In 2014, the Secretary of Interior designated Black Canyon of the Colorado River as a National Water Trail making it the first in the Southwest and the first to flow through a desert. Along its 30-mile course you’ll find beaches, hot springs, wildlife, historic structures associated with the construction of Hoover Dam, wilderness and solitude. In mid-January 2022, we camped at Willow Beach RV park in hopes of scoring a good weather day to kayak up canyon to colorful Emerald Cave.

Water Trail Basic Info

  • Click here for a Black Canyon Water Trail description and map
  • The water trail, located in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, is around 30 miles long
  • Launching at the Hoover Dam (river mile 64) requires a permit and guided tour
  • Watercraft can launch and takeout at Willow Beach (river mile 52 1/2) or Eldorado Canyon (river mile 39)
  • Emerald Cave, the most popular destination along the trail, is located 2 miles upstream from Willow Beach
  • The water trail ends at Eldorado Canyon
  • The water below Hoover Dam is 53 degrees year-round. Life jackets must be worn while underway.
  • Water levels can fluctuate considerable during the day, sometimes as much as 4-6 vertical feet.

Launching at Hoover Dam is by permit only and provided by a limited number of vendors in Southern Nevada and Northern Arizona. Visitors are escorted to the launch site on a narrated bus ride into the Hoover Dam Security Zone. Tours range from float trips near the dam to day trips to full exploration tours. A list of approved vendors for Hoover Dam access can be found here.

For those not traveling on a tour, Willow Beach is the most popular launch point. Located 14 miles south of Hoover Dam off of U.S. 93 on the Arizona side of the water trail, Willow Beach offers a variety of amenities including a launch ramp and full-service marina with watercraft, canoe and kayak rentals; a campground and RV park; and a store and restaurant. Once on the water, visitors enjoy sheer cliffs of multicolored rocks, sandy beaches and secluded coves. The most popular destination is Emerald Cave, a small cave whose water’s shimmer emerald green in the sunlight. The cave is reached via a 2 mile paddle upstream.

South of Willow Beach, the river continues to flow through a narrow, deep canyon for approximately 3.5 miles to Burro Wash. It is recommended that a powerboat accompany any trips traveling south of that point. Strong upriver winds are often encountered on this remote section of the trail. Powerboats add a measure of safety should unexpected weather or other emergency conditions arise.

In the late 1700s, Spaniards searched for gold along the Colorado River. They named their camp “Eldorado” in honor of their quest for the legendary city of gold. At one time, thousands of men, driven by gold fever, lived within the narrow confines of the canyon. Eldorado Canyon marks the end of the Black Canyon Water Trail.

Water Trail Regulations

The waterway from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach is narrow. To provide a wilderness experience in this part of the park, there are rules restricting certain watercraft at various times of the year. Houseboating, water-skiing and wakeboarding are prohibited year round for safety reasons. Additionally, the following restriction apply:

  • Sunday and Monday year round: the water from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach is managed as a primitive zone. People can experience a variety of motor-less recreational opportunities in a natural setting. Personal watercrafts and vessels with motors are prohibited.
  • Between Labor Day and Friday of Memorial Day Weekend (Tuesday through Saturday): the water from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach is managed as a semi-primitive zone. Personal watercraft remain prohibited. Boating is restricted to vessels with 65-horsepower engines or less.
  • Between the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day (Tuesday – Saturday): the water from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach is managed as a rural-natural zone. During the busy boating season there are no horsepower restrictions and PWCs are allowed.
The low angle of the winter sun was no match for these towering canyon walls

Our Paddle to Emerald Cave

We had hoped and planned to kayak the Black Canyon National Water Trail from Willow Beach to Emerald Cave on a Sunday or Monday when personal watercraft and motorboats are prohibited. With winds forecasted for each of those days, we had to postpone our trip until mid-week. As it turned out, the only other traffic we saw on the water were a few kayaks or canoes making for a peaceful paddle on the river.

We began our day by launching at a beach area located between the Willow Beach Marina and the fish hatchery upstream. Being a winter’s day and mid-week, there were only a few people on the beach which allowed us to launch well apart from any other beachgoers. Ample parking just a few dozen yards up the hillside made for a short pack with the kayak to the water’s edge.

We launched our kayak at this beach near the Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raises endangered and game fish at this hatchery. Self-guided tours are available to the public.

Paddling up canyon, we passed the fish hatchery and the canyon began to narrow. The steep cliffs on either side provided for spectacular scenery and we were surprised by how clear and blue the water was. We scanned the canyon walls for bighorn sheep, but did not see any.

Canyon narrowing past the fish hatchery

At river mile AZ-53 1/2, we floated past Gauger’s Homesite. The gauger, who collected important information about the Colorado River between 1935-1939, lived at this site. Today, only the concrete foundation and rubble retaining walls of the homesite remain.

Shortly before arriving at Emerald Cave, we passed the first of two cable cars running high above the river’s surface. This particular car linked the gauger’s home to an impressive catwalk on the Arizona side of the river. The catwalk runs high above Emerald Cave and links to the cable car that crosses the Colorado River and links to the gauging station at NV 54 1/4.

First cable car
Catwalk between the two cable cars

Immediately upstream from Emerald Cave, we passed the old gauging station on the Nevada side of the river. This station was used prior to and during the construction of Hoover Dam for monitoring water levels, flow rate and silt content of the river.

Gauging station (NV-54 1/4) clinging to the canyon wall.
This cable car provided access to the gauging station from the Arizona side where the gauger’s house was located.

We continued a short distance upstream from the gauging station and found a sunny beach on the Nevada side of the river. We pulled ashore and enjoyed some sun and relaxation before returning to Willow Beach.

Thanks to mild January temperatures and calm winds, we enjoyed a lovely 5 mile paddle along the Black Canyon National Water Trail. We’d love to return some day and hire one of the permitted vendors to launch us at Hoover Dam for a one-way trip down to Willow Beach.

The Adventure Continues

Be sure to join us on our next adventure as we return to Lake Mead for some new explorations and a meet up with RVer friends! And don’t forget to check out our Amazon RV and Adventure Gear recommendations. We only post products that we use and that meet the Evans Outdoor Adventures seal of approval. By accessing Amazon through our links and making any purchase (even things as simple as toothpaste!), you get Amazon’s every day low pricing and they share a little with us. This helps us maintain this website and is much appreciated!

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