The Black Canyon Water Trail is a 30-mile section of tailwater that extends out of Lake Mead from the Hoover Dam. This rugged and remote portion of the Colorado River offers clear water, sandy beaches, towering cliffs, colorful caves, and active hot springs, all in the middle of the Nevada and Arizona desert.
Most visitors access the river via permitted tour operators that drop customers off near the base of Hoover Dam for an easy float down to an awaiting shuttle bus at Willow Beach. I wanted a more private experience with a bit of a workout, so I decided to launch at Willow Beach and paddle 12-miles upstream to the dam, stay overnight along the river, and paddle back the next day.
After watching a video of a solo paddler reaching the dam in just two-and-a-half hours, I assumed it would take me about three or four hours in my shorter and slower kayak. I allocated the rest of the day to explore a couple of side canyons and hot springs along the way before setting up camp and returning to Willow Beach the next morning.
After a quick overnight stay inside of my truck bed topper while parked at the Willow Beach marina parking lot, I pulled my kayak off the rack, stuffed all of my gear into a couple of dry bags, and launched the boat into the glass-like water just after sunrise.
The paddling started out easy, but just 15 minutes later I was experiencing bad headwinds and a stronger current. Neither were mitigated by staying closer to the canyon walls. I later learned that water was being dumped out of Lake Mead throughout the day to raise the downstream levels at Lake Mohave. This probably explained why I didn’t see anyone else venturing North that day except for some crazy family who had attached a motor to a cheap single chamber inflatable boat that, combined with their inadequate lifejacket situation, was totally unsafe for this type of trip.
I encountered many different sand and gravel beaches scattered throughout the river between Willow Beach and the Hoover Dam. There were also large sections where the canyon rock shot straight up with nowhere to bring a boat or person out of the water. This sort of unpredictable shoreline diversity alongside the possibility of sudden changes in wind and current should be well understood before attempting the trip, especially with children and inexperienced boaters.
The rougher conditions combined with my awe for the surrounding landscape caused me to spend almost an hour paddling just 2 miles to the appropriately named Emerald Cove. Even though the water here is best viewed in the afternoon when the direct sunlight causes things to really sparkle, it was still quite enchanting in the early morning light. Regardless of the weather or flow rate, Emerald Cove is a relatively undemanding location for day paddlers to reach from the Willow Beach marina. A nearby beach also provides a great spot for lunch or even an overnight camping site.
Thankfully, both the current and wind eventually slowed down a bit. Even though I didn’t make it to the dam that first day as planned, I was able to explore quite a few beaches and side canyons along the way while still reaching the Arizona Hot Springs by about 3pm.
The Arizona Hot Springs shoreline was absolutely jam-packed on this Saturday afternoon in October, with even more boats still coming down the river. I hadn’t planned to camp here, but now I was questioning even taking a soak. I talked with one of the tour operators who told me that things get much calmer around dinner time when the groups are either settling into camp or have moved to one of the nearby campsites. With that intel in mind, I continued up the river to check out some of the dispersed camping possibilities that I had previously scouted on Google Earth. I could then try the hot springs again around sunset.
I ended up finding a nice sand ledge located about ten feet above the water that provided a great view of the river and canyon. I was able to drag my kayak up the path and conveniently unload everything right there while also keeping the boat safe overnight.
One of the reasons that I was so particular about where to camp is that the water level in the Black Canyon can easily fluctuate 4 to 6 feet at any time, sometimes more, depending on how much is being discharged from Hoover Dam. Recent water levels are easily identified by mud that is exposed as the water drops while the long term high water mark is where everything from the bushes to the rock and soil shows an obvious color change. Anytime you get out of your boat and store it below this high water line it should be tied to something permanent so that your boat doesn’t float away when (not if) the water rises. In just two days, I saw multiple people who didn’t do this and almost lost their boat. I also saw campsites setup way too close to the current water levels and have even heard reports of people waking up to a flooded tent, a lost boat, or worse.
After setting up my camp and enjoying an early dinner, I floated back down to the Arizona Hot Springs and found that the crowds had dispersed. This collection of soaking pools created by a natural spring flowing through a terrace of sandbags inside of a super narrow slot canyon is a truly magical place. A ladder provides access to the top-most pool, which I got to enjoy while watching the late afternoon sunlight softly light up the canyon walls.
Just upstream from the Arizona Hot Springs is Ringbolt Rapids. I didn’t really notice it on my original paddle through but definitely experienced a bit of a challenge navigating back to my campsite. Perhaps the Hoover Dam was letting out more water to cover the electricity demand as people in Las Vegas got home from work and started running their appliances and air conditioning. Maybe I was just more relaxed after a soak in the hot springs. Either way, I’ve since noticed that some upstream paddlers turn around here in disappointment, so I think it’s worth noting that the paddling difficulty is short-lived.
The temperature only got down to the mid-50’s that night, so I slept easy and barely needed my down sleeping bag. Even though no rain was expected, I just can’t get out of the habit of putting a rain fly on the tent and flipping the kayak upside down.
Thankfully, both the wind and current had nearly disappeared when I put the boat back in the water around sunrise that second morning. I easily paddled the 4 miles between my campsite and the Hoover Dam. The closer I got to the dam, the larger the bass swimming underneath me became. This made me really regret not bringing a fly rod.
Once at the Hoover Dam, I spent a while admiring the view and thinking about the people and engineering innovations required to build such a huge structure in the early 1930’s. The scale is impossible to adequately convey via a photograph.
There is a substantial barrier system that prevents boaters from getting too close to the structure. This was put in place during World War II when authorities learned of an alleged bomb plot by German agents.
Highway traffic used to go right on top of the damn, but the bridge towering above me was quickly constructed after 9/11 to mitigate obvious security concerns. I have seen the lake and river canyon from atop the bridge and dam but can now confirm that things look even better from down at the river. I couldn’t believe that I had this place all to myself, except for all the large fish that kept taunting me.
About 30 minutes after I arrived at the dam, the tour companies started dropping people off for their downstream float. I wanted to maintain the serenity that I had enjoyed thus far, so I paddled pretty fast back down the river to stay ahead of the crowd. I made just one stop at this riverside hot springs before quickly making it back to Willow Beach, thus concluding my awesome weekend on the Colorado River.
Beyond the obvious boating and camping equipment, I highly recommend the following gear for anyone looking to go on a similair water excursion:
- Dry bags are an absolute must to keep critical gear like a down jacket and sleeping bag from getting wet and losing all of their insulating properties. I used a couple of Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bags.
- Lightweight carbon fiber paddles make longer paddles much more enjoyable. My local shop sells Werner Paddles and they have worked very well for me. I also use neoprene paddle grips for added comfort with my hands.
- A good lifejacket is critically important for any sort of water activity, especially in a remote river like the Black Canyon. My Stohlquist Ebb is specially designed with a higher back floatation piece to fit more comfortably above my kayak’s seatback.
I’ve never paddled this stretch upstream – Glad to have your notes for future excursions.
Thank you for this succinct description of your trip. It provided the good and the ‘bad’. I have never done this trip, but I want to now! Love the pix.
Great write up. I have a Hobie PA14 and planning on mounting a 2nd seat in the back so my wife and I can experience what you just portrayed so eloquently. Thanks!