Black Canyon, Lower Colorado River
The waters of the Colorado are fed by melting snow many miles upriver in the Rockies, maintaining a water temperature in the lower 50-degree range. Along the winding shoreline, you will find a myriad of coves, inlets, and small beaches. Along the way, you will find larger canyons, areas of green vegetation and thick underbrush, a few caves, and rocky plateaus and ledges often teeming with Big Horn Sheep.
The best way to visit and explore the Black Canyon is by kayak or canoe. You can either float lazily downstream from just below Hoover Dam, moving with the river’s current. Or you can launch from Willow Beach, Arizona and paddle upstream (and then return back to your launch point). Most guided tours take you downstream as the tour operators have special access to the Hoover Dam launch point. If you prefer to venture out on your own, you will likely launch at Willow Beach.
There is a gravel area where you can park your vehicles for unloading / loading of kayaks. Adjacent this is a paved parking area where you can park for the day (or overnight if you are camping). Other than that, there are no facilities at Willow Beach and there is no cell phone coverage here due to the high canyon walls.
The views are amazing, the cliff walls are dark and towering, and the skies are usually deep blue. The Lower Colorado River waters are a dark hue of green. On the surface, you will meet a large assortment of people-friendly ducks that are begging to be hand-fed
Camping is authorized, pick from any of the secluded canyons or inlets to set up camp – please be respectful and leave no trace.
Check out the Black Canyon rafting adventure tour.
Kayak Camping on the Colorado with Kids
We like to launch our kayak from Willow Beach – a short 40-mile drive from the Las Vegas / Henderson area. We own a sit-on-top Ocean Kayak and on a recent trip had no problems loading our camping gear (tent, sleeping bags, stove, food), one adult and two kids (ages 5 and 3) on board. The afternoon of our first day we faced a pretty stiff headwind (northerly) of about 15-20MPH in addition to the current as we paddled northbound. Right at the launch point at Willow Beach, we were flocked by dozens of ducks – this captivated the kids and was a sign of things to come. We recommend getting an early start – you will likely underestimate the amount of time it takes to pack, load, unload, and launch your kayak and in the latter part of the afternoon, the shadows will encroach into the canyon as the low sun’s rays do not reach past the cliff walls. Plan to set up camp in daylight as the nights in the Black Canyon are pitch-black!
The first two miles of paddling leave took us from Willow Beach to the first canyon turn and past the fish hatchery. Next, we passed a few narrow canyon inlets, a small sand bar on the eastern side, and came to the Emerald Cave where we paddled right into its darkness – the kids really enjoyed this part. Right around this point we began to see older parts of the canyon infrastructure including a rickety cat walk system and line and pulleys high above us with small wooden carts dangling below them leading to old observation towers on the western bank of the river. The sun was low beyond the western wall of Black Canyon and our gaze suddenly stopped as we spotted the silhouetted outline of a Big Horn Sheep high above us at the top of the canyon wall. Slowly it moved and we realized there was a baby huddled beneath it!
Continuing north brings you to Arizona Hot Springs, Boy Scout Canyon, White Canyon, the Sauna Cave, and eventually up to Hoover Dam. However, we did not have enough time to venture that far on this trip.
Make sure you pull your kayaks up and away from the shore when you camp. Hoover Dam periodically releases water into the Lower Colorado and you want to make sure your kayak doesn’t get swept away (or your camp site deluged) when the water level rises. To be perfectly safe, we recommend you tie your kayaks to trees as well.
The next morning, after heating up some coffee on the stove, we ventured out to explore and hike the back end of the canyon. Now, in the late morning, a family of ducks congregated at our camp site having smelled all of you breakfast food. The kids spent several hours wading in the shallow water and hand-feeding the ducks the remainder of our camping food. We had exhausted our original water supple that we brought with us, so we used our MSR water pump to pump (and filter) water right from the Colorado River. Not only was the filtered water clean, but refreshingly cold, too!
We finally packed up and loaded all of our gear and shoved off, paddling back downstream towards Willow Beach. We paddled once more back into the Emerald Cave and continued south when we suddenly saw the outline of several Big Horn Sheep along the mountain top above us. As we slowed our paddling and grabbed our cameras, we noticed many more Big Horn Sheep, including adults and babies all across the rocks in front of us! As we drifted around the bend, immediately in front of us at water level were four more Big Horn Sheep searching for food on the rocks. It was an incredible sight and more kayakers congregated near us, quietly drifting, observing, and photographing the sheep.
Eventually, we had continued paddling south back to our original launch point. Past the fish hatchery, but just prior to Willow Beach, we noticed a small partially-hidden cove that had a beautiful sandy beach for its shoreline – we would definitely have to come back and explore that place! We finally arrived back at Willow Beach, unloaded our gear, loaded our kayak on the roof rack, and headed back to Vegas – but not before the kids fed the large group of ducks waiting for us on the shore.
Kayaking with Kids Advice
Even paddling upstream against the current with a stiff headwind, the Colorado River waters were not rough and definitely navigable and enjoyable for adults and kids. The Lower Colorado (below Hoover Dam) is relatively calm with no white water or rapids. Kayaks are very stable and our favorite water craft when paddling with kids. Canoes can be less stable and you tend to ride higher and further from the water — kids love to be close to the water and even drag their hands and feet in the river as you cruise.
Remember to bring a hat and sun block to ward off the sun’s strong rays. Keep in mind that in the shadows of the Black Canyon, it can get chilly, so pack a sweat shirt or fleece and a light-weight gore-tex jacket or windbreaker and keep then within arms reach while you paddle. Bring binoculars for you and bring some kiddie-binoculars for your kids (you can buy toy binocs at Target).
Lastly, bring some aqua socks (water proof shoes) or crocs for your kids to wear on shore. Much of the shoreline is lined with small rocks that while not sharp, are rough on your feet and your kids will enjoy playing on the shore more if their feet are protected.
Exploring Black Canyon
There are dozens of named trails along the river. Many of the trails ascend from the riverbank and eventually lead to hot springs or caves. Even if your map does not show a marked trail, you can still explore any of the canyons, gorges, or inlets and scramble your way upwards. You might come across a variety of lizards, large birds, Big Horn Sheep (usually high on the cliffs), and large pools of rain water collecting in pockets of sandstone (also known as Tinajas). Kids will love scrambling and climbing on the rocks, and they will be quite excited if you come across any animal life.
Take Route 95 South from Las Vegas towards Boulder City. Continue towards Hoover Dam, but do not turn towards the dam, instead take the bypass bridge and continue south on the Arizona side. Turn right when you see the signs for Willow Beach.
Check out the Black Canyon rafting adventure tour. Accompanied by your friendly and informative guide, you’ll travel to the launch area at the base of the Hoover Dam for a view of the dam that very few people have the opportunity to see. The raft stops along the shore to give you a chance to swim or paddle in the cool clear waters below Hoover Dam.
While you’re enjoying the outdoors near Las Vegas, take a visit to Red Rock Canyon, one of the Mojave Desert’s most beautiful attractions. Choose a leisurely six-hour tour, or go for the four-hour afternoon express option if your time in Las Vegas is limited.