Kayaking the Black Canyon

The Black Canyon of the Colorado is a waterway that extends from Hoover Dam at Lake Mead and traverses through an otherwise dry desert with the El Dorado Mountains of Nevada forming one side of the canyon and the Black Mountains of Arizona creating the other. A recent drive to a conference in Las Vegas put me within 15 minutes of this unique wilderness, so I threw the kayak in my truck and set out for an adventure on the river.

Launching at Willow Beach

Several different tour companies offer drop-off downstream access from the base of the Hoover Dam. I decided to paddle upstream and back from Willow Beach for more serenity.  After spending one night at the Willow Beach parking lot in my Hotel Tundra – an air mattress inside my Toyota truck bed and topper – I launched into the river at 7 am. I experienced a decent headwind most of the day, but that kept most other boaters off the water – so I wasn’t complaining!

Emerald Cove, Black Canyon, Colorado River

Just 2 miles upstream from Willow Beach is Emerald Cove. You can kayak into this small cave and see how the water and river bottom lights up a bright emerald from the sun’s reflection. A nice rock bar and sand beach is located just downstream with an old gauging station, catwalk, and cable car also nearby.

kayaking Colorado River Black Canyon

The river canyon is a very cool mixture of straight edged cliffs towering high above you and sand beaches where you can stop to rest. The water level can increase quickly due to releases from the dam, so it’s always a good idea to pull your boat above the white line on the surrounding rocks or to tie it up to a secure high point.

crowded beach at Arizona Hot Springs

I knew there was an official campground at the Arizona Hot Springs about 7 miles upstream from my starting point. But after seeing how crowded it was with 30+ more boats than this photo shows, I decided to keep paddling.

Dispersed campsite along the Colorado River Black Canyon

Thankfully, I found this secluded spot high enough above the river to not worry about rising water levels. There was an existing fire ring and an amazing view.

Arizona Hot Springs

After setting up camp, I headed back to the campground to check out the Arizona hot springs. A 1/4 mile walk up the canyon and one climb up a very tall but robust metal ladder reveals this amazing gem hidden in the desert. It was fairly crowded, but everyone was very polite and there was plenty of space to soak. The wide angle photo above shows the cool perspective I got when soaking in this natural hot spring surrounded by tall canyon walls.

Coleman camp dish set

Back at camp, I got out the same backpacking dish set and cooking stove that I have used for 25+ years since joining Boy Scouts and becoming an Eagle Scout. This setup has seen a lot of camping, but never before on a river trip.


One thing I definitely wish we had as a kid was the Steripen. Forget bad tasting water with iodine tablets or time-consuming pumping. All you do is fill a water bottle with river water, turn on the Steripen, and stir for about a minute to treat the bacteria and make the water potable.

Inside BAP tent looking out over Colorado River

After finishing dinner and some freeze-dried apple cobbler that was surprisingly tasty, I settled in for an early bedtime. I couldn’t hear anything but the fish rising and critters chirping. Now, that’s camping!

Sunrise in the Black Canyon, Colorado River

I got on the water about 7am the next morning. The sunrise was even more beautiful now that I was deep inside the canyon. The previous day’s wind had completely disappeared and the water was now totally calm.

Scott Bideau kayaking at base of Hoover Dam

Reaching the dam and overhead bridge was quite rewarding. There were several tour groups offloading there for a downstream trip. Several people asked me how I got here without the commercial drop-off that is required for security reasons to start at the dam. After I told them it was a 12-mile paddle upstream, against the wind, and sometimes in a strong current from dam water release, they seemed to appreciate the money spent to start at the dam and float easily downstream 🙂

small hot springs on Colorado River in Black Canyon

There are several cool points of interest close to the dam. I didn’t have time to check them all out but did enjoy this natural hot spring. I had the place all to myself for about 10 minutes, but with the large tour groups not far behind, I decided to get back on the river to maintain the serenity.

kayak and bike on Yakima roof rack

Thankfully, my truck was safe and sound in the Willow Beach marina parking lot. I put the kayak back up on the rack and headed to Las Vegas to enjoy a warm shower, buffet dinner, and plush mattress at the Aria Resort before my conference the next day.

I plan to get the mountain bike down before leaving to check out some local Vegas single track! Stay tuned for that post…


  1. Can you tell me approximately how many hours it took you to paddle from willow beach to AZ hot springs? Thanks!

    • Scott Bideau

      April 10, 2018 at 9:51 am

      I made quite a few photo stops along the way, but I think it was about 4 hours of paddling. Others have done it much quicker, but I had a shorter kayak and was facing both a decent headwind (15-25MPH) and higher than average water flow out of the dam.

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