Kayaking the Black Canyon Water Trail

I read about the Black Canyon Water Trail 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.

The 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

None of us are avid kayakers, therefore lack our own equipment, so we decided to rent the gear from an Outfitter. Specifically, from Desert Adventures. They offer rentals for a self-guided experience, as well as a 1-day guided tour should you prefer to have someone guide you along the way. Another perk: they handle 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 is accounted for and aboard the shuttle, the fun begins. First stop: Security clearance area at the base of the Hoover Dam. You’re given 15 minutes to unload your boats (2 kayaks and a canoe in our case), get your stuff off the truck and into your water crafts, and push away from the shore. 15 minutes may sound like a lot of time, but it goes quickly.

The Black Canyon water trail highlights

Almost immediately down stream from the launch point is a small sand bar. This is where many people stop to reorganize their equipment before starting the watery adventure. You’ll notice mile markers on the rivers edge that help with easily understanding your position.

The first half of the Black Canyon water trail features a number of canyons, each featuring their own unique rock formations and hot springs. Water shoes that work well for hiking are a must have as you’re bound to head into the canyons to explore.

Sauna Cave – Mile 63

Keep your eyes peeled for the Sauna Cave that’s located just above the “organization” sand bar. It’s easy to miss. We had to paddle back upstream 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. Because of this, the cave was abandoned. Immediately upon entering, you’ll understand why as you get that amazing “stream room” feel. Bring a flashlight if you’re planning on going to the back of the cave.

Sauna Cave

Lone Palm Canyon – Mile 62.5

A beautiful canyon filled with a growing number of hot spring pools as you climb (or scramble) deeper. 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?

Black Canyon Water Trail

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.

I think the most exciting aspect 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.

Black Canyon Water Trail

Petroglyph Wash

Before leaving the Arizona Hot Springs area, we made the trek back to Petroglyph Wash – a hike about 1.8 miles into the desert from the AZ Hot Springs camp site. The trail is not well marked, so it might be worth asking someone for directions as you’re heading back, but the walk was a welcome break from being on the river.

Black Canyon Water Trail

Sea Cave – Mile 60.25

As you’re leaving the Arizona Hot Springs Camping Area, look to the left side of the river where you’ll find 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.

Black Canyon Water Trail

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 in choosing a small, isolated beach on the opposite river bank. There were a few curious lizards that visited us, which I will take 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.

When you’re at Emerald Cave, I’d recommend docking your boats and climbing up to the old catwalk that the miners used to use to traverse the mountainside. You can follow it back to the old miner’s house, which today consists of only the former home’s foundation.

Just beyond the miner’s house is where the road ends: Willow Beach. This is where the outfitter will plan to pick you up to shuttle back to your car.

The next time I navigate the Black Canyon water trail (and there will definitely be a next time), I will reduce the timeframe to two days, one night. Once you get past AZ Hot Springs, there are significantly less places to stop and site see. Spend more time up stream exploring the canyons.

Black Canyon Water Trail

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