An Amazing Time On The Water – Rafting Through Black Canyon

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Black Canyon National Water Trail & Arizona Pools - NPS Media Day - July 2014 (50)
The view of Hoover Dam & the Bypass Bridge from the beginning of our tour.

Lower Colorado River Black Canyon Water Trail

While I am not a native to Las Vegas, I moved here when I was 11 years old and have spent over two decades calling it home.  Almost everyone has heard of or experienced Lake Mead, but few have been on the Colorado River just on the other side of Hoover Dam.

When I heard that a 30 mile stretch of the Colorado River had been designated as a National Water Trail, I was both intrigued and excited. On July 3, 2014 the National Park Service invited some of the local media to experience the Lower Colorado River Black Canyon Water Trail for ourselves.

Recreational water vehicles are available for rent and can be seen throughout the area.
Recreational water vehicles are available for rent and can be seen throughout the area.

What Is A National Water Trail

In 2012 the National Park Service began a program that designated certain waterways as national trails. In addition to increased funding, these routes get a number of benefits from being designated as National Water Trails such as increases in tourism and support for a variety of projects.

The Black Canyon Trail

Shawn Reece is ready to start the tour. Kayakers followed our rafts as we made our way down the river.
Shawn Reece is ready to start the tour. Kayakers followed our rafts as we made our way down the river.

The Lower Colorado River Black Canyon Water Trail received its official designation in early June.  It is one of only 16 National Water Trails and is the only one in the Southwest and the only one that passes through a desert.

Our tour began at the base of Hoover Dam on the river side. A decade ago the view from here was nice, but today with the addition of the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge, it is spectacular. Our motorized rafts were slightly less crowded then on a normal day, since they allowed plenty of room for everyone to take photos.

The motorized rafts docked at the tour beginning.
Motorized rafts docked just beneath Hoover Dam.

The tour from Hoover Dam traveled twelve miles down river to Willow Beach in Arizona and took about three hours. Our rafts departed from a secure zone at the base of the dam, but recreational watercraft can reach it from further downstream.

I was impressed with the sheer amount of wildlife on display during the tour. In various areas along the river, we saw everything from Desert Bighorn Sheep to a variety of rare birds. I’m told that bats come out to play around dusk, but we didn’t get to experience that.

Desert Bighorn sheep seen on the Arizona side of the river.
Desert Bighorn sheep seen on the Arizona side of the river.

The water in this area is refreshing as well. Released from the bottom of Lake Mead, it is not only crystal clear, but it is 54 degrees year round. With the weather outside being north of 110 degrees, I was worried about overheating, but an occasional splash from the river made things much more bearable.

My favorite stop of the trip was at the Arizona Hot Springs. This time of year these hot springs can only be reached from the river as it is too hot to hike to them from the road. Unfortunately the tours don’t normally stop there, but we were lucky enough to be able to.

Shawn Reece climbing up to one of the pools at the Arizona Hot Springs.
Shawn Reece climbing up to one of the pools at the Arizona Hot Springs.

From the shore of the river, we climbed through several small rock formations before reaching the first of many pools. As we climbed from pool to pool, we noticed that each one was hotter than the one before.

By the time we reached the top, the water was barely tolerable, but some of the lower pools felt great to relax in. It was too hot on this day to do much swimming, but both Shawn Reece and I had fun doing the short hike.

A gauging station and pulley car stretch across the river. They date back to the early 1930's.
A gauging station and pulley car stretch across the river. They haven’t been in use since the early 1930’s.

The hot springs are just one of many places of intrigue on this stretch of the river.  I was surprised at just how much history is on display in this area of Black Canyon as well. Along the way we saw several abandoned gauging stations which now lay in ruin and serve as a reminder of a time when the Colorado River flowed untamed through this area.

These gauging stations are very remote and men would spend months at a time in isolation monitoring them. Many of the stations can only be reached via a small cable car pulley that stretches over the river. Several of these still exist, although I am told they are locked into place to prevent anyone from using them.

Driving inside of the Emerald Cave.
Driving inside of the Emerald Cave.

In addition to the thermal springs and the wildlife, a number of caves have formed along the canyon. The Emerald Cave gets it’s name from the color it turns when the sun hits the water at a certain time of day. Our guide drove the raft right inside of the cave. It was simply beautiful.

Both Shawn Reece and I enjoyed the tour immensely. The sheer beauty and surprising history of the area impressed me. As we pulled into our final stop at Willow Beach, we agreed that it was clear why this area had been designated as a National Water Trail.

Recommendation

Another gauging station and the beauty of Black Canyon.
Another gauging station and the beauty of Black Canyon.

Las Vegas is full of family friendly things to do if you look for them. Lake Mead and Hoover Dam are popular tourist destinations in the area, but there is so much more to explore. A few months ago I wrote about our hike on the Lake Mead Historic Railroad Trail and how it is a hidden gem.

Like the Railroad Trail, Black Canyon is another lesser-known family friendly activity that should be considered when visiting this area.  Not only is it beautiful, but the views of Hoover Dam and the bridge are worth the visit alone.

If you are visiting Las Vegas, Black Canyon River Adventures has several tours through this area that run everyday. I want to thank the National Park Service for inviting us out to experience this unique and undercovered part of Southern Nevada.

More Photos

 


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