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Bask in Black Canyon’s beauty by boat

One of the quickest ways to get a complete change of scenery, and a stunning one at that, is to visit Black Canyon, the 11-mile stretch of the Colorado River that lies below Hoover Dam. This rugged canyon, where walls tower more than 1,000 feet, is most easily accessed by boat, and seeing it at your own pace is one of the best ways to enjoy it.

The best place to start is from Willow Beach Marina on the Arizona side of the river, a roughly 20-minute drive south of the Hoover Dam area. There, the concessionaire, Forever Resorts, rents different types of boats, including kayaks and canoes. Taking one of these last vessels into the canyon, under your personal paddle power, is fairly inexpensive. It’s also particularly stress-free as you’re the captain of your little craft and can go as far as you like and turn back when you want to.

Even in a round trip lasting only a couple of hours, you can see historic sites along the river, an abundance of wildlife and some of the most spectacular scenery that the Lake Mead National Recreation Area has to offer.

The trip is a simple one. Once you launch your craft and head upstream, in just a few minutes, you will pass the fishing pier and then the Willow Beach Fish Hatchery, both on your right. After this, the watercourse takes you around a big bend in the river, leaving the Willow Beach area behind. If you have a choice when to do this trip, Sundays or Mondays are best because powered personal watercraft and all vessels with motors are prohibited, offering much more solitude.

As you continue upstream, scan cliff ledges and the shoreline for desert bighorn sheep; this is one of the best places in our area to see them. Many birds either live here or frequent the area, including spectacular species such as osprey, bald eagles and great blue herons. Once, I even saw a brown pelican, a rare sight in these parts. You will be sure to see some of the more common species, such as the abundant mallards, American coots and cormorants.

Less than one mile upstream from the marina, at Mile Marker 53 on the Arizona side of the river, look for stone walls that are the remains of the historic river gauger’s house built before the construction of Hoover Dam. In those days, before sophisticated remote telemetry, there was no way to measure the height of the river and its rate of flow, except to station a person near the spot where measurements were to be taken. So for that person, the U.S. Geological Survey built a one-bedroom house. This is a good place to pull ashore and stretch your legs, taking a short trail up a small rise to the old house. Be sure to secure your boat well, as the water level fluctuates quite a bit.

The river gauger had quite an elaborate commute. He would leave his house and walk upriver along a narrow path about one mile. Then, he used a system of cable cars and a catwalk that would get him over to the Nevada side of the river to begin his day. The gauging station, which is still intact, was constructed in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The round-trip paddle from Willow Beach to the gauging station, along with a short trip to the gauger’s house site, will take about two hours. Kayak rentals start at $10 per hour, with a three-hour minimum. Boats are available to rent from 8 a.m. to noon, and you must return to Willow Beach by 3 p.m. You must be older than 21 and present a photo ID. The marina store sells groceries, snacks, drinks and other supplies and is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. I would highly recommend checking weather conditions and reserving a boat before heading for Willow Beach; for both purposes, call 928-767-4747 or visit willowbeachharbor.com.

Be aware that on weekends, the traffic is often backed up all the way from Boulder City to the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (Hoover Dam Bypass). If you plan on taking that route on the weekend, get on the road as early as you can in the morning.

Deborah Wall is the author of “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide” and “Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States,” published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at deborabus@aol.com.

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