had occasionally found itself back above water.
With the current drought now thought to be "the new normal," however, it is quite possible that St. Thomas has risen above the waves for the last time. As a result, Lake Mead National Recreation Area has developed a dirt road, parking area, and interpretive material for its website. Saint Thomas has also been the subject of stories in numerous newspaper and magazines; google it, if you're so inclined. There's plenty to find.
St. Thomas is at the northern end of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. If you come via that north entrance (via NV-169, either after driving through Valley of Fire State Park, or through the towns of Overton and Logandale), the dirt/gravel road to St. Thomas is literally just past the National Recreation Area entrance Station. Alternatively, if you've entered from the west side of the National Recreation Area (from Lake Mead Parkway, near Henderson), take Northshore Road approximately 50 miles north, and the signed turn will be on your right, just before you reach the exit station.
From there, it's about 3 miles on a usually-well-main-tained, unpaved road to the parking area. The NPS says the road is generally fine for passenger vehicles, unless recent rains have damaged the road. You may wish to inquire at the entrance station or visitor center.
There are actually two parking areas at the end of the road. There's a pit toilet at the left parking area. The trail begins, however, from the right parking area. From there, you overlook what was once Lake Mead. Today, no water is even in sight from what was once the shoreline. The town's foundations are also mostly invisible to the unaided eye. The series of photos here gives you some idea of what you'll be able to see with a short and a medium telephoto lens from the shoreline.
Once you head down the trail, into the old lake bottom, there's no shortage of clam shells. There's also a lot of what I'm pretty sure is salt cedar. It seems to be the only plant growing here.

Once the trail reaches what would have been the main street, it begins a loop. The signage sends you right, then loops you back around so that you return along what you would have seen had you just gone straight. Obviously, there's no rule against deciding to walk it "backwards."
With the exception of the single structure pictured above (the Hannig ice cream parlor), it's pretty much just foundations remaining, as the town's structures needed to be knocked low to prevent becoming a navigation hazard. In this respect, it's a little like walking around Echo Mountain, above Altadena, except that there are a lot more ghost structures here than there.
Besides those foun-dations, there are also numerous artifacts scattered around. All (including broken bottles and rusted cans) are protected, and should be left where they are found.

It's amazing to think that, just 80 years ago, people were living here. So little remains.

Some of what does remain is kind of surprising: dead trees, still standing, fence posts, and the like. I'd always expected the wood would rot much quicker than it does when it's under water, I guess.

The NPS also has a field guide available on-line, to identify the buildings. Also, some photos of the historic town exist, so you can match foundations to specific buildings, homes, and what not.
That allowed me to identify the school house almost instantly.

Yet, most of the foundations are simply of old houses. Nearly all seemed to have a cistern, so apparently they all stored water adjacent to their homes.
One such cistern was kind of cool, because it had some informa-tion that was written into the concrete before it set. It had a name (either "Mary" or "Marx") and a date (May 26, 1911).
After finishing the 2 1/2 mile or so loop trail, I returned to my car. I then returned on North Lakeshore Road, stopping at several picnic area / rest areas for short hikes to view their water. One had a large, man-made pond. The other was just a short creek, but with a USGS water meter to measure outflow from here. With those short additional jaunts, I figure it's close enough to three miles to call it a day's hike.
I learned with certainty the way to St. Thomas by stopping at the Lost City Museum, in Overton, a few weeks previous to this trip. However, as noted, the NPS is also publicizing this site.
Back in March 2014, I hiked several spots off of North-shore Road. I may still try to post that set of hikes. It was a pretty good day. A somewhat long but doable set of separate day hikes could include hitting the three main trails off of Northshore (Northshore Summit, Redstone, and Saint Thomas).

Also, as an aside, looks like they're doing some work on Lake Mead's webpage. I'm hitting 404 error after 404 error whenever I try to follow a link there.


  1. St. Thomas is an amazing blast into history. I really enjoyed walking history as it lays in 2018 Great article by the way!

    1. Thanks for the compliment!

      It is rather amazing to think how much the lake level has changed in just the past 80 years or so.