Paddling through Black Canyon is a treat.
The calm, cold water of the Colorado River is crystal clear here, exposing details on the riverbed thirty feet below. On the surface the water turns turquoise blue and green in the bright desert sun, and above the enormous canyon walls stand tall against the blue sky.
The desert oasis is less than an hour’s drive from Las. Vegas, making it one of my favorite weekend activities while I there. It’s perfect for a day trip, but also has several places along the river where you can camp overnight.
Black Canyon begins at famous Hoover Dam and is inside Lake Mead National Recreation Area. It’s part of a 30-mile stretch of river recognized as a National Water Trail by the National Park Service. Because of the deep canyon, access to the river is limited. The best place to put in is at Willow Beach which is 14 miles south of the dam.
If you ever decide to give this trip a try, keep in mind that motorized boats are not allowed above Willow Beach on Sundays and Mondays throughout the year. Their wakes can be a nuisance to deal with on a paddle board and it’s just more peaceful without them.
Willow Beach is a hub of activity, especially on weekends. There’s a boat ramp, campground, fishing pier, and a kayak tour launch zone. There’s also hot showers, a small convenience shop, and day-use shade pavilions. The road to Willow Beach from Highway 93 is the only paved road to the river in the canyon that is open to the public. Paddling Black Canyon often starts here!
There are at least a half dozen camping sites between Hoover Dam and Willow Beach. They’re all primitive with strict leave-no-trace rules. Some of the beachheads closer to the dam have hot springs nearby.
Thanks to being a dependable water source in the desert, there’s a good deal of wildlife to see. I’ve encountered desert big horn sheep, bald eagles, owls, herons, reptiles, quail, fox, skunk, and lots of fish including crawfish.
My first big horn sheep sighting came at dusk. He was alone, and spent an hour eating leaves from the trees growing near the river. Watching him walk along a vertical cliff was a good show.
Hoover Dam regularly releases water to generate hydroelectricity, so the downriver current can be strong at times. Paddling Black Canyon upriver from Willow Beach is nice because you can easily float back down after putting in the work to get upriver. Flows tend to be strongest in the afternoon during the summers when electricity demand is at its highest.
During the very hot Las Vegas summers, the river is a good place to be. Just remember to drink tremendous amounts of water, and don’t underestimate what sun exposure can do on the water. Protect yourself with a hat, clothing, and take advantage of shade when you can.
If you’re curious, nearby Lake Mead and Lake Mohave are also beautiful areas to paddle board, although not quite as enjoyable as Black Canyon. Lake Mead and Lake Mohave are larger bodies of water and therefore susceptible to higher winds, murkier water, and more motorized boat traffic. They do, however, have easier access points.
I recently purchased an inflatable stand-up paddle board from Costco. The Body Glove model they carried this spring came at a great price costing $400 for a complete package that included a paddle, air pump, and a large backpack that fits everything inside.
For day trips I bring one dry bag, a backpack made by Pelican. The 30-liter size fits plenty of stuff like towel, sun screen, snacks, water, binoculars, cell phone, first-aid kit, etc. A second and third dry bag, and/or cooler, can be strapped to the board as well.
I always bring a way to filter or treat water in case I drink more than I carry.