Sometimes all it takes is one Jewell to recognize a true gem.
And in this case, that Jewell is Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who designated a portion of the Lower Colorado River that flows through Lake Mead National Recreation Area as a National Water Trail.
One of only 16 nationally recognized water trails, it also holds the distinction of being the only one that flows through a desert.
This is probably the reason I’ve never heard of a water trail before. As a native of the West Coast, I’ve done my fair share of hiking in the deserts and mountains of Nevada, California, Oregon and Utah, but I never imagined finding a trail in the water.
I had the pleasure of discovering what a water trail is and how precious a gem it can be during a raft trip down a 12-mile stretch of the river last week.
Accompanied by members of the Lower Colorado River Water Trail Alliance, which submitted the application for the national designation, I visited the upper portion of the trail that took us from the base of Hoover Dam through Black Canyon to Willow Beach. Also on the trip were those from National Park Service who work at Lake Mead and the Bureau of Reclamation who are responsible for managing the water trail.
My guides for the trip, on the bus ride to the launch site as well as on the raft, have a wealth of information about the dam and Black Canyon. For example, although most people would suspect that Hoover Dam was built to provide power or store drinking water, the primary reason was to prevent farmlands from flooding downriver, according to my raft guide Scott Tenenbaum.
A ceramics teacher at Silverado High School, Tenenbaum spends his summers guiding raft trips for Forever Resorts’ Black Canyon and Willow Beach River Adventures. He also spends a great deal of time hiking the slot canyons along the water trail and pointed out many of the area’s highlights.
In addition to just being able to enjoy such a beautiful, peaceful setting, riding the water trail enables you to see remnants from the construction of the dam, including catwalks scaling the canyon walls, a system to bring drinking water to fledgling Boulder City, carts hung on cables that enabled workers to travel from one side of the canyon to the other and a gauging station to measure the river’s depth.
There also are plentiful beaches that invite picnickers to stay and relax awhile or play in the cool, refreshing river, numerous hot springs, waterfalls and caves.
It was almost magical going into Emerald Cave and watching the dark green water turn emerald green. The water was so bright it was as if someone had turned on a light at the bottom of the cave.
Traveling south along the water trail from Hoover Dam you also will pass through the “ring bolt rapids.” Although technically not what you would consider rapids, the area gets its name from the metal ring bolts that remain in the canyon walls. Originally they were used to tie up the steamships that traveled upriver and brought supplies to the dam workers, one of the men from the Bureau of Reclamation who was on the raft trip said.
On my trip, I also saw a variety of wildlife. I spotted several small herds of bighorn sheep, ducks, a turkey vulture and even a tadpole on a hike to Arizona Hot Spring. We were even fortunate enough to see a great horned owl.
The way the people on my raft trip got excited about the sheep made me wonder how it would be if the tables were turned. What feelings and thoughts do the bighorn get watching rafts of tourists float down the river?
And despite the triple-digit temperature, a cool breeze and occasional splashes made the day in the sun tolerable.
Simply put, riding on the river is fun. It was a glorious adventure. I can see why alliance members worked so hard to obtain the National Water Trail designation.
With the water trail so close to Boulder City, there’s no reason not to go exploring and see what a jewel we have in our own backyard.