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Black Canyon Water Trail: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach

Colorado River

Las Vegas + Southern Nevada, Nevada

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Black Canyon Water Trail: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
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  • Beginning the paddle into Black Canyon on a perfect day.- Black Canyon Water Trail: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
  • The journey itself is part of the fun, so take time to enjoy it.- Black Canyon Water Trail: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
  • Taking in the scenery of Black Canyon.- Black Canyon Water Trail: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
  • Goldstrike Hot Spring in the Black Canyon.- Black Canyon Water Trail: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
  • Arizona Hot Spring in the Black Canyon.- Black Canyon Water Trail: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
  • This hot waterfall at Goldstrike Hot Spring is like a natural shower.- Black Canyon Water Trail: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
  • Relaxing beach time at Arizona Hot Spring.- Black Canyon Water Trail: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
  • Emerald Cove fills with sunlight at midday.- Black Canyon Water Trail: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
  • Bringing some friends along for the ride into Black Canyon.- Black Canyon Water Trail: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
Overview + Weather
Pros: 
Hot springs. Cool river. Campsites.
Cons: 
Hot in the summer. Limited shade. Busy on the weekends.
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Region:
Las Vegas + Southern Nevada, NV
Congestion: 
High
Site characteristics: Water: 
River
Motorized watercraft allowed: 
Yes
Parking Pass: 
National Park Pass
Portage required: 
No
Preferable Season(s):
Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
Total Distance: 
12.00 mi (19.31 km)
Water difficulty: 
Easy / Class A
Current Local Weather:
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Paddle Description

Paddle Description

Pro Contributor

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:

  • Sauna Cave: A few hundred yards from Hoover Dam launch site up in the cliff wall on river right is a hole drilled into a hot spring. The cave is filled with hot water and steam. Bring a headlamp for the full experience.
  • Goldstrike Hot Springs: Less than a quarter mile further down river on the right side is a very hot waterfall that feeds a pool at the river's edge. The mouth of Goldstrike Canyon is a short walk downstream from here, and hiking up the canyon leads to more warm pools and waterfalls.
  • Warm Waterfall: One hundred yards further down and on the opposite side of the river (river left) is a perfect shower-temperature falls that drops out of a palm oasis.
  • Boy Scout Canyon: A third of a mile downstream from mile marker 62 is a canyon with a sandy beach on river right. Hike a half mile up this canyon for hot pools. Another three-quarters of a mile of hiking and scrambling over boulder jumbles leads to a spectacular amphitheater and 300-foot dryfall.
  • Ringbolt Rapid: The swiftest flow is a 100-yard section of river known as Ringbolt Rapid, where steamboats used to be hooked to massive steel bolts in the rock wall and wenched upstream back when this was a wild river. Today the gradient is less and the rapid is hardly noticeable.
  • Arizona Hot Springs: Just below Ringbolt on river left is a calm cove and pebbly beach that leads to enchanting hot springs in a slot canyon. This is the most popular stopover for day trippers and campers alike.
  • Gauging Station: Around river mile 54 is an old gauging station tower, a cable car, and a precarious via ferrata that stand as relics to early 20th-century engineering.
  • Emerald Cave: Just past the gauge tower on river left is a cave large enough to fit several canoes or kayaks. When this alcove fills with afternoon sun, it is truly a spectacle to experience.

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.

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