Kayaking the Black Canyon Water Trail

I had read about this trip on Bearfoot Theory’s blog and was immediately intrigued. A kayaking trip that drops you at the base of the Hoover Dam? Is this for real?

On Memorial Day weekend in 2018, a couple friends and I packed our bags for a 3 day, 2 night trip down the Black Canyon Water Trail to find out what it was really about.

Tthe Stats 
Trip Date: September 1 - 3, 2018
Distance: 4 miles downstream from the Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
Dog Friendliness: It depends. The river itself is very dog friendly, however if you use an outfitter, you'll want to make sure they allow dogs in transit. Ours did not.

Getting there

Given none of us are avid kayakers, therefore lacked our own equipment, we decided to go the Outfitter route, specifically renting from Desert Adventures. They offer rentals for a self-guided experience, as well as a 1-day guided tour should you choose to go that route. Another perk: they take care of all of the permit processing and transportation. The round trip shuttle is free, and meets you at the Hoover Dam Lodge – a little over 4 hours from Phoenix.

Once everyone on the shuttle is accounted for, the trip begins. First stop: Security Clearance area at the base of the Hoover Dam. You’re given 15 minutes to unload the boats, get your stuff off the truck and into your water crafts, and push away from the shore.

The water trail highlights

Almost immediately down stream from the launch point is a small sand bar where you can reorganize your equipment and start the adventure. You’ll notice mile markers on the rivers edge that help with easily understanding your position.

The first half of the trail offers a number of canyons, each featuring their own unique rock formations and hot springs. Make sure you bring some water shoes that work well for hiking so you can head into the canyons to explore.

Sauna Cave – Mile 63
Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for the Sauna Cave before you leave the “organization” sand bar. It’s easy to miss. We had to paddle back up stream once we realized that we had gone past it. I was not disappointed that we turned around.

The Sauna Cave is a man-made cave, originally dug out during construction of the Hoover Dam. Workers made their way about 50 feet in before hitting a 120 degree how spring, making it impossible to continue their dig, so the cave was abandoned. Immediately upon entering, you’ll understand why as you get that amazing “stream room” feel we all seek out at the spa. Bring a flashlight if you’re planning on going to the back of the cave.

Lone Palm Canyon – Mile 62.5
A beautiful canyon with a number of hot spring pools as you climb (or scramble) deeper into the canyon. A word to the wise before heading in: make sure you tie up your boat. The water level rises as water is released from the Hoover Dam on an inconsistent basis, meaning that the boat you pulled 3 feet onto the beach could be floating by the time you return.

Boyscout Canyon and The Ear – Mile 61.75
The first pools of Boyscout Canyon are located about a quarter mile into the hike. From there, continue back until you reach “The Ear” (aka the Rain Cave). There are a few instances where rope climbing through hot springs is required. Which is part of the fun, right?


AZ Hot Springs – Mile 59.75
AZ Hot Springs is where we decided to set up camp for night one. There are a number of options, as well as a number of campers, so it’s not a bad idea to set up shop before it gets too late in the day.

This site had much to offer, including a functioning outhouse, access to Petroglyph Wash (more on that later), a beautiful beach from which you can watch the water levels rise and fall, and a series of hot springs.

The hot springs here were definitely the most impressive of the lot, requiring a climb up a 20 foot ladder to access. There are a series of four pools that get progressively hotter the closer you get to the source.

That said, I think the most impressive feature of this site were the big horn sheep overlooking the camp site when we woke the next morning. A welcome reminder that we’re in their territory – and that we should treat it as such. Leave No Trace Outdoor Ethics can be found here if you need a refresher.


Petroglyph Wash
Before leaving the Arizona Hot Springs area, make the trek back to Petroglyph Wash – a hike about 1.8 miles into the desert from the AZ Hot Springs. It’s not the best marked trail, so it might be worth asking someone for directions, but it’s a welcome change from being on the sea.


Sea Cave – Mile 60.25
When you head out from the Arizona Hot Springs Camping Area, make sure you keep your eyes peeled on the left side of the river for the Sea Cave: a cave deep enough for several boats to paddle into. It’s not a site that requires departing the boat, but is a fun little adventure.


Crane’s Nest Canyon – Mile 55
After talking to a few local folks, we decided to avoid Crane’s Nest Canyon due to stories of rattlesnakes running rampant on the extremely rocky beach. These stories were corroborated by some fellow travelers the next day, so I think we made the right choice choosing a small, isolated beach on the opposite river bank. There were a few curious lizards that visited us, which wins over rattlesnakes every day of the week.

Plus, that view!


Emerald Cave / Old Catwalk and Cable Car – Mile 54
Because we decided to stay an extra night to take our time going down the river, we got to Emerald Cave early in the day, which is not the time to get to Emerald Cave. The good news is that the Emerald-colored water is present throughout the entire trip, so we didn’t feel like we missed out (see image below), however if you’re one that’s looking to see what everyone is talking about, target around 2 or 3 in the afternoon.

And then the road stops at Willow Beach…

When I do this trail again (and I’m definitely going to do it again), I think I would adjust the itinerary slightly by reducing the stay to one night. There are significantly less sites to see once you get past AZ Hot Springs, so the next quest will be focused around staying there, then spending day 2 going down the river.

As far as you go: what are you waiting for? Book your trip! And then tell me about it in the comments here, Instagram or email!

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