Ice-cold water, steep rock cliffs, mysterious caves and ravines with hot springs are not what you expect in the Mojave Desert. But kayaking Black Canyon is a refreshingly different delight.
Most people come to Nevada to gamble away their hard-earned savings in Las Vegas. When we were there attending a travel conference, we decided to skip the casino craziness and explore the natural wonders of the Mohave Desert. And there was a lot to discover.
One of our favorite desert adventures in this arid state in western U.S. was only a 40 minute car ride from the Strip.
Black Canyon starts downstream of the Hoover Dam and is a highlight of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The launching point is literally at the foot of the soaring dam walls, which in this post-9/11 era is a high-security zone.
Though we usually prefer to undertake things on our own, this trip requires hard-to-obtain permits; therefore, it is better left to the professional guides to handle. So, we decided to skip all the hassles of arranging transportation, permits, kayaks, etc. and booked with Desert Adventures, one of the few outfitters authorized to do this paddle, and one of the best. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post to find an exclusive 10% discount code for our readers for all Desert Adventures activities!)
The Black Canyon Water Trail is one of only 16 paddling routes within the National Water Trails System in the United States. It forms the border between Nevada and Arizona, and stretches 65 km / 40 mi south from Hoover Dam.
There are some camping opportunities along the way, but we didn’t have enough time. Therefore, we chose a day-tour kayaking Black Canyon on the Upper Water Trail from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach, which, we heard, is the best section of the river to paddle.
Thanks to restrictions, there are only three launches allowed from Hoover Dam per day, each with a maximum of 15 vessels. That means you pretty much have the river all to yourself. Also, we were on the river on a Sunday, which is one of the two days (the other is Monday) when no power boats are allowed, so it was peaceful and quiet.
We launched at 8 in the morning with the majestic Hoover Dam in the background and had a full day of kayaking Black Canyon ahead of us.
I have to admit, I was a little tentative in the beginning; I had some kayaking experience, but didn’t want to have to do an Eskimo role in some serious rapids to save my life.
Fortunately, it turned out that this stretch of water is good for all levels of kayakers. Not only was the water totally calm (the pros say “moving flatwater, no whitewater”), but also the sun was shining, our group was only 10 people, and we didn’t have to work that hard because the river’s slow current took us steadily downstream.
What surprised me most was the crystal clearness of the Colorado River. We had just done a Grand Canyon rafting trip a few days before, and the water there was brown and muddy. Here, it was emerald colored. I could see the fish underneath me, and many times even the river bed.
Kayaking Black Canyon starts off with a Sauna Cave
Our first stop was a sandy beach on the Nevada side. We tied up our boats carefully, as the water level here varies largely and quickly due to the release of water from Lake Mead through Hoover Dam.
We climbed a little bit up a hill to reach a big hole in the rock. One after the other we entered and were hit by 50° C / 122° F hot steam. The further we went in, the darker it got, until at some point it got so pitch black, I decided I’d “seen” and “felt” enough and it was time to head back out in the desert sun (which was cooler by comparison).
This “sauna cave” dates back to the construction of the Hoover Dam (1930s), when workers began drilling a tunnel at this site but had to stop and abandon it when they hit a hot water spring.
I think this feature would be more “fun” in winter, however we were there in dead summer. Hot was not what we were looking for, and almost the whole group jumped in the Colorado River many times during the trip to “cool down”. This was more than a bit brave, as the river here is 12° C / 53° F all year round, but luckily nobody had a heart attack.
In Goldstrike Canyon, on the Nevada side, instead of gold we found another hot spring, although this time the water was contained in pools and a small waterfall, not a steam bath.
The rocks in the water here are covered with algae in vivid green colors. Our guide advised us to use caution, as an amoeba common to thermal pools can cause a rare infection and possible death. Good to know that every little paradise has its flaws.
Back in our kayaks, we soldiered on, flanked by steep high cliffs on both sides, passing numerous little green coves that opened up between the rock.
Smooth kayaking Black Canyon even through the Ringbolt Rapids
Our first “rapids” experience was the infamous Ringbolt Rapids. Actually, we almost missed it as the rapids were pretty mild.
This is because Davis Dam (that created lake Mohave, 100 km / 60 mi downstream from Hoover Dam) tamed these waters, which at one time were some of the most challenging rapids on the Colorado River.
The spot is marked by one remaining large iron ring set in the rock on the Arizona side 5 m / 15 ft above the high water mark. The rings were used to help winch steamboats up through the rapids in the second half of the 19th century.
Arizona Hot Springs
If it was cooler, our group might have wanted to take a dip at each single hot spring along the way (and there are plenty). But given it was August in the desert, we weren’t really looking for more heat. Until … we came to the only accessible hot springs on the Arizona side of Black Canyon.
After a little hike through a windy, narrow canyon, we found a beautiful waterfall that allowed us access to a series of pools via a steel ladder. We didn’t actually get in the water, but the spot was beautiful.
Shortly after, we had a lunch break at a nice sandy beach, I had to cool down again my body temperature in the Colorado. It was still icy, but as it felt like my blood was bubbling because of the heat, it was a “must do”.
A lot of nothing, local wildlife and some human traces
I don’t know if it was post-lunch laziness, the heat, or being tired of paddling, but after lunch I was as flat as a pancake. The river wasn’t flowing fast enough to stop paddling, so I hitched a ride with Eric, who (thanks to my sneakiness) didn’t even realized for a long time that I had tied my kayak to the back of his. Next time I think we’ll go for a tandem kayak — it’s more relaxing.
My “paddling break” meant I could finally do my job and look for wildlife to photograph. Allegedly, you can see desert big horn sheep on the cliffs along the river, and even chuckwallas (some kind of lizard) soaking up some sun. But the only thing I caught sight of was a great blue heron and a bald eagle, which wasn’t too bad after all. I guess it was just too hot for the other wildlife.
Soon we came across some more evidence of the work men did to tame this river. Our guide pointed out an old gauging station which was used to monitor water levels, silt content and flow rate of the river during the construction of the Hoover Dam. Apparently there was a guy who had to walk along a series of cliff-hanging catwalks and jump in a tiny cable car and cross the (back then) raging river underneath to fulfill his duties.
Emerald Cave enchantment
One of my favorite stops on our paddle was at Emerald Cave. I probably would have missed if it weren’t for our guide, as the opening is barely higher than a person in a kayak.
Once I was inside this magical spot, I didn’t want to leave again. If you were ever wondering what the color emerald is, hit Emerald Cave.
We were there in the afternoon, and the sun’s rays indirectly enlightened the whole cave through the water and bathed the interior in a magical green. Thank god photographers don’t have to pay for film anymore.
After what seemed like an eternity, I was able to pry myself loose and finish the rest of our 19 km / 12 mi long kayaking Black Canyon tour.
After kayaking Black Canyon Willow Beach brings you back to real life craziness
After the magic of Emerald Cave, our final destination was a bit shocking. Arizona’s Willow Beach is the line between non-powerboats and powerboats. So the whole vibe shifts here. The noise and commerce hits you hard after a quiet day on the river. (Though I can’t complain about the cold ice cream that was just what I needed after a day in the desert.)
If we had more time, we could have kept on paddling south to Eldorado Canyon. The river there is supposedly still narrow, cold and flowing through a deep canyon for about 5.5 km / 3.5 mi. But as they allow powerboats there, we were probably smart to get out where we did.
When we come back to this area, I’m actually thinking of doing the trip again. Though with so many awesome tours Desert Adventures offers throughout Nevada, Arizona and Utah, I will probably try something new.