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Days
2
Motors Allowed?
Yes
Difficulty
Easy / Class A
Distance
12.00 mi (19.31 km)
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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.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Winter
Spring
Summer
Fall

Congestion

High

Parking Pass

National Park Pass

Pros

Hot springs. Cool river. Campsites.

Cons

Hot in the summer. Limited shade. Busy on the weekends.

Water Temperature

32.00 °F (0.00 °C)

Features

Backcountry camping
Hot springs
Fishing
Picnic tables
Waterfalls

Typically multi-day

No

Shuttle required

No

Site characteristics: Water

River

Portage required

No

Location

Field Guide

Nearby Adventures

Nearby Lodging + Camping

Comments

06/06/2017
If we drove here on our motorcycle, can we just hike along the river to the several hotsprings / stopping points?
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