Black Canyon National Water Trail in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area is one of only 16 national water trails in the United States and the first one in the Southwest. Designated last year, this Colorado River corridor stretches from Hoover Dam about 30 miles downstream to Lake Mojave.
The most popular part of the water trail is Black Canyon, the 11.7 miles of the Colorado River flowing between high natural stone walls from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach. This area is a haven for human-powered watercraft such as kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and hydrobikes. Although motor boats are allowed in the canyon, on Sunday and Monday, they aren’t permitted to travel upstream from Willow Beach, which makes that upriver area stunningly silent and even more pleasant for those who navigate under their own power.
There are two principal ways to see the canyon: launching at the base of the Hoover Dam and traveling downstream to Willow Beach or starting at Willow Beach and heading upstream as far as your time and energy will allow. Even a mile or two will be enchanting.
To do the outing from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards are easily rented from various authorized park service outfitters. They will acquire a permit for you and transport you to the launching area directly downstream from the dam. You can also launch your own craft here, but you still must make reservations and get a permit through an authorized outfitter because you and your boat will need to be transported through the dam’s security zone. At the end of your excursion, they will pick you and your vessel up at Willow Beach and bring you back to your vehicle or hotel.
While you can rent a kayak or paddleboard from an authorized outfitter and do a self-guided tour, the best choices for first-timers are guided trips, available downstream and upstream. Professional river guides can teach you paddling techniques and safety tips for river travel, and they can point out highlights of the canyon you otherwise might not notice.
For instance, they’ll be better at spotting desert bighorn sheep, bald eagles, ospreys, great blue herons and a variety of other waterfowl. Once a river rat has shown you where to look, you’ll soon be good at spying creatures yourself. They’ll likely know where to look for wildflowers, now at their brightest and most colorful, and they’ll know the locations and names of the romantic waterfalls, hot springs, caves and historic sites.
New on the scene in Black Canyon and other areas of Lake Mead are hydrobikes, offered by outfitter River Dogz. They feature two pontoons with a bicycle mechanism mounted on top, conveying your pedaling power to a propeller instead of a rear wheel. The handlebars are attached to a rudder, so steering is also pretty much like steering a bike. I tried one, pedaling upstream from Willow Beach about 4 miles and back and absolutely loved the experience. If you’ve ever explored some desert canyon by the bumpy means of a mountain bike, you’ll find river pedaling dreamily smooth, and you can’t get a flat tire on a hydrobike.
The bikes are ideal for people 4-foot-11 or taller and even are good for those who might not be in their best athletic shape, as they constitute low-impact cardio exercise. For families or groups, a great excursion might include a hydrobike, a kayak and a paddleboard, so everybody can take turns and experience a bit of each vessel. River Dogz guided tours can be booked for a half day or a full day, and it provide snacks, beverages and a gourmet lunch based on your dietary needs. Call River Dogz at 702-901-1060 or visit kayakpaddleboardlakemead.com.
In calm, nice weather, like we mostly have here, you won’t have to be concerned about white water or rapids in Black Canyon. In high winds, though, paddling or pedaling can be a miserable experience, doubling the time required to travel a given distance, even going downstream with the current. Check the wind forecast before you head out.
Authorized Outfitters in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area include River Dogz; Desert Adventures at 702-293-5026 or kayaklasvegas.com; or Desert River Kayak at 928-754-5320 or desertriveroutfitters.com.
For more information on the Black Canyon National Water Trail and a full list of authorized outfitters, call the Lake Mead Visitor Center at 702-293-8990. It is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. For more information, visit nps.gov/lake.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.