Weekenders in Vegas typically have no idea that just outside this desert metropolis is a secluded canyon with cold, clear water, starry skies, and hot springs. The Black Canyon of the Colorado River, the section just below Hoover Dam, is this enchanting place. Lake Mead National Recreation Area has designated 30 miles of river as a national water trail that is open to recreational and commercial boaters. This is a guide to the most popular section, the 12 miles from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach. River miles are marked by visible signs along the way. Hoover Dam is at river mile 64, and Willow Beach is approximately mile 52.
Camping and campfires are allowed anywhere along the river. To minimize impact of at-large camping, be sure to use a fire pan or pre-existing fire rings, camp on durable surfaces, respect plants and wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors. There are toilets at Arizona Hot Springs, but you must pack out your own waste everywhere else.
Highlights of the journey include:
Typically referred to as the Upper Water Trail, this canyon has a high concentration of hot springs, rewarding side hikes, and suitable campsites. The full length is best done as an overnighter. Out-and-back paddles are possible from either end, and running shuttle in between is logistically simple.
The catch is that boat launches at Hoover Dam are tightly regulated, and permits are only available through authorized outfitters. A launch permit at the dam is $17 per person, and although outfitters may charge additional fees, they typically offer package deals with guided tours, boat rentals, or shuttle services.
For the self-sufficient and more frugal boater, launching at Willow Beach is the way to go. This costs only $10 per vehicle, and vehicles can stay parked there for up to seven days. The caveat here is that exploring the Upper Water Trail requires paddling upriver. This is an easier feat than it may seem, however, as the current is slight most of the time.
Current may pick up dramatically when Hoover Dam releases water for hydroelectric generation, however. This typically happens in the afternoon. Higher flows remain perfectly negotiable, but less experienced paddlers should plan on being off of the water by mid-afternoon. Keep this water release in mind when tying your boats and setting camp as well, because water level can rise several feet in a short amount of time.
Wind forecasts for the days you plan to paddle are also worth checking. Although many days are nearly calm, high winds are common in this part of the country, and the deep canyon acts like a wind tunnel to funnel air currents either directly north or directly south. Winds can switch direction within the same day, and a strong headwind will make paddling exponentially harder, especially if you are traveling upriver.
The Black Canyon is a truly remarkable place, especially considering its juxtaposition to the urban environment of Las Vegas and the surrounding desert. This river trip is a favorite among locals and traveling boatmen alike, so it is not to be missed if you have the chance. Come prepared for bright sun, long hours paddling, and windy afternoons, but also refreshing water, relaxing hot springs, rewarding hikes, and clear skies.
Safety Precaution: Hot springs in the Black Canyon may contain Naegleria fowleri, a life-threatening pathogen. To avoid contact, keep your head above water, and don't let water get in your nose when in a hot spring.