Access to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area still requires an annual pass in these days of partial shutdown, but those who hold one can again enjoy the Colorado River’s Black Canyon.
Pack up your canoe, kayak or paddleboard and head to Willow Beach, Arizona. You have the choice to paddle upstream or downstream, but upstream is usually preferred for its beauty, wildlife and historic sites. There’s also the advantage of an easier paddle back at the end of your outing, riding the downstream current.
The elevation at Willow Beach is about 646 feet, so expect it to be a few degrees warmer than in Boulder City. Once you are on the river you will be officially on the 30-mile-long Black Canyon National Water Trail, designated in 2015. The water trail runs from Hoover Dam south through the Willow Beach area and then down to Eldorado Canyon in Lake Mohave. Black Canyon is a smooth-water experience with no rapids.
Once you leave the marina area and paddle upstream, you’ll pass a picnic area, a fishing dock and then the Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery. The hatchery specializes in two endangered species: the bonytail chub and the razorback sucker. Soon after the hatchery, the river makes a turn north and away from civilization; the only people you will see upstream will be boaters.
The canyon is a peaceful place and there are plenty of spots to stop and swim or have lunch without anyone else around. In the very unlikely event you must share a beach or swimming cove, please stay at least 10 feet away from others in and out of the water.
The best part of this outing is that there are suitable destinations all along the way, so you can just paddle as far as you feel comfortable and then return. A good destination for first-timers would be Emerald Cave, about 2 miles upriver. More advanced paddlers might want to venture to Arizona Hot Springs, located upriver about 7 miles, on the right, and marked by a tiny creek flowing into the Colorado.
The first place you might want to stop after you launch is the former gauger’s homesite on your right. Here, in the 1920s, the United States Geologic Survey built a one-bedroom house, complete with garage. There is just a foundation remaining but as you paddle upstream from it you will see the path the gauger took each day along a narrow catwalk hanging on the cliff face, finally transporting himself in two cable cars along a wire to cross the canyon to the gauging station. The gauging station was used for monitoring water levels, flows and silt rate.
Just after the gauging station itself, located on your left, you will come to Emerald Cave on your right. You can paddle into it and it’s a good place to take a photo or two as well as to get out of the sun for a bit.
There is plenty of wildlife around the river. Look for desert bighorn sheep as well as a variety of birds thriving in the canyon environment. The canyon is frequented by wonderful birds including ospreys, bald eagles, golden eagles, great blue herons, egrets, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks and a wide variety of waterfowl. When on shore, keep rattlesnakes in mind and be sure to look before you put your hands and feet anywhere, especially under the tamarisk near water’s edge.
If you stop along the shore, be aware that water levels below Hoover Dam do fluctuate, sometimes as much as 3-6 feet in a short time. Be sure to pull your craft well out of the water and secure it with a line. Preferably one at least 6 feet long.
If you can manage it, plan your outing for a Sunday or Monday because that’s when no motorcraft are allowed upstream from Willow Beach to the dam, thus assuring more solitude. Also launching early in the morning is best so you can be off the river by early afternoon, when it’s common for the winds to pick up. Even with the current in your favor, it can be a bear to paddle downstream against an upstream wind.
Be self-sufficient and bring everything you’ll need for the day. Besides your boat, paddle gear and personal flotation device, wear a hat and proper clothing. I suggest lightweight long sleeves and trousers, besides wearing sunscreen on all exposed skin; both water and cliffs reflect and magnify sunlight. Use footwear appropriate for water sports, and in a dry bag carry your suntan lotion, towel, food, water and personal items. Be prepared to pack everything out, including all your trash. Don’t count on cell service.
Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled into books about hiking in the Southwest. She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.
Directions: From Boulder City, take U.S. Highway 93 south to the Willow Beach Road, which is 14 miles past the Nevada-Arizona border. Continue about 5 miles to Willow Beach.