Black Canyon Canoe Trip: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
Paddling a Flatwater Stretch of the Colorado River on the Arizona - Nevada Border
Each year, our local outdoors club takes a canoe and kayak trip through Black Canyon, beginning at Hoover Dam and paddling the Colorado River south, eleven miles to Willow Beach.
I've done this canoe trip four times (so far), and here I'll share information and some photos as well as other helpful links in case you're thinking of paddling through Black Canyon, too.
All photos on this page were taken by me, Deb Kingsbury.
Canoeing the Colorado River Through Black Canyon - At a Wide Point in the River....
The river level and flow rate of the Colorado River in this area is determined by Hoover Dam. You won't find any whitewater rapids in Black Canyon, but the river does run fast when they're letting a lot of water out of the dam, especially in the hotter months when the energy demand from cities in Arizona, California and Nevada goes up, when homes and businesses are using a lot of power to cool their buildings. I've found the water to be much lower and calmer when we've done this trip in February or early March, as opposed to later in April.
Caution: Novice paddlers are better off doing this trip when the water flow is low, rather than during the late spring or summer unless there's a more experienced canoeist who can steer the boat. We've had inexperienced paddlers on our trips during the higher, faster water levels, and they've had trouble pulling over at intended stops because the water was moving too fast for their skill level.
Added later: On our most recent trip through Black Canyon, canoes from both our group and others capsized in unusually high and rough water. While there were no actually whitewater rapids in this area, there were what I'd call "whirlpools" and waves that were too much for a number of boats and paddlers.
River Mile Markers
There are mile markers along this part of the Colorado River, increasing from south to north towards Hoover Dam. Hoover Dam is at mile marker 64 and Willow Beach is at 52-1/2.
River right is Nevada. River left is Arizona.
Your outfitter/shuttle service should provide you with a map, including points of interest.
Have You Paddled This Part of the Colorado River? This is Also the Upper 11 Miles of Lake Mohave, Above Davis Dam
Please let us know in the guestbook at the bottom of the page why you do or do not recommend this trip.
So, have you done this Black Canyon trip? And, if so, what did you think?
Where To Stay Before & After the River Trip
The Hacienda Hotel is a convenient place to stay before and after this paddle trip. We actually used to get rooms for less than $30 including tax! But they've changed ownership and rates are higher now -- often more than double at $70+. That said, it is an easy place to stay the night because your outfitter will meet you there early on the morning of your trip.
I also recommend the Willow Beach Campground at $20/night. Your outfitter can also pick you up there the morning of your trip and shuttle you to the put-in at Hoover Dam. The nice thing about camping here is that you can leave your car right at the marina where you canoe trip will end.
The Hacienda Is On The Nevada Side Of Hoover Dam In Boulder City - 25 Minutes from Las Vegas
The Black Canyon Shuttle and Boat Rentals
You need to use an outfitter to do this trip, even if you have your own boats,because they have the access to the put-in, which is a secure area at the bottom of Hoover Dam. You cannot drive in with a private vehicle or even walk in. The outfitters have security clearance and will bring you and your boats and gear down to the water.
On Our First Group Canoe Trip...
Our group rendezvoused just after 6a.m. at the Paddlecraft Staging area in the parking lot at the Hacienda Hotel to get our gear ready for the shuttle, which was provided by the outfitter. Those of us with vehicles drove them from the hotel (in Nevada), across bridge over Hoover Dam (into Arizona) and down to Willow Beach, where we'd end our trip a few days later. The drivers were then shuttled back to the parking lot in the outfitter's van to pick up the rest of the group and the boats, both owned and rented, and we were all taken to the launch site just a few miles away.
We decided to leave our vehicles at Willow Beach in order to avoid a shuttle at the end of the trip.
To get on the shuttle, all adults must have a photo I.D. (ie. a driver's license or a passport), and children need to show a school I.D., or a copy of a social security card or a birth certificate. This is required because you'll be entering a secure area at the base of Hoover Dam.
Black Canyon Area Outfitters - You'll Need One to Start Your Trip at the Dam
Several outfitters operate under the Commercial Use Authority from the National Park Service. All offer kayak and/or canoe rentals and some will also run a shuttle for those who wish to use their own boats and rafts. (Of course, there's still a fee for the shuttle, even if you're using your own boats. And you DO have to have a commercial shuttle to get to the put-in below the dam.)
Here are some of the outfitters available. Our group used Boulder City Outfitters.
- Boulder City Outfitters
Offering canoe and kayak rentals and shuttling or guided trips
- Desert River Outfitters
Kayak and canoe sales, rentals and guided river trips; shuttles (located in Bullhead City, AZ)
- Black Canyon River Adventures - Black Canyon River Adventures
Choose from downriver floats and post-card tours below Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. New historic tours available.
- Kayak Lake Meade
Black Canyon kayak trips beginning at Wilow Beach
- Desert Adventures
Outfitter and guide services .. not to be confused with Desert River Outfitters above. This is a different company.
Black Canyon Permits
To launch at Hoover Dam, a permit is required. Permits can be obtained through any of the authorized outfitters in the area.
Permits are available for all days except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. There are 3 launches a day--7a.m., 8a.m. and 9a.m.--and each launch is limited to 15 boats.
For More Information on Permits, Visit the Bureau of Reclamation Website
- Bureau of Reclamation: Lower Colorado Region - Hoover Dam: Paddle Craft and Rafting Tours
There is a site just below the Hoover Dam where paddle craft such as, canoes, kayaks or personal rafts can be launched for an enjoyable trip down the river.
The Black Canyon Boaters' Put In Below Hoover Dam
Where you'll begin your canoe or kayak trip
With the construction of Hoover Dam, the surrounding desert was transformed into one of the best recreation areas in the southwest. Three and a quarter million yards of concrete went into the dam, said to be enough to build a sidewalk from the North Pole to the South Pole! At the height of construction, more than 5,000 men were employed, all housed in the first master planned community in the United States: Boulder City, Nevada. The construction site was so remote, however, that until an access road was built, workers had to be transported 11.5 miles upriver from Willow Beach through Black Canyon. The final bucket of concrete was poured in 1935, when the water of the Colorado River slowly started to fill behind the dam, forming Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake in North America. (Source: ForeverLodging.com)
The road leading down to the launch site below the dam is in a security zone, so access is limited to only Bureau of Reclamation employees and their contractors. For this reason, you'll have to use one of the contracted outfitters for a shuttle, even if you have your own boats.
We had a great view of the south side of Hoover Dam as we carried our boats and gear down the ramp and sets of steps to the rocky water's edge. Above the dam is the new Colorado River Bridge. (The bridge, which was under construction when I took the above photo, is now complete.)
The Story Of Hoover Dam - A Video From the U.S. Department of the Interior
This is a bit of an aside, but I watched a similar (free) film at the Hacienda hotel and found it rather interesting.
It's one thing to see Hoover Dam as it exists today, looming high above us as we pack our boats at the put-in, but it definitely adds something to the experience when you see and learn how it was constructed. You can watch this video and then share some information with the other boaters in your party.
Loading The Boats For Our Three-Day Black Canyon Canoe and Kayak Trip
The shuttles can't drive all the way down to the water at Hoover Dam, so unless your outfitter will carry your boats and gear for you, be prepared to make a number of trips back and forth, from and to the vehicles and the river's edge. There's a paved ramp and then some steps. I'd say it's maybe a couple hundred feet to the rocky water's edge.
Caution: The rocks at the edge of the water can be very slippery, especially for those wearing water shoes.
Gear To Remember for your Black Canyon Canoe Trip
Besides the usual--tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, basic clothing, food and cooking equipment--here are some things you'll probably want on your packing list:
- Sun hat
- Sunscreen and lip balm
- Gloves (not only for warmth if necessary but for comfort while you're paddling)
- Headlamp and extra flashlight (You'll need one for the Sauna Cave.)
- Extra batteries
- Rain gear
- Water shoes
- Extra shoes for hiking
- Extra socks
- Non-cotton pants/shorts
- Warm layers (The desert can get chilly at night, even in the summer.)
- Beach/camp chair
- Long-sleeved shirt (for sun protection)
- Rope to tie things down in the boat and to tie the boat up
- Dry bags and/or heavy duty trash bags
- Water filter or some kind of backup in case you run out of potable water
- First aid kit
- Extra paddle
- Portable toilet or waste bags
- A pad for the canoe seat if your outfitter doesn't provide one
How Long Does This Trip Take?
The paddle from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach can be done in one long day, but I think three days and two nights is perfect. And if you want to explore the side canyons further or spend more time relaxing in camp, you could extend it even more.
For an even longer trip, one can paddle 63 miles from Hoover Dam to Davis Dam. Read a trip report.
Soaking in the Hot Springs of Black Canyon
Soon after putting your paddles in the water, you'll come to the Sauna Cave on river right (the Nevada side). This narrow cave was created when workers were looking for a site for Hoover Dam. To their surprise, what they found was hot water--about 132 degrees!--which means the air in the cave is hot too. I couldn't spend more than a few minutes inside.
En route from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach, there are also three side canyons--Goldstrike, Boyscout, and White Rock Canyon--that have hot springs, from pools to waterfalls and creeks and even places where the hot water comes right out of the rock like a shower head. We found some of the pools more on the lukewarm side, but others were definitely up in the 102 to 104-degree Fahrenheit range. (And one creek felt even hotter than that when I went to walk through it and very quickly jumped out.)
Most of the hot springs are within a short hike from the river's edge, while some require longer treks and even some rope-climbing. In Goldstrike Canyon, I decided not to go up the two ropes that were already in place to aid hikers and opted instead for the easily accessible pool not more than a quarter-mile from the boat.
At the time of our visit, Arizona Hot Springs was quite a challenge to get to, because a ladder had been removed after it was deemed no longer safe by the Ranger. But a few of my friends did find a way to scramble up there and said the water temp was great. Hopefully, a new ladder will soon be installed, making the pools easier to access.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind about the hot springs. For one, the warm water causes algae to grow on the rocks, which can be very slippery. Also, I've heard that the hot pools may contain an amoeba called Naeglera fowleri, which can cause a serious illness if it gets in your nose. This is rare but definitely something to be aware of.
Soaking in a Hot Spring in Goldstrike Canyon—a Side Canyon Along the Colorado River
A Guide to Arizona Hot Springs
Touring Arizona Hot Springs guides you to more than twenty-five of the state's best hot springs, whether you're wanting a mineral soak or looking for a sightseeing adventure. Historian and veteran outdoors author Matt Bischoff reveals his favorite "hot spots," from primitive pools in the backcountry to whirlpool mineral baths near civilization.
This book contains:
*Firsthand descriptions of soaking locations
*Detailed maps and directions
*Historical background information on the hot springs and their surroundings
*Tips on safety, access, and availability of services
*Best time of year, restrictions, water temperature, camping info, and more
Paddling the Colorado River in Black Canyon
Be sure to wear you life jacket. It's the law! (What about that guy in the back, you ask? His life vest is under his jacket.)
Canoe-Camping in Black Canyon Between Hoover Dam and Willow Beach
Camping along this part of the Colorado River is at large and primitive, though there are composting toilets at the popular Arizona Hot Springs beach, which is a good site for larger groups. I heard that on last year's Flagstaff Outdoors Club trip, also in February, they shared that area with large groups of Boy Scouts. This year, there were 25 of us on the first night, and we were joined by a family group of about eight and two backpackers the next.
If you want a campfire, bring wood with you. The most you'll find in the area will be kindling.
No glass containers are allowed, and be sure to pack out all trash.
The Arizona Hot Springs Beach
There are numerous hot springs, side canyons and camping spots in this area, which does have outhouses (out of view on the right). This site is located at the 60-mile marker.
White Rock Canyon and Arizona Hot Springs
A side canyon along Black Canyon
Arizona Hot Springs is located in a slot canyon. The spring forms several pools located about 1,000 feet from the river, where the near-vertical canyon walls are about 6 to 9 feet apart. At the source, the spring gushes at a rate of around 30 gallons per minute and a temperature of about 111 degrees Fahrenheit.
I didn't actually go to this hot springs on my first trip, in part because there was no longer a ladder there, and friends from our group tried unsuccessfully a few times to reach the pools. It was also raining, so the rocks were slick. Finally, two of the guys did find a way to scramble up, but by then it was getting late, and I decided to wait till the next year. I heard the water temperature was wonderful, though, and these are definitely pools worth visiting. You can also backpack into this site from the head of White Rock Canyon.
For more information, see the Lake Mead National Recreation Area website.
Arizona Hot Springs Update
The next time I did this canoe trip, the metal ladder up to the big pools at Arizona Hot Springs had been replaced. It's sturdy and well secured at the top.
Climbing up alongside the warm waterfall was easy for me but, being a little afraid of heights, the first step over the top rung made me nervous on the way down. But my buddy stood on the ladder partway up as I climbed over, which helped me get past that point.
The hot springs were definitely worth it. There are a few pools, located on different levels of the slot canyon. The pools get warmer -- make that hotter -- as you go up.
(This photo of the ladder was taken by my husband, Jeremy. You can see more of his Black Canyon photos on Flickr.)
Flash flooding is a concern in Black Canyon, especially in the narrow side canyons.
River levels fluctuate and can do so quickly, so be sure your boats are pulled as far ashore as possible and securely tethered.
Riverside Camping On The Colorado - Don't Forget the Marshmallows!
The View From the Beach at Arizona Hot Springs in Black Canyon
See Some Black Canyon History by Boat
Black Canyon presented quite a challenge to the first explorers who ventured into its waters, which, at the time, included of a number of rapids. After his steamboat, "The Explorer," struck a rock, Lieutenant Joseph Ives of the Corps of Engineers had to continue in a skiff. He decided that when the water was high, the canyon would in fact be navigable for steamboats, which transported supplies to mines, ranches, and landings which were used as transfer stations for goods then taken by wagon to Utah. To navigate the rapids, iron rings were set into the canyon walls. These rings, used to help winch the steamboats up river, can still be seen today.
Eventually, the seasonal flooding of the Colorado River and the construction of the railroad through the Vegas Valley made the use of steamboats obsolete, and plans were begun to build a dam. On December 21, 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Boulder Canyon Project Act, and, in 1931, notice was given to Six Companies to begin construction.
In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps, concerned about the effects of the dam, built a gauging station in Black Canyon to determine the environmental impact. Engineers measured the depth of the river and the rate of the flow and took samples to check the purity. As we paddled through the canyon south of Arizona Hot Springs, we saw the remains of this gauging station, including the long trail and rickety catwalk that led from the gauger's house to the station. You can stop and take a short walk to the remains of that house, which is indicated by a "Historical Site" sign at the river's edge.
Stories From The Colorado River—A Good Read for Those Nights in the Tent or Around the Campfire on Your Paddle Trip
This book is just the thing for armchair travelers and history buffs.
The author has masterfully drawn together 17 pieces that bring to life the explorers and adventurers of the Colorado River. The collection begins with the traditional Paiute Indian legend in which the rushing waters serve as a warning to couples who cannot overcome their differences. Historical tales of exploration follow, starting with an account of the men who were sent by the Church of Mexico City to discover a route through the canyon region. Also included is Maj. John Wesley Powell's account of the uncharted waters. Robert Brewster Stanton details the ill-fated expeditions to survey the shoreline for a railroad route, John C. Van Dyke captures the river and its snakelike bends, Frank Water emphasizes the environmental concerns of the area, and Georgie Clark and Colin Fletcher describe their adventurous river runs. A comprehensive, well-balanced book that is perfect for armchair travelers and history buffs.
A Canoe and Kayak "Barge" in Black Canyon—my Friends and I Lash our Boats Together for a Lazy Float From Arizona Hot Springs to Willow Beach
The Boaters Take-Out (Or Put-In) at Willow Beach
Located on the Arizona side of Lake Mohave, Willow Beach Marina is a great place for fishing, boating, and picnicking. This is where we left our vehicles, then shuttled to our put-in below Hoover Dam. Paddling downriver, you'll see a fish hatchery--one of the largest trout hatcheries in the U.S., raising approximately 1 million fish per year--a short distance before Willow Beach on river left.
Willow Beach was actually a Native American trading camp for about 1400 years.
Video Slideshow: See More Of Black Canyon
On Sundays and Mondays year-round, the National Park Service does not allow power boats above Willow Beach, so it will be quieter on those days, which means you are likely to see more wildlife.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, any sized power boats are allowed from Tuesday through Saturday. After Labor Day and before Memoral Day, however, only boats with 65 horsepower engines or less are allowed above Willow Beach.
At Emerald Cave in Black Canyon, Along the Colorado River
Explore The Length of The Colorado River - Images and Prose
The images in this book take you along the entire length of the Colorado River, from its rugged upstream canyons, to its dams and reservoirs, to where it disappears into the desert, completely consumed. In an insightful, personal introduction to the photographs, Halverson tells how she explored the Colorado, accessing it by car, on foot, and by raft while learning about its transformation into a complex water delivery system.
In the well-written foreword, historian William Deverell sets the photographs in the context of Colorado River history and discovery. In both images and text, the book gives a wonderful view of the splendor of the Colorado and a clear look at the many ironies contained in its waters.
More Black Canyon Trip Reports And Photos
© 2010 Deb Kingsbury