Boondocking at Lake Mead, Government Wash

Government Wash, Lake Mead National Recreation Area

The two weeks that I spent at Stewart’s Point on Lake Mead were relaxing and productive at the same time. The only fault in the experience was that the cell connection for my Verizon hotspot was really intermittent, which meant I could only work at night or early in the morning. I managed to get about half way through my series of blog posts revisiting the trip to Africa from 2016, but I was ready to move to somewhere with better internet connectivity.

I drove south down Highway 167 through Lake Mead National Recreation Area and stopped 13 miles down the road at Echo Bay to dump my tanks and refill the fresh water. The dump station is free, but the water pressure is quite low, so it took longer than usual to fill my 30 gallon tank. While I waited I chatted with a couple who had also been at Stewart’s Point and were also headed to Government Wash. They remarked that the low water level was really quite something, as they had been coming to Lake Mead for almost 20 years and had never seen it so bad.

I had hoped to refill my propane tank at Echo Bay, but there was nobody on staff that day that could run the filling station. My gauge is off by a quarter tank, so that when it is full it only reads ¾, the effect being that when it is ¼ full, it reads empty, and I have to guess how many days I have left. 

Government Wash is only 40 miles south from Stewart’s Point, so it takes less than an hour to get there. Be aware that the Park Service does have law enforcement on the road, and I think I did see them waiting with radar to catch folks exceeding the 50 MPH limit. They probably catch quite a few, because I’ve rarely seen so many expensive sports cars on one road before. It’s like every gold-chain wearing bro in Vegas that has a Lamborghini, Porsche or Corvette likes to go out and rip around Lake Mead. I’m a car guy for sure, but I found it remarkable how many Lambos I heard ripping through the gears from my campsite… that V-10 has a quite distinctive note.

Pulling into the camping area, you pass signs prohibiting camping in the paved area at the entry. The location was formerly a parking area for the boat launch, which is another casualty of the drought. The ramp is blocked off with concrete barriers, as it’s almost a mile from the current water level.

The road to the camping area becomes dirt and gravel at the edge of the parking lot. For the most part, the main roads are solid and not too bumpy. There is little washboard because the rocky soil is too hard, I suppose. 

At the first junction, where there were two trash dumpsters, I took the branch to the right. The government worker that cut these roads bulldozed a path that’s easily two vehicles wide, and cut widely spaced turnouts perhaps 50 to 75 yards from each other. Nice and flat, I didn’t have to level the rig at all in the one I chose to pull into. There weren’t many that were not taken in the late afternoon on a Sunday.

Looking north towards the entry and the main roads with turnouts.

I walked out to the end of the road to scout and see if there was a better spot, but the only open spaces were off the main track and would require covering some sketchy soft spots and rather steep terrain. So I chose to stay put for the night, and go into town the next day to refill my propane. Later that night, I went for a long walk around the other main branch of the road that heads in a southeastern direction. The night sky here is never very dark, as the lights of Las Vegas are unsurprisingly intense. I was able to clearly see the road and got an idea for where I might move the next day. There was one spot that looked great, though it was occupied by some campers with a gigantic bonfire going.

The next day I drove into Henderson, which is about 15 miles out.  There is a Shell station with propane that is near a Smith’s Market, so I restocked the pantry after getting fuel. On the next trip into town, I went to an Albertson’s grocery that is a bit closer.

I renewed my “America the Beautiful” annual pass at the southern gate of the park on my way back, ready for another year of National Parks in 2022. When I returned to the camp area, I found that the spot I had envied last night was now free, the big bonfire they’d lit was still smoldering. It was only slightly tricky getting backed into the spot in the best position for level, and I actually dug a shallow hole in the soft gravel to lower one of my rear wheelsets. The view was excellent!

The smell, however, was a problem. The smoldering fire pit had trash in it (thanks, assholes) and  the burning plastic stink came right into my windows. So I used the small amount of water in my grey tank to douse it.

The Verizon cell signal here was excellent, and I had no trouble working or entertaining myself with Amazon Prime and Youtube. The place can be busy though, which created plenty of other entertainment.

One night, I saw flashing roof lights in a strange place, close to the water. They were not red and blue cop lights, but yellow flashers. I figured it to be some kind of BLM or park service vehicle, it looked like a mid-size SUV. There was another vehicle up the hill, with a tow rope going down the slope to try and pull the SUV out. Then several other vehicles arrived, with various types of flashing lights. After a long struggle, the stricken SUV got winched out, and high fives were exchanged all around.

Two different stuck trucks from another daytime episode.

The next day I went to look at the tracks in the gravel and I talked to the campers that were parked right next to the scene. It turned out that the SUV with the yellow lights was a guy from the local 4×4 rescue club, SNORR. The Southern Nevada Off Road Recovery group pulls people out of the soft sections around Government Wash on a near daily basis, and this guy was one of their own… he had accidentally backed off the edge of the trail and was stuck very close to splashdown in the lake! His pals will probably never let him forget it either.

Looking north and east, the campers are fairly spread out.

The major downside of Government Wash is the amount of trash down by the water. Most of the areas that are close to the main tracks are pretty clean, the campers taking decent care of the area. But the fishermen are another story. So much garbage. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything as bad, outside of an urban setting. It was a major bummer, and I only went to the water to fish once because of it. I carried out two 13 gallon bags of trash, but it just feels hopeless.

The other downside of this location is that the water coming into the little bay comes out of Las Vegas Wash. When I scouted the area on Google Maps, I wondered where this water was coming from. I wasn’t aware of any water sources for Vegas aside from the Colorado River. It turns out that Las Vegas wash is almost 100% effluent, treated waste water from Vegas Metro. 

Las Vegas Wash: 100% treated waste water and runoff.

According to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, “Contributing approximately 2 percent of the water in Lake Mead, the water flowing through the Wash consists of urban runoff, shallow groundwater, storm water and releases from the valley’s four water reclamation facilities.”

So if you wonder what that smell is, it is the treated sewer water from Vegas being returned to the lake.

The combination of factors… the abandoned facilities due to the low lake, the garbage left by garbage human beings, the sewer water… Government Wash isn’t a particularly uplifting place to spend time. It is free (assuming an annual parks pass), and it is warm in the winter. The cell service is great. But there are better places to spend two weeks where those features can be had.

 A few other features to note:

There is a large pack or packs of coyotes that live in the area and they are unafraid of people. I had a few saunter through my camp, glancing at me without concern. They are great fun to listen to when they all howl together in the evening, but watch out if you have pets. Don’t leave food laying out unattended.

The area is directly under a major flight path for Harry Reid International Airport. At any given time of any day, there are at least four aircraft overhead. One night, I counted eleven planes within sight, without turning my head more than 180 degrees. The noise volume isn’t great, but it is constant.

Law enforcement is uncertain. When I arrived on the second day, there was a trailer in a prime spot at the top of a hill, close to where I ended up. I walked past it on a hike and saw that it was tagged with a warning sticker from the previous week, so it had been unattended for at least three weeks. When I left after two weeks, it was still there, abandoned. What circumstance causes one to abandon a nearly new trailer that must have cost 50 grand? Stolen? Dead guy inside? It was weird.

  • Pretty nice trailer to be abandoned.
  • Warning on October 30.

There are two other options for boondocking in the same area, 8 Mile Road and Boxcar Cove Road, both a little ways north of the turnoff for Government Wash. I didn’t visit either and can’t vouch for their qualities, but they appeared to be less crowded.

Next up, I’ll review the Valley of the Sun adjacent area that I migrated to after Government Wash.

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