A Secret Vegas Oasis: Kayaking the Black Canyon Water Trail

The Black Canyon Water Trail is a paddling paradise located 45 minutes from Las Vegas. Soak in hot springs, explore hidden canyons, and more!

Many people visit Las Vegas thinking that the only place to take a dip is in their hotel pool. It’s the desert after all, right? Well, I’m about to show you a secret side of Sin City that most locals don’t even know about: the Black Canyon Water Trail.

Located about 45 minutes for the Vegas Strip, this 30-mile stretch of water along the Colorado River is a paddler’s paradise. The waterway begins directly below the Hoover Dam and is loaded with dramatic desert landscapes, narrow slot canyons, and some seriously awesome hot springs.

Organizing a day trip or overnight paddle on the Black Canyon is super easy. I’ve done it twice and in my opinion, it’s one of the best outdoor adventures near Las Vegas.

Cool off with a paddle down the Black Canyon Water Trail. Learn how to book a shuttle, what gear you need, unique highlights and more.

Important Reminder: As outdoor recreationists, it’s our responsibility to know how to recreate responsibly on the water whether we’re kayaking, paddleboarding, canoeing, rafting, or boating. Learn how to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species with 3 easy steps that have a huge impact on our ecosystems.


Black Canyon Water Trail Map + Overview

The Black Canyon Water Trail is a 30-mile stretch of the Colorado River that starts at the base of Hoover Dam and ends at Eldorado Canyon. Along the way, paddlers can explore numerous slot canyons, secluded beaches, hidden caves, hot springs, and so much more.

A popular day or overnight paddle is to do a 12-mile stretch from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach, which I provide more details on below. This stretch of water is typically flat, calm, and easy to maneuver in a kayak. If you choose to do the full 30 miles, the water further down the canyon can be fast-moving in places with hidden rocks under the surface.

There are mile markers on the river bank, so it is easy to navigate and keep track of your progress whether you’re doing a day trip or an overnight excursion.

Year-round water temps are typically in the low to mid-50s.

Black Canyon Water Trail map with highlight stops and sights
The Black Canyon Water Trail stretches from Hoover Dam to Eldorado Canyon, but we recommend a 12-mile section

Shuttle & Permit Information for the Black Canyon Water Trail

Whether you’re doing a day trip or an overnight paddle, a shuttle from an approved vendor is required to get to the launch point of the Black Canyon Water Trail. The launching point is actually located in a Federal Security Zone, so you have only 15 minutes to get your gear together and launch your boat.

In addition to the shuttle, a permit is also required for both day and overnight paddlers. Permits are granted when booking your shuttle with an approved vendor. Each permit costs $32 and they can sell out months in advance, so grab your spot early! You can find a list of approved shuttle companies here.

The start of the Black Canyon Water Trail just below Hoover Dam with bridge spanning tall cliffs
Start of the Black Canyon Water Trail just below Hoover Dam

Guided vs Self-Guided Tour

Depending on your skill and comfort on the water, paddlers can opt for a guided or self-guided kayak tour of the Black Canyon. For newer paddlers, it’s highly recommended to do a guided tour since the canyon is remote in places and rescue options are limited. A tour guide will also be able to tell you all about the local geology and make sure you don’t miss the best canyon sites.

For experienced kayakers, you can arrange for a shuttle to drop you off at the start and pick you up downriver. Both times I kayaked the Black Canyon I used the local company Desert Adventures for shuttles. They provide both guided trips and boat rentals for a reasonable price that includes round-trip shuttle transportation. They also rent dry bags, camping gear, and anything else you might need.

Three kayaks on beach on the Black Canyon Water Trail in Nevada
Paddling on the Black Canyon Water Trail

Day vs Overnight Excursions

If you only have one day to explore the Black Canyon, a popular option is to do the 12-mile paddle from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach. Along the way, there are numerous opportunities to explore side canyons, hot springs, geological sites, and more.

See some of my favorite highlights in the next section below.

The Black Canyon Water Trail map
The 12-mile paddle from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach makes for a great day or overnight trip

If you have more time or want to explore further down the Black Canyon, which extends 18 more miles to Eldorado Canyon, you can plan an overnight trip – either guided or self-guided. An overnight trip allows you to really enjoy the hot springs and solitude of the canyon whether you’re only doing the first 12 miles or the whole length.

Camping is allowed on any available beach, with a pit toilet located at Arizona Hot Springs.

Multi-day kayakers are required to pack out all trash and solid human waste in a portable toilet (if you don’t use the pit toilet at Arizona Hot Springs). Kayakers must also be confident in their kayaking and self-rescue skills. For tips on planning an overnight kayaking trip, head over to our Kayak Camping blog post.


Boat Options for Exploring the Black Canyon

You can paddle the Black Canyon Water Trail on a paddleboard or in a kayak or canoe. They each have their advantages depending on the season and whether you’re doing a day or overnight trip.

Stand-up Paddle Board

For my second trip on the Black Canyon, I opted for a stand-up paddleboard and unfortunately, the conditions were not ideal. All day, we were paddling against a strong headwind and the water was relatively rough. It was fun but tough, and we spent most of our time kneeling as it was more efficient against the gusts…. not really the most comfortable for 12 whole miles.

The water in the Colorado River is also pretty frigid, so I would only recommend paddle boarding on a hot summer day with no wind.

Paddleboarder kneeling on board on the Black Canyon Water Trail in Nevada
Make sure the wind is low before opting for a paddleboard

Kayak

In 2011, I paddled the Black Canyon Water Trail in a single kayak over a two-day period, camping at Arizona Hot Springs. The kayak was efficient and easy to steer. For a single-day adventure, I think a kayak is the right way to go. The downside of a kayak if you choose to camp is that you will have to pack light since there is limited space to strap on your gear.

Kayak loaded with camping gear heading down the Black Canyon on the Colorado River
Kayaks are easy to navigate and perfect for 1-day trips

Canoe

If you have a larger group and are planning on camping overnight, definitely consider renting canoes. A canoe allows you to carry more gear, including coolers. And you know you are going to want that ice-cold beverage when you get to camp!


Best Time to Kayak the Black Canyon Water Trail

The hot springs are what make this paddling trip so unique, so I recommend visiting in the spring or fall when the air temperatures are comfortable and you can actually enjoy them. Summer is also nice, but as you can guess, the Vegas heat is extremely intense making a hot spring soak pretty unpleasant from June through September.

Alternatively, during the summer months, you can spend more time in the river, where the water temperatures average a very cool 54 degrees. Some hot springs including Gold Strike and Arizona, are closed from mid-May to September due to extreme temperatures.

Narrow rock tunnel with pool of water lit with red and blue lights
Arizona Hot Springs lit up at night

Black Canyon Water Trail Highlights

There are dozens of fun, cool, and unique stops and sights along the Black Canyon Water Trail. If you want to see all of them, you’ll need to do a 1-2 night trip. Below are a few of my favorite highlights, but feel free to explore further.

Also note that since rain and flooding can alter the geography of the side canyons, the description and pictures of these sites may also change from season to season. For the most up-to-date information, visit the National Park Service’s Black Canyon Water Trail website.  

Additionally, water levels are controlled by releases from the Hoover Dam and the height of the Colorado River can change drastically from hour to hour. This means that a beach you park on could be underwater an hour later. When you stop to explore the side canyons, make sure to tie up your boat!

Note that mile markers are measured in river miles, which is the distance in miles from its mouth, NOT from the start of the Black Canyon Water Trail.

Sauna Cave (mile marker 63)

Sauna Cave is a 50′ man-made tunnel that ends in a geothermal pool and natural steam room. It was originally dug out during the construction of Hoover Dam, but when the workers met the intense heat of the water, they abandoned the tunnel.

You have to do a bit of crawling to make your way to the very back of the cave, but it’s worth it for a good schvitz.

View out from Sauna Cave onto the Colorado River
Sauna Cave

Nevada Hot Springs (mile marker 62.5)

Take a walk up Gold Strike Canyon wash to reach a series of beautiful blue hot springs with temperatures ranging from 85-105 degrees. These pools are also accessible by hiking from the road, so you may encounter larger groups. Gold Strike Canyon is closed from mid-May to September due to extreme temperatures.

Small waterfall cascading into pool in Gold Strike Canyon in Nevada
Gold Strike Canyon leading to Nevada Hot Springs

Boy Scout Canyon (mile marker 61.75)

The first pools in Boy Scout Canyon are located a 1/4 mile walk upstream from the river. If you want to continue further be prepared to do some scrambling using the ropes that have been installed at some of the small waterfalls.

Pool of water between two tall rock walls in Boy Scout Canyon in Nevada
Boy Scout Canyon

Arizona Hot Springs (mile marker 59.75)

Out of all of the hot springs along the Black Canyon, these are located in the most dramatic slot canyon with canyon walls that are as narrow as 6 feet apart. Arizona Hot Springs are especially cool at night! The best hot springs are reached by climbing a 20-foot ladder that has been installed by the National Park Service.

Note: The ladder at the Arizona hot springs was damaged by a flood. As of June 2022, there is no access to the upper pools from the river at this time. These hot springs are also closed from mid-May to September due to extreme temperatures.

Iron ladder providing access up waterfall to upper hot spring pools at Arizona Hot Springs in Nevada
Arizona Hot Springs

Emerald Cave (mile marker 54.75)

This is a shallow cave on the Arizona side of the river. When the sun hits it at the right angle, the water sparkles like an incredible emerald gem, making for some really cool photographs.

Kayaker under overhanging rock cave surrounded by red cliffs on the Black Canyon Trail in Nevada
Emerald Cave

What to Pack For Your Black Canyon Trip

What gear you need on the Black Canyon Water Trail really depends on whether you are just spending a day on the water or camping overnight. You’ll also need to take into consideration weather conditions, time of year, and personal preferences. Check out our 3-day backpacking checklist for lightweight gear recommendations if you’re doing an overnight trip.

A good rule of thumb is to wear clothes that you don’t mind getting wet and a good pair of water shoes for hiking up the side canyons. The terrain can be a bit rough and flip-flops just won’t cut it. It’s also a good idea to bring a small daypack for the side hikes. Some of the hot springs take a bit of scrambling to reach, and you’ll want to have your hands free.


So what are you waiting for? Next time you’re in Vegas, get off the Strip! Your Black Canyon paddling adventure will cost you less than a day at the Cosmo Pool, and it’s so close that you can still celebrate your day on the river with a wild night out on the town.


Would you like to kayak the Black Canyon Water Trail? What questions do you still have? Leave a comment below!

Written by Kristen Bor

Hey there! My name is Kristen, and this is my outdoor blog. I discovered the power of the outdoors in my 20s, at the time I needed it most. Now 15 years later, prioritizing that critical connection with nature continues to improve my life. My goal at Bearfoot Theory is to empower you with the tools and advice you need to responsibly get outside.

60 comments on “A Secret Vegas Oasis: Kayaking the Black Canyon Water Trail

  1. I live in Vegas and love the hot springs! They can get really busy during the day, so an overnight trip is the best! I would suggest the Strawberry Hot Springs outside of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. They are my favorite!

    1. Thanks for the tip Jolene! I’ll have to look up Strawberry Hot Springs next time I’m out in Colorado. For the Black Canyon, I agree camping is the way to go. The first time I did it I camped at Arizona hot springs. What an awesome time! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Brooke – It’s really hard for me to say. Under calm conditions, I would say it’s doable (depending on your kid). That said, the river does move pretty swift and if you end up going against the wind, you’ll need both people in the canoe to paddle.

  2. I’ve done this trip many times (I live in Vegas). Sauna Cave is a must see, but it can be difficult to find. It’s very close to the location where you get put into the water. I recorded the GPS location at N36.00348, W114.74331.

    If I had to pick one canyon to hike up on this trip it would be Boy Scout since you can’t hike down to that canyon. You can easily hike down to Gold Strike or Arizona Hot Springs.

    There are ALWAYS people camping at Arizona Hot Springs, often a huge group of Boy Scouts. Get there early if you want a spot. By Saturday mornings I would expect it to be typically full.

    I’ve gone a couple times when it was really windy and made it a difficult slog getting to the exit point in time. Safest bet is a tandem kayak (Desert Adventures rents them). I can’t believe someone would SUP down for 12 miles, but it sounds cool!

    1. Hi there, have you done SUP to Emeral Cave? is it far? hard to do in this months? also where do yo launch out from?

      Thank you xoxo

      1. Yes, I’ve SUPed the entire stretch. Emerald Cave is pretty far down from the launch point which is right below Hoover Dam. Check out the map in the post. If you haven’t done much supping, I’d recommend doing it in a kayak. It’s much more efficient, especially if you run into any upwind.

      2. If you launch from Willow Beach instead of the base of the dam, Emerald Cave is near the beginning, and easy to reach on an SUP. You are paddling upstream from Willow Beach, but that makes an easier downstream trip back to Willow Beach. We did this exact trip justvyesterday!

    2. Hey there,

      may u can help us. We are 4 poeple group of german on vacation road trip. We will be in las vegas for 4 days and would kayaking on fr 20.05 from the hoover dam – willow beach. Its not easy for us to find a place to rent kayak. Can u recommend a trade name/link to rent?

      This are the infos u need …

      Hey,
      we would rent for 4 man a one-man sit in kayak, launch at hoover dam and paddle to willow beach on fr 20.05

      1. At which time can we launch there? we are coming from Las Vegas.

      2. Is it possible to pick up from willow beach back to hoover dam or should we use a taxi/uper.

      3. Tax, kayak and permit and what else in total per person is how much?

      Thanks

    3. Are the mile markers well marked? I’ve booked a day trip with my son in May as a guided tour. The only reason i chose guided at this point is i don’t want us to miss anything.

  3. This sounds pretty amazing. Going to have to check this out, next time I’m in the area. That view of the bridge looks simply awesome.

    1. You could, but you’d be kayaking upstream. Also, I’m not sure if that would require a permit from the Park Service. You’d want to double check on that.

      1. Great info – thank you. Looking to do one long day or an overnight SUP from willow beach to Hoover dam (yes, I know it’s upstream). Any recommendations on dispersed camping stops or tips? Have the gear for water/overnight but just now sorting out logistics

        1. Hi Betsy, you can camp on any available beach along the river, but the only one with pit toilets is Arizona Hot Springs. The map toward the top of this guide has all the pullouts and “things to see” along the way listed. Definitely recommend the hot springs, sauna cave, and emerald cave. Please note that even with your own gear, you need a permit to camp overnight. Have fun!

  4. We are heading to Lake Las Vegas and would love to try this trip. We have an inflatable canvas kayak and four small dogs that go with us. Question; where would we launch and can we go up a way and then come back down to our car?

    Thanks

    1. You launch right below Hoover Dam and take out at a beach 12 miles downriver. You need a permit though to launch there. If you wanted to start at the bottom you’d be trying to paddle up a decent current. I’ve never tried, but I think it would be pretty hard.

  5. If kayaks are rented and we are dropped off is Emerald cove hard to find? I’d prefer to not go in a tour?

  6. I live in LA and kayak around her a lot. I had no idea Vegas had this to offer! I usually just come back with a bad hang-over! LOL. Thanks so much for sharing this post. I’m definitely bringing my kayak with me on my next trip to Vegas. Cheers!

  7. Where did you find the price of $60 for a kayak? On the website you tagged, the price says $179. Thank you in advance!

  8. Planning a day trip for this weekend. Can’t decide between kayak or SUP. The weather is supposed to be perfect on Saturday, 79 and sunny, but I am thinking with the water temp being so cold, kayak may be a better bet. Thoughts? Also, is there a time of year when headwinds and chop are less prevalent? Thanks!

  9. hey kristen!! Divya here. loved your post and i would love to talk to you about this kayak experience of yours.We are 4 people and we are interested in doing this so can you tell me little more about where do you got your kayak or canoe rental from?

  10. Totally just booked this awesome adventure! As an update- permits are now $22. Question- where can you park for this excursion?? The company said we meet at a hotel- does anyone know if you are able to park overnight at said hotel?

  11. Great article, thanks for all the advice! I’m heading down to Vegas from Canada in January (for CES) and coming a few days early to paddle this. Are the temperatures and permits and rentals all still a go for that time of year? Hoping to make it a two day and camp assuming that’s still a go also.

        1. Hi Sean, the hot springs are warm year-round. It is personal preference on wearing a wetsuit and would depend greatly on if you plan to get in the river.

  12. Thank you Kirsten for your wonderful and so helpful blog about kayaking in the black canyon. Recently bought an orukayak and was wondering if worthy taking it with me to Vegas. There for a conference in April but wanted to do some kayaking beforehand. Would love to go for a few days, do you think it’s better to just rent a canoe from the place. Will be me and a girlfriend. Thank you so much, for being brave, being inspiring, fun adventurous and so super cool. Love the camper too, what an amazing idea. Lots of love Frankie xxx

    1. Hi Frankie, that is awesome to hear you bought an Orukayak! Kristen has one as well and loves it. That is the great thing about an OruKayak, you can take it anywhere. I’d take it with you–maybe it will force you to commit to kayaking beforehand since you’d be hauling it all the way there. The rentals are great as well and easy but nothing is better than using your own Orukayak in a new destination.

  13. Great info on the Black Canyon for a kayak. I didn’t know it was there- or possible – or anything! Thanks. I’ll be following you’re blog.

  14. This is amazing! I am traveling out here very soon and was wondering what it’s like for an overnight stay? Can I rent everything I need as I am coming from Michigan for only a weekend.. Thanks so much!

  15. Kayaking and going to Hot Springs sounds absolutely amazing. Are the Hot Springs close to the river or is there a lot of hiking that takes up more time? I also need to know how to make these kayaking arrangements for April. I didn’t find and phone numbers to call.
    Thanks so much and I hope you can help me out.

  16. Is it wise to launch a kayak from the dam to visit the hot springs and paddle back up in one day? Seems like most people go upriver from Willow Beach, but the trip looks much shorter coming down from the dam on a map at least.

  17. Hi! Would you recommend a hammock for over night camping or a tent? We are going with a pretty big group and I’m worried we won’t find many places to hang hammocks!

    1. I wouldn’t recommend hammocks for this area. It’s the desert, so there aren’t a ton of trees. If you have a big group, I’d suggest tents or you can sleep out under the stars on a sleeping pad.

  18. Kristen,
    Thank you so much for inspiring me to take this trip. This past July I did my first Solo adventure and your recommendations were spot on. I flew into Vegas and started with a two day kayak / camping trip mentioned above in Black Canyon. I used Desert Adventures and they were awesome. I was the only one doing self guided and I cannot express how fantastic this portion of the trip was. I camped at Arizona Springs and hiked a bunch of the side canyons and hot springs. It was 107 degrees, but the water was 55, so it was actually great for swimming and being so low to the water, I never felt overheated. I have many great pictures and videos and more importantly, going solo really gave me the time to think about my life and what is next for me.
    I then drove to Zion National Park and camped there for 3 days. I hiked 2 bucket list hikes (The Narrows, and Angel’s Landing), which again I used your recommendations and it was a perfect week and I met some great people during my adventure.
    I highly recommend these adventures to anyone else considering doing a solo trip. Just do it.It is months later and I am still riding this outdoor high. Thanks again for all the info and keep up the great work.
    Pete

    1. Wow, Pete! Thanks so much for sharing your story with us. That does sound like an incredible trip.

  19. Thanks for the great article! You’ve done a great job and included everything here. I hope to add this to our Grand Canyon trip.

  20. I would like to explore the Black Canyon! Is it possible to bring my dog, she is a working dog & goes everywhere with me. Thanks!

    1. Lorien – it looks like pets are allowed in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, but I would double-check their website just to be sure!

  21. Looking to do a trip in S. NV or nearby with 10 friends involving kayaking, hiking, camping. Did the Black Canyon last year, so looking for something similar, but different:) We have all our own gear/equip. Any suggestions?

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