Kayaking the Black Canyon of the Colorado River: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach Marina 

When I tell people I am kayaking the Colorado River I think they immediately have visions of highly risk-averse extreme adventurers flying through intense rapids. Of course I have neither the skill nor stamina for such wild adventure, as much as I might have the spirit for it, so I must settle for the little less wild Black Canyon of the Colorado River. This excursion starts at the base of the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas, and passes through some incredible canyons replete with hot springs, and wildlife, and unrivaled adventure. What more can one ask for? This rugged wilderness desert adventure is second to none! 

Once as a kid I went on an overnight canoe trip in the great vast wilderness of Northern Ontario, which is probably what initiated this lifelong burning desire in my heart to go kayak camping. A couple years ago I fulfilled that dream right here on the Colorado River with part of my family, but now I return with a group of 19 kayakers for a three day excursion in this desert wilderness. You know how it is…….. if you’ve done it once you are now the expert!

I can scarcely contain my excitement. The only other emotion that I am feeling stronger than excitement is nervousness. Here I am pretending to be a tour guide….. bringing a group of unsuspecting people who trust me into this rugged wilderness area….. we have a handful of tweenagers along, several as young as 12…… 

My entourage really has no idea what to expect. They trust me fully. Perhaps they think I am confident. Or maybe not. Worries swirl around in my head….. what if someone gets sick….. what if someone gets injured….. what if someone capsizes….. what if it gets super windy….. what if we can’t get to the final destination in time for pickup….. what if a kayak springs a leak….. what if the river rises and the kayaks get washed away….. what if someone gets sun burned….. what if there’s not enough food….. what if someone gets a deadly Naegleria Fowleri induced brain infection from the hotsprings….. what if someone gets bit by a rattlesnake or a scorpion….. what if we lose vital gear….. what if one of the kids gets injured?

As you might suspect there is no cell service in this canyon. There is no one here to help you if something happens. We are on our own….. with me in charge…… who knows what dangers lie ahead……  one that I didn’t even know to suspect is lurking!

Before I begin with my story I would like to introduce the outfitter that we are using for this excursion, Desert Adventures located in Boulder City, Nevada. Their website is http://www.kayaklasvegas.com/  where they offer many different trips for adventure seekers. They offer fully guided and outfitted kayaking trips along this river for a price, but they also offer a great service to those who would prefer to do a self-guided kayaking trip. It is my understanding that this is the only company located here that services self-guided kayaking trips. And so it is that I have contracted them to arrange for our government issued permits for accessing the river at the base of the Hoover Dam, as well as kayak rentals and pick up and drop off from the river. I think the price that they charge for their services is quite reasonable. 

Kayaking the Black Canyon of the Colorado River: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach Marina
Now for a couple other logistical facts. Every Sunday and Monday of the year there is a ban on motorized watercraft on the river to the north of Willow Beach up to the Hoover Dam. That makes it perfect for a kayaker…. no obnoxious loud boats….. no exhaust…… no wake…… peace and quiet…… nature……  wildlife…… just thinking about it makes my heart smile. 

Government issued permits are required in order to access the roadway to the base of the Hoover Dam. These are limited in number, and allow a total of 15 watercraft once per hour by licensed outfitters. Once the outfitter’s vehicle enters the dropoff location at the base of the dam, the party has 15 minutes to unload and launch into the water. 

Desert Adventures offers two options for takeout from the river. The first, and by far the most popular takeout location is at Willow Beach Marina, which is about 12 miles from the base of the Hoover Dam. Perhaps most people choose to do only this section of the river, because this is the most amazing part with all the canyons and hikes and hotsprings. There is enough to do in this 12 mile stretch to entertain even the person with the worst travel ADHD – like me. Another great thing about this section is that the water flowing from the base of the dam helps to propel you along, but don’t fear, there are no rapids. The prevailing winds in the canyon are south to north, however, which can slow your progress considerably. Before embarking upon this journey it is wise to study the weather reports, including wind conditions. Also its smart to have a good map along. Desert Adventures has a little shop in Boulder City where I bought a really nice waterproof mapbook of this section of the Colorado River, which contains a lot of great information. 


The second takeout location that Desert Adventures offers is about 24 miles from the Hoover Dam at a place called “Eagle Wash”, which is where we plan to end up at providing that everything goes well. I will be publishing a second blog posting about this section of the river. It’s awesome, too! Eagle Wash is about 12 miles south from Willow Beach Marina. The river widens in this section as it approaches Lake Mohave, making kayaking a little more challenging. But perhaps the most challenging thing about this section is what is called “Windy Canyon”, a section of the river with high cliffs and potentially dangerous winds……. more on that later….. 


And so…..with no further ado….. let’s get to the river! I will warn you…… this is a long story…. Why? Because! I have so many awesome photos! There are so many beautiful sights along the way! I want to take you along with me as we paddle from the Hoover Dam down the Colorado River to Willow Beach!

The pick up location is in the west parking lot at the Hoover Dam Lodge, a hotel/casino close to the dam, where we spent last night in relative luxury compared to what we will experience the next two nights. Now, mind you, there are much better hotels located in nearby Las Vegas, but we have an early rise and this is by far the most convenient place to spend the night before heading to the river. Hoover Dam Lodge does not provide free breakfasts, but we scored free breakfast at their restaurant for a party of 8, because the hotel accidentally overcharged my debit card by adding an extra zero when I made the reservation.  If you want to save money it is also possible to tent camp the night before launching at the nearby campground located at the Willow Beach Marina, but I am a little lazy about that plan. 

This early morning hour there are two vans waiting for our group in the west Hoover Dam Lodge parking lot. Everyone but the children have to show their I.D. to prove that they are indeed the person to whom the permit has been issued. No ID equals no kayak. We excitedly load up the dry sacks that we rented from the outfitter with our gear (only $5 each, which is a bargain). I check and double check to make sure we have everything we need. I hope I am not forgetting anything!

The tour company drives us down a gated road to the base of the Hoover Dam. Now, I might tell you that its a pretty steep road, and the security is quite obvious. I guess there are hidden cameras everywhere. 

Kayaking the Black Canyon of the Colorado River: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach Marina
The bridge that spans above the river here is the new Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, which was completed in 2010. Traffic used to have to cross over the top of the dam, which was a nightmare especially on busy weekends. The bypass and the bridge cost $240 million to build…..in case you’re interested. And in case you want my opinion, the bridge is super annoying to drive over, because they built the walls so high that you can’t see the gorgeous views! 

But I digress…..she’s a beauty,  especially looking upwards from the river at the base of the dam!

Kayaking the Black Canyon of the Colorado River: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach Marina

Once we arrive at the base of the dam we have 15 minutes to unload our kayaks and gear from the vans, and launch into the river. That is the federal government’s rules. So, it’s hurry scurry…..let’s get unloaded! All hands on deck! 

Kayaking the Black Canyon of the Colorado River: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach Marina Kayaking the Black Canyon of the Colorado River: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach Marina

My little 12 year old is enthusiastic about this adventure. I wonder how she will fare. 

Kayaking the Black Canyon of the Colorado River: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach Marina

Our launch time is 09:00 a.m. The sun is getting bright, and the water is super calm! The cliffs are reflecting beautifully on the water. The water in the Colorado River here comes from the base of the dam or from the bottom of Lake Mead, thus the water temperature is in the 50s year-round and its crystal clear.
Kayaking the Black Canyon of the Colorado River: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach Marina

The launch is a little chaotic with the large group. There is no way to identify which dry bag is whose, and no one knows which kayak to select. I am busy trying to snap photos, and calling out instructions to everyone. Next time I will make sure everyone brings along some type of identifier that they can quickly and easily strap to their dry bags. I have brought along a whole pile of bungee cords and I have Bjorn hand them out to everyone. 

We all pile into any random kayak. Well, this is crazy!!!! We are short one kayak!! What? Sure enough, there is not a kayak for David! This clearly is an oversight by Desert Adventures, our outfitter. Just when I am about to blow a gasket I see the drivers carrying down a large green sea kayak for David. For some strange reason they happened to have this extra kayak on the rack. I heave a sigh of relief…. disaster averted! Suggestion……check to make sure you have enough kayaks, paddles and life jackets for everyone before you head down to the river. 

Let’s go! It’s launch time!

Kayaking the Black Canyon of the Colorado River: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach Marina
Once we launch we make our first stop quite soon. But, I must warn you…..when you are kayaking you want to secure all your supplies securely to your kayak. As you know we very hastily departed from the dam, and not all the gear got properly fastened to the kayaks despite my best intentions. One of our party members loses their cooler almost right away, but I manage to save it. 

I might add here that the outfitter recommends that you take a soft-sided cooler with you (easier to strap to the kayak), and so our friends rented one from them. The cooler they rented was very dirty and of extremely poor quality, so at my urging they took along their own hard-sided cooler instead. Do not rent your cooler from the outfitter. Just go to the store and buy one. It won’t cost you much more than renting, and at least you will have a decent cooler. Or…..you can take a hard sided cooler, too, just make sure all your items are strapped on securely! That goes for anything you have on board your kayak…… make sure everything is secure. I know a young couple who lost their wedding rings on a kayaking trip…… I know…..you are wondering who takes their wedding rings off when they are in the wilderness…..but you just might want to when you are paddling and getting blisters from your rings….. you don’t want to lose your gear or food either, because your trip will end up being miserable. 

Kayaking the Black Canyon of the Colorado River: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach Marina

The last time we were here the water level was much higher, and this pile of rocks was almost completely submerged. The water level on this river fluctuates constantly, as it is determined by how much water is let off from the base of the dam. Incidentally, the water level changes really fast when they release water, which leads me to another very important pointer. Whatever you do, if you should ever choose to go kayaking in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, make 100% certain to tie up your kayaks properly when you stop. I took along a super long and lightweight rope so that I can easily secure every single kayak together. When the water is unexpectedly released from the dam your kayak will be guaranteed to get washed away if it is not secured properly. I am sure you can imagine how miserable it would be to get stuck down here with no kayak – never mind losing your vital gear. And…..while I am at it……when you are parked remember to put your paddles securely in the bottom of your kayak so the wind doesn’t inadvertently knock your paddle into the water, leaving you up sh– creek without a paddle, if you know what I mean! 

Kayaking the Black Canyon of the Colorado River: Hoover Dam to Willow Beach Marina

Very soon after we leave the base of the dam we come upon the “sauna cave” on the Nevada side of the river. It’s a little tricky to find, as it is up the face of the cliff a little ways. This cave is actually a manmade tunnel that was built as an access for supplies during the building of the dam. When they were making the tunnel it kept filling up with geothermally heated water, and eventually they had to abandon their construction plans. A short trail leads to the entry. This way…..follow me….

The Sauna Cave is tall enough for David to walk upright inside. I peer into the darkness. Of course I forgot my headlamp in the kayak, but there’s no going back now. Here’s another pointer…..have your headlamp easily accessible for the Sauna Cave! We climb over a little concrete ledge and soon are enjoying the sauna…..literally….. I am loving this! The hotspring water reaches midway up our calves. With the light from my cellphone we make our way to the back of the cave. The heat is becoming oppressive, and soon beads of perspiration soak my clothes. I am hoping that this moist air does not ruin my cellphone. 

Sauna Cave on the Colorado River at Hoover DamSauna Cave on the Colorado River at Hoover Dam

Sauna Cave on the Colorado River at Hoover Dam
When we turn back towards the opening of the cave our eyes feast upon a beautiful scene. The river is calling…..I can’t believe I am here on my dream kayaking trip! There she is……the Black Canyon of the Colorado River!

Sauna Cave on the Colorado River at Hoover Dam

One thing that I have learned about this section of the Colorado River is that on Sundays and Mondays all year-round there is no motorized boat traffic allowed. Well, that’s not entirely true, because somehow these tourist pontoon boats are allowed down here. We see maybe two of them. Otherwise the peacefulness is quite blissful…..punctuated only by the occasional, or should I say rather frequent buzzing of a tourist helicopter overhead….. “Go away,” I say out loud to myself. 

Our next stop is at Gold Strike Canyon hotsprings on the Nevada side of the river as well. 

We park our kayaks, taking care to secure them well, and head off hiking into Gold Strike Canyon. This is so amazing! This stream is gushing forth geothermal heated hot water! This trail leads all the way up to a parking lot, which makes the Colorado River accessible by foot at this location. We see a few hikers along the way. Of course we do not go very far up the canyon. We just enjoy the beauty around us. 

The warm water makes for a great outdoor shower! 

And how about a pool to lounge about in? Ahhhhhh…..! And yes……this whole stream (aka river to Arizonans) is hot spring water! 

These girls have come all the way from Finland to come with me on this kayaking trip! 

This big pool is very warm. It takes a second to adjust to the heat of the water……

I love this shot looking back towards the Colorado River from Gold Strike Canyon! 

Oh wait……what is this? I remember reading about Naegleria Fowleri……. there was a young kid in Arizona who died a few years ago when he got an infection from this….. I give the kids strict instructions not to submerge themselves in the water in case this amoeba should enter through their nasal passages and into their brains…… it’s very fatal….. albeit very rare…..

Kristoff doesn’t bother to take his life jacket off…..just jumps right into this gorgeous pool. 


The headwind is strong today, which makes for a tougher time kayaking. But here we are, at what I believe is the Lost Man Hotspring on the Arizona side. It makes for a fun shower! 


Just across the way on the Nevada side is the incredible Boyscout Canyon. And yes…..this is hot spring water as well!


The canyon walls get quite narrow in here. I hope I don’t drop my camera into the water!

Eeeek….gotta use a rope to climb up here. I hope it’s secure…… it looks a little frayed!

A pile of sandbags here makes a big pool for lounging…..

We are off again and I am in the lead with Annika in our double kayak. We stop on this beautiful sandy beach to wait for everyone. We wait and we wait…..and wait…… David and Kristoff and Bjorn are missing…… Should someone paddle back to find them? I don’t want to go because it was pretty hard to get here. The winds are pretty strong! I am beginning to worry!

The kids swim to their hearts content as we wait…… the boys want to do some cliff jumping, but I am adamant that they can’t! 

“Don’t you dare! You must listen to me! If you get injured out here there is no way to get you help! I am in charge of you, and I say NO JUMPING! Tomorrow we will get to do some cliff jumping, trust me! At the end of our kayaking trip there is a place called Placer Cove at Nelson’s Landing where you can jump to your heart’s content.” I don’t tell them that its at least a 30 foot cliff….. and that many young teens have died while jumping there…..some by accidentally jumping on another diver…..some by making stupid mistakes when under the influence…..some by trying to swim across the cove…..  

When we were at Placer Cove last time there was a group of kids cliff jumping. I was hanging out in my kayak below the cliff watching the action. One young man jumped in and when he surfaced he was panicking, thrashing about and screaming, “I can’t swim! HELP!” I was dumbfounded! Who jumps off a 30 foot cliff when they can’t swim? That makes no sense to me. In a very calm voice I coaxed him, and instructed him to swim back to the nearby ledge, reassuring him that I am a nurse and can help him. Well, no sooner does that dude get to safety, albeit in a state of shock, his stupid friend jumps in and I witness a repeat of the same scenario! The second kid didn’t know how to swim either! I think everyone in my group knows how to swim… I hope!

Finally David and my two boys round the bend……guess what happened? Bjorn had stepped into his kayak somehow in such a manner that he had capsized! Luckily his gear was secured well, and he did not lose any of his load! David had to jump into the water to save him and help him right his kayak. Honestly, I don’t know how he managed to capsize the kayak, because these babies are pretty stable. 


Oh……but he did lose one of his shoes…… but, luckily he is safe and sound! If it hadn’t been for his father noticing him languishing in the water he may have been left far behind before we noticed he was missing!


The next sight to behold is called “Emerald Cave”, and yes, just as you would suspect the water is an amazing emerald green! It’s incredibly beautiful!

Because of the strong headwind and our frequent stops we have managed to paddle less than 5 miles today. I am pretty discouraged, to say the least! We stop at the Arizona Hot Springs to set up camp. I have read it is not wise to camp too close to the water, because you may wake up floating on the roof of your tent should they release water at the dam. 

We have much work to do. Some of us set to filtering river water for drinking…..

Some of us start cooking……

I brought some salmon to make fish tacos……mmmmm…..

I have David tie up all the kayaks onto my very long rope. I am super glad that I brought this rope along!

After dinner David lights a fire for the kids. We are going to head on up to the hot springs – not that we haven’t had enough of them today!

The Arizona Hot Springs are super, super amazing! If you walk on the trail about a 1/4 mile from the beach you come up to this tall ladder. If you continue along this trail for about 3 miles you will reach a parking lot on the Arizona side. This trail is closed during the hot summer months, because many people have been overcome by heat exhaustion attempting to hike it. 

And yes…..the water you see splashing down this ladder is hot spring water!


We climb up into the canyon. 

The canyon walls tower above us! 

The farther we go the hotter the water gets. 

And guess what? It’s perfect right here! Sheer canyon walls soar high above us, and we can see but a sliver of sky when we look up at the star filled night. I don’t know. How can life get more beautiful than this moment?

When we return to the campfire the kids are having a blast. Well guys, should we get to bed? Tomorrow is another busy day. Before I go to sleep I notice that the river water has risen like crazy. I guess they must be letting water out at the dam. If my kayaks weren’t tied down they would be floating away right about now. If we’d camped any closer to the water we would be floating on the roof. 


I snuggle in next to my husband in our tent. My heart…..it’s so content…..so at peace….. 

In fact, I am so at peace that I wake up in what seems just a few minutes and it is morning already! The boys had decided that it’s best to sleep under the stars…….that way “if you wake up at night you can just look up and gaze at the stars”, is what they had told me! I granted permission despite my reservations about scorpions and other undesirable desert critters that might visit. I kind of regret it now, because our kids’ really nice down sleeping bags are dusty this morning. Oh well……maybe the boys will remember this moment for the rest of their lives…… the beauty of the star filled night in this crazy wilderness canyon! I can only hope that they will have as deep a love for kayaking adventures as I do! Who really cares if their awesome sleeping bags are dirty?

We have taught our kids how to pack up their own camping gear, which makes this so much easier for me! 

Bjorn is busy filtering river water for us. I have a big 4 gallon collapsible water jug along (REI) that he must fill up before we leave. 

Yep……it’s Kodiak Protein Pancakes for breakfast (Costco). And who doesn’t take along whipping cream on a kayak camping trip!?

These girls are great! They are up early and smiling! No complaints from them as they paddle away!

This time the cooler is well secured!

Goodbye, camping spot!

Today we are making great time. There is a bit of a tailwind, and we are cruising! 

Check out this big beautiful bird……it lets me get pretty close….. it’s a blue heron.

I am so glad I talked this couple into going kayaking with us. They are having a blast!

We stop for a break at a beautiful sandy beach. 

Bjorn seems to be getting by with only one shoe….lol….

I haven’t told you this yet, but David has a big problem with his big green sea kayak. It keeps filling up with water. I am sure the outfitters must have known that this rig has a leak…. remember……they pulled it off the trailer rack at the last minute when they realized they had miscounted the number of kayaks that we needed for our group? Every hour or so we are siphoning about 4 gallons of water out of this kayak with a big water gun I brought along. It’s very heavy and hard for David to paddle, and trust me….. he is strong….. 

The other problem that we are having is that our 14 year old kayaker is not keeping up. While our leak expert tries to find the source of the leak and repair it with some duct tape that he wisely had remembered to bring along (take note), I am hatching up a plan in my head. When I get to the marina I am going to call the outfitters and demand that they bring us a new kayak to replace the big green doodad…..and in fact, I think I am going to have them bring a double kayak along so that I can put Kristoff and David into the same kayak. That way we will do away with our straggler. David earlier had refused to do a double kayak, but Annika and I have been sharing one and love it! I am confident that it will work out great for David and Kristoff as well. 

The water……it’s so beautiful! 

Before long we are at the Willow Beach Marina. That tailwind has been amaaaaazing! You may remember that I said earlier this is all the farther most kayakers go. The outfitters pick most paddlers up from here, but we are heading downriver another 12 miles or so! We stop to have lunch. We buy some supplies in the store, and ice for the coolers. There is no cell service here, so I ask the shop keeper if I can use the shop’s landline to call the outfitter to get a new kayak for David, which she adamantly refuses to let me do. Luckily there is a pay phone outside that accepts my debit card (lucky I had that along). 

I am having some reservations about heading on downstream with this crew. We have another 12 miles ahead of us, including Windy Canyon. The last time that we went through there I nearly capsized when sudden gusts of winds threatened to crash me against the rocky cliffs. How can I be sure that these kids will be safe? Is it too risky? Will it be too hard for them? Am I making a mistake? Will we make it to the takeout location on time? 

I feel a little sick to my stomach. 

I busy myself with the task at hand, which helps to ease the tension in my mind. See how much water is inside this puppy? 

We wait for maybe an hour for the delivery of the double kayak. Away with the big green sea kayak……!! And yep…..the outfitter has a double kayak for my husband and son! So, as annoying as it was that Desert Adventures didn’t have the right number of kayaks along, and put David into a kayak that leaked like a sieve…..they are very responsive to us when we called for help. 


Time to go again….. down the river from Willow Beach to Eagle Wash…… maybe you will join me for that adventure, too…… 

I dip my paddle in the water gently….first on one side…. then the other…. when I turn to look behind me I see the marina fading away, and then disappearing completely when I round the bend. David and Kristoff are leading the pack in their new double kayak. We have many more miles of paddling to do. I sit lower in my seat, lean my head forward, and dip my paddle a little deeper…. a little harder…. a little more purposefully…. Every paddler in my group seems to be intently focused on the task at hand, quietly marveling at the beauty of this wild river canyon, breathing the fresh air deep into their lungs, enjoying each moment…… even relishing the feeling of muscles that are beginning to ache a bit.

“Well,” I say to no one in particular, “If the winds picks up, and the going gets tough, we will just turn back.”

I watch the little ring-like impressions that form in the water as I dip my paddle. First on the left, and then on the right. Soon I am humming an old familiar tune in time with my paddling, quietly at first and then increasing in volume. Left……right……left……right…..left……right…….