A Surprising Option for a Western River Trip

Black Canyon, Lake Mead National Recreation Area. USGS photo by Phil Stoffer.

Black Canyon, Lake Mead National Recreation Area. USGS photo by Phil Stoffer.

If you were looking for locations in the West to plan a canoe, kayak or raft trip, here's one that might surprise you: Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

This desert park actually includes two large lakes—Mead and Mohave—and the open water of either isn't prime territory for a float trip. Immediately downstream from Hoover Dam, however, is an off-the-beaten-path canyon with a surprise.

For 20 miles below the mammoth dam, the channel of the Colorado River follows a twisting path between the steep walls of the aptly-named Black Canyon. Although much of this stretch of water is now technically the upper end of Lake Mohave, the combination of narrow canyon and fluctuating water levels results in an environment that retains much of the look and feel of the former river.

So, what's special about Black Canyon? This is classic desert canyon terrain, and a fine place for wildlife and bird watching. Desert bighorn sheep and the canyon wren—a small bird with a beautiful, melodious call that's accurately described as "liquid"—are among the native inhabitants. Several side canyons with hot springs are popular stops for boaters.

Although you can also see most of this area by motorized boat, you won't hear a canyon wren over the sound of an outboard. Some restrictions on power boats in Black Canyon make this stretch of water more paddler-friendly for much of the year. Be sure to check those rules in advance if you plan to use motorized craft.

The most popular trip for canoes, kayaks and rafts covers the first dozen miles from just below Hoover Dam to Willow Beach, Arizona. The only public road into the canyon for many a mile ends at a boat ramp and small resort at Willow Beach. If you don't have your own equipment, you can rent a canoe or kayak at the resort, or from a number of private outfitters in the area.

While you can begin a river trip either near the base of the dam or at Willow Beach, the run downstream from the dam is the most popular--and requires more planning.

A permit is required to access the launch site in the restricted area just below Hoover Dam, and only a limited number are available each day. Due to stringent security, you and your equipment can only be transported to the launch point by your choice of several private companies licensed to offer that service.

Procedures for permits are a bit complicated, and you may find it easier to first select an outfitter and let them advise you on the process. Most of those same firms offer everything from shuttles and basic equipment rental to fully guided day and overnight trips.

Although this trip is only about a dozen miles long and can be done by canoe or kayak in a single day, you'll probably find it a lot more enjoyable if you make it an overnight trip. Except for areas in the immediate vicinity of Willow Beach and the dam, camping is allowed on sandbars along the river.

Like all desert canyons, flash floods are a potential hazard, so choose a campsite wisely, and get local advice if you're not well-versed on this subject. Don't forget to secure your boat whenever you stop. Water levels can change by several feet in just a few hours, based on releases through the dam's power generators.

This is almost entirely flat water, with a single, short, Class I rapid—so why make it an overnight trip? There are two wild cards in what would otherwise be a milk run float: current and wind. The park's website notes,

From Hoover Dam to mid-way between Willow Beach and Eldorado Canyon …the current ranges from 3 to 12 miles per hour. This current is variable, depending on the volume of water released from Hoover Dam and the water level in Lake Mohave. At Ringbolt Rapids, the speed of the water may reach 16 miles per hour on week days.

If you're paddling downstream and have a strong current, this trip is obviously a breeze. If the current is minimal, however, the real breeze comes into play, especially if you're headed from the dam to Willow Beach.

A brisk wind out of the south is often present, especially as the day progresses. That translates into a headwind for paddlers headed downstream, and if it coincides with a slower current, you'll have a good workout. Yes, people do make this trip in a single day, even a windy one… but pack essentials for an overnight, just in case.

It's also possible to skip the permit process if you begin and end your trip at Willow Beach. In that case, the effects of current and wind are reversed for each half of your round-trip float. You get the idea.

There's one other option for a very basic look at the canyon. If you just want to sit back and enjoy the ride, a park concessioner offers raft trips from the dam to Willow Beach. These are large, inflatable, "motor-assisted" craft, and passengers spend about three hours on the water.

A few final tips will make any of these trips more enjoyable:

Unless you enjoy being slow-roasted, make this journey in the fall or spring. The average maximum temperature at Willow Beach in July is 112 degrees, and highs can exceed 120 degrees—in the shade!

Since many people like to avoid the summer heat, milder months can be a bit busy. Popular stops like hot springs can be crowded then, especially on three-day weekends. If you'll want a Hoover Dam launch permit, plan ahead. They can be reserved up to six months in advance.

Finally, this is one boating trip where you definitely need to wear your life jacket. Yes, I know there are no big rapids, but the water temperature hovers right around 52 degrees year-round. That's too brisk for pleasant swimming, and if you take an unexpected dunk, the frigid water can be a stunner.

You can download a map showing key points of interest along this route. This isn't the Grand Canyon, but Lake Mead's Black Canyon does provide a nice sample of canyon country boating.