Kayaking Black Canyon

Kayaking the Black Canyon in Nevada and Arizona

Black Canyon. An ominous word combination, especially when one leaves Las Vegas at 5.00am to meet at a deserted service station near Boulder City.

As the sky turned black to blue, a van and trailer pulled in to the abandoned parking lot. I looked over the trailer, the Desert Adventures’ kayaks gaining color in the dawn, life jackets hanging like a bunch of grapes, people rubbing their eyes and yawning.

Today we’d spend the day kayaking the Black Canyon, from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach Marina. This was part three of my better half’s mystery weekend, following a great day in the Mojave National Preserve and an LA Kings ice hockey match the night before.

Forms were signed, passports checked, and we piled into the van to be taken through security checkpoints to an exclusive, permitted launch site below the gigantic Hoover Dam wall. It was quite the sight from below, but more impressive was trying to imagine the water flowing here before the dam.

Kayaking Black Canyon

Hoover Dam from below (pic by Dikko)

Kayaking Black Canyon

Morning light and still water

A faint smell of algae tinged the cool air and the water was still and glassy as we launched our boats. There were two men in single kayaks, and another group of three who also had single boats. I’d booked a double kayak and it had ample room for our backpack with water, food and suncream.

The forecast was fine and sunny, with a top around 26 degrees. Perfect. We would be cruising downstream on flat water, no crazy whitewater or waterfalls, just a pleasant scenic paddle on the beautiful, hard working Colorado River.

Desert Adventures provided a little printed map which was invaluable, and listed places of interest in relation to the mile markers. Our first major stop was Goldstrike Canyon where a hot spring flowed down into the river, creating an odd habitat for weird slippery white plants to flourish. We explored up the canyon, tempted to keep going, but mindful of the time and sights ahead.

Kayaking Black Canyon

Dr Dixon inspecting the Naegleria Fowleri warning

Kayaking Black Canyon

Exploring Goldstrike Canyon (still wearing our life jackets ha!)

Back in our orange kayak, the yellow paddles dipping and rippling in the dark blue water. At some points the walls of the canyon came in quite close, the sun crept down the right side of the canyon as it rose, making for great shadows on the water and rock faces.

Our early serenity was suddenly interrupted with some large boats coming upstream, followed by blaring music from a huge group camped at a beach near the popular AZ Hot Springs. It was disappointing to have others so disrespectful of other visitors, a small consolation their choice of music such as classic Massive Attack was at least acceptable.

Kayaking Black Canyon

Miniature riverbank oasis with rocky buttresses in the distance

Kayaking Black Canyon

View out of the Sea Cave where you can kayak right inside

Kayaking Black Canyon

The emerald colored waters and undercut rock of the Sea Cave

After exploring the small but fascinating Sea Cave we continued through Ringbolt Rapids (anything but rapid today with the huge dam in place). We floated along and stopped at a beach to explore the sand and nearby vegetation. The views of the soaring rock coming out of the water were just awesome and the weather was superb. For a couple of mountain people we sure were having plenty of fun on water!

Kayaking Black Canyon

Little stop on a beach near White Rock Canyon (took four shots with my old DSLR balanced on a pebble to get this)

We took turns paddling quietly. At one stage I ate an apple while lounging back being chaffeured, then we swapped and Dikko lounged while munching and relaxing. The double kayak was definitely a good idea in terms of taking it easy and just totally enjoying the day.


A little clip (would be nice if YouTube allowed audio fade out on free music so apologies for the sudden ending!)

Some more exploring and it was soon time for a proper lunch stop. The sun was becoming intense and Dikko found a perfect miniature nook in the shade. I stepped out of the kayak only to sink almost to my knees in soggy gravel! My Dunlop Volley shoes filled with little red, brown and grey rocks so I rinsed them out before enjoying the break.

Speaking of breaks, there is (as always) a leave no trace policy so we packed out everything we packed in. However, the recommendation for urinating is to do it in the river, which both Dikko and I found rather strange compared to our usual rules in the mountains (well away from lakes and water courses). In this instance, apparently it’s the best option considering dilution.

Looking back where we'd come from

Looking back where we’d come from

Kayaking Black Canyon

Our fantastic lunch spot was both secluded and shady

I have great respect for the Colorado River. It is such a hard working, amazing artery of life for so many people and industries.

Flowing through deserts and across vast distances, from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, through the Grand Canyon and down to the Gulf of California near Mexico. It is a mighty river that is tired, like so many others.

Paddling into the early afternoon I continued scouring the high cliffs for a sign of Big Horn Sheep. For some reason I was really excited to see them, even after seeing them many times licking salt off roads in Canada. Dikko spotted a group nibbling shrubs near the riverbank, so we positioned ourselves closer to take photos. It’s amazing how tough these animals are to live in such contrasting conditions, and I think that was part of my excitement to see some in a desert environment after seeing some in icy mountains.

Kayaking Black Canyon

Big Horn Sheep with a big bum angle

Kayaking Black Canyon

Mileage marker just before Emerald Cave

Something I wasn’t expecting on our kayak was engineering history. We paddled past an old gauging station, cablecar and catwalk before I spotted a trailhead leading to the gauger’s house. I can’t even begin to imagine the job this person had to access the gauging station after traversing the catwalk and crossing over the raging river in a rickety cablecar! Not to mention the rattlesnakes and scorpions on the walk from house to cablecar…

Kayaking Black Canyon

Cable car for the gauger to cross the raging river before the Hoover Dam was built

Kayaking Black Canyon

A catwalk still clings to the rockface, built for the gauger to traverse before reaching the cablecar

Leaving the historic section we paddled along a more exposed part of the journey, the canyon opening out and flattening to give views of the surrounding hills. The wind also made a presence and for some time we just floated down the river, experimenting and placing bets on what would happen.

The kayak eventually turned to point the eastern shore, and bobbed sideways downstream. At one point we left it to slowly bob into a grove of stunted trees and algae covered outcrops, as we sat like little inanimate lego people in a toy boat.

We were timing our arrival at Willow Beach Marina perfectly. Paddling softly past a huge fish hatchery we arrived at the far beach where vans and trailers were already positioning kayaks for transport. After leaving around 7.30am we reached the marina at 3.30pm, half an hour before our scheduled take out time.

Kayaking Black Canyon

Willow Beach – we made it!

Arriving early meant we had time to dry our shoes and enjoy an icecream. Some logistical issues with lots of people wanting to get back to their vehicles or Las Vegas on the first shuttle meant we were crammed into a van for the half hour ride back to our car near Boulder City.

From there, our drive back to Los Angeles was uneventful, other than a 40 minute delay on a dual lane highway due to Las Vegas traffic. What I’d  given to be floating on the river without a care then…

Kayaks, permits and shuttle
To book this adventure I used Desert Adventures, a tour and gear hire company in Boulder City. They were super helpful and friendly during the booking and on the day, highly recommended and a professional experience all round. Note I have no affiliation with Desert Adventures.

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