Deb thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and is a Search & Rescue volunteer and writer living in Flagstaff, AZ.
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.
Canoeing the Colorado River Through Black Canyon
The river level and flow rate of the Colorado River in this area are 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.
Update: 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 actual 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.
Where to Stay Before and 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 your canoe trip will end.
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.
Read More from WanderWisdom
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
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.
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 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 the 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
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
This book is just the thing for armchair travelers and history buffs.
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
Explore the Length of the Colorado River
More Black Canyon Trip Reports and Photos
- Cold River, Hot Springs
A good article from the "Arizona Daily Sun"
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Could you bring dogs on the Black Canyon canoe trips?
Answer: I have seen people bring dogs on their boats. It gets extremely hot in Black Canyon, so be aware of the really hot sand and rock on the shore.
Question: Do you know of any 2 day trips from Hoover dam to willow beach?
Answer: You can do the Hoover Dam to Willow Beach trip in two days with just one-night camping. You could even do it in one long day. We just chose to camp for two nights at Arizona Hot Springs, so we could relax and explore the area more. I don't know for sure if that's what you were asking, but the trip here is totally doable in two days.
© 2010 Deb Kingsbury