Saturday, November 2, 2013

Colorado River Trip-Black Canyon (October 2013)

We were off on our annual Halloween Colorado River trip.  Called the Scariest "Dam" River Trip since this always starts off at the base of Hoover Dam.  Every year participating members of the Las Vegas Canoe Club make this trip right around Halloween.

We rolled downhill at a few miles an hour, approaching a switchback in the road that truly curved back 180°.  Right over the edge of the road was a drop several hundred feet straight down to the Colorado River.  As we snaked back and forth we would glimpse Hoover Dam and the new Bridge over Black Canyon.  The bridge towers over everything.  We were winding our way down the west canyon wall of the Colorado River canyon, just below Hoover Dam.

Fifteen minutes earlier we had been loading our gear, canoes, and kayaks on our outfitters trailer (Desert River Outfitters).  Seven of us and the driver piled into the van and headed off for the river.  Our outfitter has access to a private government road to the very base of the towering Hoover Dam.  This road was originally one of the roads blasted into the canyon wall during the construction of the dam.  Narrow and winding it passes by some old foundations as well as old dynamite bunkers constructed during the dam project.  There are no other roads to the river in this area.  The nearest other road access is 11 river miles south (downstream) at Willow Beach, Arizona.

I must mention it does take an Outfitter to get you access via this road.  This road accesses one of the most beautiful sections of the Colorado river that can be found.  In addition a government permit is required ($17.00 permit).  This permit must be secured in advance.  Our Outfitter told us they are already filling up fast for the January through June 2014 season.  This two day, one overnight, trip including shuttles and canoes runs about $100.00 plus the $17.00 permit.  Other length of trips are available. Check for the latest pricing and availability.  The government limits the amount of permits to control the amount of people on the river at any given time. This stretch of river is really popular. Perhaps due to the fact there is a substantial current, but no white water to contend with.  A great trip for the inexperienced, as well as those with advanced skills.

"Put in" just below Hoover Dam and under the new Bypass Bridge

The ride down this road, and the view of the Dam and new bridge would be worth the cost of our outfitters fee.  I would venture to say a fraction of one percent of the locals in the area have ever had the pleasure of standing at this vantage point.  You are looking at the exit tunnels of the dam.  The Dam rising in front of you with the power houses on either side of the river.  Then the impressive new bridge seems to be nearly floating overhead.  Spanning the canyon rims so very high up.  It all makes you feel so very small.
Most of us had driven in the dark to meet up at our trip pickup point near the Nevada-Arizona state line to begin a 2 day canoe trip down the Colorado.  Some of us had done trips together on previous occasions.  Others were first timers and new to the experience that would unfold over the next 2 days.  The experience would create a bond that many will never experience.

Colorado River-Black Canyon between Hoover Dam and Willow Beach
This is the last week of October 2013.  While the majority of people across the country are preparing for winter weather, chopping wood, putting on storm windows, winterizing vehicles, and perhaps experiencing the first snowflakes of the season,…. we were embarking on an overnight canoe trip.  In this desert southwest area of the United States our prime outdoor season has just begun.  We often joke our 3 bad months of the year are June, July, and August.  October is often one of our favorites.
It amazes us that more tourists, than perhaps locals, are in the know concerning one of the most beautiful and intriguing area’s found just below Hoover Dam.  There is a stretch called Black Canyon.  From the Dam heading downstream the next take out point is 11 river miles south at Willow Beach, Arizona.  While this stretch can easily be paddled in one day, the area offers so much more for those that take more time camping along the way.
In most places the canyon walls are steep and rugged.  Slick rocks, plunging vertical for hundreds of feet straight into the water.   There are long stretches of river with no available point to get out of your canoe or kayak.  While not the Grand Canyon, there are hints of what that would be like.  If you only took in the big picture, you would see sheer cliffs, boulders larger than houses, and canyon walls void of life.
Those that take their time to look and drift quietly with the current are sure to see way much more.  The fact a quick glance doesn’t reveal much more than rocks and more rocks, doesn’t mean that is all that is there.  This canyon is abundant with plants, wildlife, and natural thermal water features that you may not find in all parts of the USA.

For those with patience and the urge to explore this 11 mile stretch, and it’s side slot canyons.  The adventurous will find numerous Hot Springs, flowers, Palm Trees, Hydra, Big Horn Sheep, Ring Tailed Cats, numerous birds, tarantulas, scorpions, snakes, fish, and bugs.  Some are day creatures while others are nocturnal.  Though the lights of Las Vegas some 40 miles away do cause light pollution in the night sky, you can still enjoy the stars and the occasional meteor streaking across the sky.  If you time a trip to the cycle of a full moon you will more than likely remember a surreal experience. 

Heron on the bank of the Colorado River
Young Big Horn Sheep Ram that came down to the water for a drink
Lone Palm Spring falling on the bank of the Colorado River

Tarantula:   Image Courtesy Kelly Able ©2013 Kelly Able

After we made it down the government access road to the base of the Dam it was time to carry canoes and gear down to the water’s edge. The water here is very clear and cold.  Coming off the bottom of Lake Mead this water averages around fifty some degrees year round.  You can see large rocks below the surface.  Also rock ledges where edges drop off abruptly and the water suddenly turns black.  I’ve been told there are places the water is over 90 feet deep.  In this area and for the next couple river miles the water runs fairly fast.  Though not impossible, it would be difficult to paddle a canoe or kayak upstream in this section.  I have actually done it myself, but you almost have to time it when the water output through the Dam’s turbine generators are at a minimum.

Gear at "put in" at base of Hoover Dam  Image Courtesy Kelly Able
Canoe's, Kayak's, and way too much gear was unloaded and carried to the rivers edge.  I like kayaks but canoe's definitely have an advantage on an overnight trip.  You can haul all your creature comforts.  Camp stoves, tables, chairs, BBQ grills, fishing tackle, and coolers  Dry bags of all colors and sizes littered the shoreline while we attempted to fit it all in our various watercraft's.   We would soon have our gear loaded up and all drift away from the shore.   

All of us floating backwards, watching the Dam slowly grow smaller in the distance.  Our destination for the night’s camp would be down river just below Ring Bolt rapids at Arizona Hot Springs.  Along the way are several small waterfalls, the thermal sauna cave, springs, and thermal hot springs.  You can spend as little or as much time as you like exploring these.  Drifting and occasionally paddling will get you to Ring Bolt Rapids in a couple hours.

Ring Bolt Rapids is not much more than a name or a marker at this time.  Back before the dam was constructed and the Colorado ran wild this was a set of rapids.  In further history during the times steamboats plied this section delivering supplies they could not make it upstream unassisted at this point.  Huge iron rings were embedded on the rocks.  The steamboats would come to this point then attach lines to these rings, upstream of the rapids.  Then a steam wench on the boat would basically drag the steamboat over and up through the rapids.  Today there is some evidence of the rapids still,  in the form of very fast water.  At this location, if going upstream by kayak or canoe you would have to paddle like a mad man to make any headway.  I have found it easier to get out on shore and drag my kayak in the water using a rope to get above this area.  Coming downstream isn’t nothing more than a small drop in the water…and a fast ride.  This day we were headed downstream and it was a fast ride!

There is a beautiful stretch of sandy beach on the Arizona side just before Ring Bolt Rapids.  This is a popular spot for people doing a day trip. This area is a great place to beach your boat, stretch your leg, or have lunch.  In the early morning or late evening, if you are quiet, it is also a great place to see Bighorn Sheep.  They often come here to get access to water.  I have camped here on occasion and had them walk right through camp.
Just downstream of Ring Bolt Rapids is the Arizona Hot Springs area.  As the name suggests it is on the Arizona side of the river.  In addition it has one of the most popular hot springs.  It is not uncommon to share this area with 50 or more like travelers.  Though not a formal campground of any means there are 2 pit toilets (the only toilets in the 11 mile stretch),  No water source other than the river, no designated campsites, rangers, or additional fee’s.  The pit toilets and the hot springs are the major draw here.  It’s hit and miss on how busy it is here.  So if you like quiet, you may want to move up river to that stretch of sandy beach above Ring Bolt, or head down stream more. 

Arizona Hot Springs area - Black Canyon on the  Colorado River

Campsite up south slot canyon at Arizona Hot Springs area.  Image Courtesy Kelly Able ©2013 Kelly Able

Up the North Slot Canyon- Ladder to access the Arizona Hot Spring Pools

On two occasions I have encountered professional musicians playing guitars and singing songs in the Arizona hot springs area. They have turned a great trip into something even more special to remember.  So like the natural things that can surprise you, you just never know what you might stumble into.  This trip I was able to enjoy such an encounter.  Awesome guitar music and very talented singing from a campsite not too far from where I was set up. The next morning we complimented the musician as he carefully strapped his guitar down to the rear deck of his kayak.  With some joking back and forth he laughed and said in a pinch the guitar could be used for a campfire.  If that was his "beater" guitar, I would really like to hear him play on his good one! 

There is a great hot spring just a short distance up a slot canyon.  A steel ladder gets you up a 15 foot water fall to the thermal waters above.  People sandbag the small stream to create pools to sit in an soak.  The upper pools increase in temperature to the point it is almost too hot. Just be sure you understand the risks and take precautions to avoid the bacteria, which are in these waters.  It can be fatal. 

You can set up camp anywhere amongst the rocks and up the 2 major slot canyons.  Just be aware these are dry wash stream beds.  During flash floods these areas are dangerous.  Water can be on you without warning.  Know where high ground is.  Keep aware especially if it looks like it may rain.  Any relatively flat area along this 11 miles of river are some kind of dry wash, so don’t get the impression Arizona Hot Springs area is the only one,  Past this point suitable camping areas are sparse   They become smaller and fewer in number.  You could probably fin one for 4-8 people in a pinch.  But as mentioned, Arizona Hot Springs is the only area with pit toilets. 

Nowhere in this 11 mile stretch, is there available drinking water.  Carry enough for your cooking, drinking, etc.  You could get by using a high grade filter, but I prefer to carry an ample supply with me.
On day two we took off from Arizona Hot Springs, with about 8 miles of river ahead of us.  The weather was perfect and we had a slight breeze to our backs.  These 8 miles to Willow Beach pick up area could easily be done in 3 hours or so.  That’s if you don’t stop and enjoy the day along the way.  A couple of us split off from the main group and took off early.  We wanted to drift quietly in hopes of seeing some of the wild life.  We were rewarded with seeing two young Big Horn Rams as different spots along the way.  We also saw several cranes, and numerous migratory birds.

Approaching Monkey Head Rock on the left.  Local legend has it that touching it while passing under brings good luck!

We pulled over to one of the sandy beach areas and enjoyed lunch for an hour.  Just sitting in th sun and watching the water of the Colorado flow past in front of us.  It was warm enough the lizards were active.  No rattlesnakes to be seen on this trip, though we have seen them other times.  It’s always a good idea to be aware and be on the lookout when walking around.

This shot captures the true beauty of the water clarity in this area.  Image Courtesy Kelly Able ©2013 Kelly Able
As they say, “all good things come to an end”.  We put our lunch items away, climbed back in our boats, and paddled away from shore.  Soon we rounded a bend in the river to see palm trees, parking lots, and the Marina at Willow Beach.   The wind had died off and we cut through the water, ripples in the water leaving an ever expanding V behind use.  We drifted into shore and got out to stretch out legs.

Our outfitter arrived soon and we loaded our gear and boats onto the trailer.  Over the next couple of hours one by one the rest of our group pulled up to shore.  It made for a leisurely load up.  They last arrived just as the sun dipped over the distance ridge. 

As the van and trailer pulled up out of the canyon and onto the main road the sun had set.  The distant sky went from a vivid orange color directly above the jagged outline of the black silhouette of mountains to a deep dark blue of the heavens above.  We were all tired and it felt good sitting in a soft seat. But we all remarked on the sunset and the trip.  Everyone saying “when are we going again”?  

A perfect ending to a great trip.  Our view as we loaded the last canoe  Image Courtesy Kelly Able ©2013 Kelly Able

Note: Those of you that were on this October 2013 trip please forward any photos you wish me to add into this Blog Article.  No face shots unless they are of you only...then please note in the email we can publish them.  Email to    We especially need the piles of gear at the put in point, shots of the Hot Springs pools, and any other unique shots you have.  If everyone in the group photo sends an OK to publish I will add the group photo shot and everyone's names.  Thanks!!!

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