Paddling a kayak or standup paddleboard along the Colorado River, below the Hoover Dam, along the border of Arizona and Nevada, is a surreal experience. The hot desert sun blazes down on an arid landscape while crisp, clear water winds its way south through the majestic 2000 foot walls of the Black Canyon. What seems like an impossible adventure is actually a trip many make every year.
Exploring the 12 mile stretch of river between the Willow Beach marina put-in and the base of the dam requires a bit of logistics if you are flying into Las Vegas and renting a car for the one-hour drive. But the experience is far greater than any effort it takes to get there. Those who are within road trip radius have it easy. Pack up the car and go!
Whatever the reality of getting there is for you, the first mile of paddling leaves that world far behind. Exploring any new zone by human-powered watercraft has an ancient appeal. And when that zone looks as wild and natural as the Black Canyon, the connection can be downright mystical.
Go With The Flow Along the Black Canyon
The controlled flow of the river is mellow enough for novice paddlers but having someone along experienced with the area and river dynamics is definitely recommended. Along the river, herds of Bighorn Sheep peer curiously from the steep cliffside and each turn of the canyon reveals new marvels of the geography and prehistoric setting. As remote and inaccessible as the area feels, it is easy to find maps that highlight the must-see spots. Kayak and rafting tour outfits can be seen on the river but not frequently enough to affect the vibe of your crew.
A campsite with outhouses is located just below an area known as Ringbolt Rapids and sits right at the entrance to a dramatic slot canyon hike that leads up to the Arizona Hot Springs. The mineralized water flows lazily at about 30 gallons per minute, creating small, perfect pools for soaking in. Vertical canyon walls nearly block the sky and make delightful shade for a restoring soak.
On the river, there are a few spots for cliff jumping and rock climbing. Geothermal waterfalls shoot off into the river in spots and create an amazing hot shower-while-you-paddle opportunity. Basically, anywhere there is water running into the river is a signal that there is something cool to investigate. Boy Scout Canyon is such and a great stop to relax under more waterfalls or doze off to the soothing sound of trickling water.
The properly named Sauna Cave, just before the restricted area at the base of the dam is fascinating. The tunnel was drilled by miners working on the Hoover Dam in the 1930’s as a diversion route for the river. They abandoned the project when they hit a hot spring. The tunnel is narrow, pitch black and filled with shin-deep bathwater. Not for the claustrophobic, the cave runs about 40 yards underground and you have to creep along with a hand on the wall and in front of you. If you are looking for that inner-earth sauna experience this is the one!
That Time We flew Into Vegas and Didn’t Go To Vegas
Time spent in the Black Canyon flies by and a day trip will leave you wishing for more. Take advantage of the campsite and plan for an epic overnighter. If paddling, swimming and jumping around all day sounds like your kind of craziness, then skip the Vegas strip all together and let your amphibian side go wild.
The Colorado River water temp is consistent in the mid 50’s year-round in the Black Canyon. You may want to consider wetsuit booties for warmth and traction while scrambling around on rocks.
Inflatable paddle boards are perfect for portability on a trip like this and can easily be thrown in your car trunk or checked as luggage on your next flight.
Check the forecast. Wind can be a factor as the canyon acts like a wind tunnel and a strong headwind will make paddling much harder, especially when you are going upriver.
The every day, controlled flow current is light unless the dam is releasing water for hydroelectric generation. The higher flow is still very negotiable but keep in mind that water levels can rise a few feet quickly.
The National Park Service has a Black Canyon Water Trail page and it’s a good resource for everything from warnings to renting gear.
Your Mother will always think what you consider fun is dangerous but having a First Aid Kit on hand never hurts. Quick pain relief is also important to staying on the water.