Upper Black Canyon Water Trail2021-10-21T16:04:50-07:00

Upper Black Canyon Guidebook

Rafting or canoeing the Black Canyon Water Trail is to experience a mixture of beauty and rich history. The entire water trail is approximately 30 miles long. The Colorado River forms the border between Nevada and Arizona along this stretch of river. River right is Nevada, and river left is Arizona. The official trail begins just below the Hoover Dam (permit required) and travels 30 miles downstream to El Dorado Canyon. This guide presents an alternate trip with no permits required. The suggested trip in this guide is to put in at Willow Beach, 11.5 miles downstream of the Hoover Dam, and to paddle upstream towards the Dam to one of many riverside campsites. From your campsite, you can float back to Willow Beach as a round trip. This trip is most commonly done on canoes or kayaks. There are tons of options for kayak/canoe rentals out of Willow Beach. Shop around online to find the best deal. The NPS has a list of approved outfitters offering tours that can be found, here.

About this guide

This guide outlines one continuous 11.5 mile stretch from Willow Beach to the mid-river restricted access sign near to the Hoover Dam. It is not legal to travel past that sign without a permit – contact the NPS for more information if you have questions regarding travel near to the Hoover Dam. Note that this guide outlines how to do this section of the Colorado without a permit. This requires paddling upstream first, with a return to take-out at the initial put-in site. The total mileage of this trip is closer to 23 miles if done as a full round trip.

All data points were collected using GPS. These locations were checked against Google Earth for accuracy. Distances are the averages of repeated trips that were GPSed.

River Info

Rafting or canoeing the Black Canyon Water Trail is a casual and scenic adventure. As you paddle you can explore lush caves, mining remnants, hot springs, side canyons, and more. Detailed information of the entire route, including regulation/permit information for those wishing to launch at the Hoover Dam, can be found here.


Upper Black Canyon of the Colorado River is a beginner run. There are important safety considerations to keep in mind, though. The water in this section of the Colorado is very cold as it is released from the bottom of Lake Mead. Beginner canoers capsize frequently in this section of river. Bring back-up layers in dry bags in case you take a longer-than-expected swim. It is crucial to always wear your PFD while on the river. The current picks up significantly in the late afternoon/evening as higher electricity demand leads to a greater release from Lake Mead for hydroelectric production. Try to paddle early in the day and afternoon to ensure the safest flows.

The extremely rare but deadly amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, is known to exist in the hot springs along this stretch of river. Despite being exceedingly rare, it is important to keep your head above water when enjoying the hot springs. More information about the amoeba can be found, here.


Launching from Willow Beach and paddling upstream (this guide) or downstream (more information here) does not require a permit. If you wish to launch at the Hoover Dam you must go with an outfitted adventure.

Upper Black Canyon of the Colorado on average runs between 7,000 CFS and 20,000 CFS.  The highest flows are during the summer based on increased electric demand from the region of the Hoover Dam. This section of the Colorado is runnable year round. The USGS measures flow in Black Canyon based on the gauge height of a gauge below the Hoover Dam.

Sometimes the USGS flow image breaks. If this happens, here is the direct link.

Gauge data provided by the USGS.

Upper Black Canyon Water Trail

WARNING: Conditions change frequently and may make this guide useless. This guide is NOT a replacement for sound judgment. Go with someone with recent Black Canyon canoeing or rafting experience.

Put-In / Take-Out

The most commonly used access points.

Point of Interest

These include side canyons, waterfalls, and more.


Black Canyon campsites

Willow Beach to Hoover Dam


Willow Beach to the restricted access sign is 11.5 miles. Round-trip is 23 miles.



Feet per Mile

The Upper Black Canyon Water Trail  has an average gradient of 4.5 fpm

Shuttle Time

This is a round-trip adventure and so no shuttle is needed.

Mile 0 – Willow Beach Put-In: River left. The start of your trip! Meet your outfitter in the parking lot by the beach if you are using one.

Mile 0.5 – Willow Beach Fish Hatchery: River left. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the hatchery. The intention of the hatchery is to protect endangered species including the bonytail chub and razorback sucker. The hatchery began operating in 1962 and has been active ever since. You can take a self-guided tour of the hatchery if you pull off on river left.

Mile 1.50 – Emerald Cave: Paddle all the way into the cave. Once inside, turn around and enjoy the radiating light inside the cave. The namesake of the cave is from the beautiful emerald color that the water takes inside the cave during the afternoon.

Mile 1.75 – Gauging Station: The gauging station was built in advance of the construction of the Hoover Dam. The station was used during and after the construction to monitor water levels and silt output. The cable that runs across the river was built to provide access to the station from the Arizona side of the river.

Mile 6.75 – Arizona Hot Spring: The Arizona Hot Springs are remarkable. Pull in to the cove on river-left and remember to bring your boats up high onto the beach. Hiking away from the river, the trail forks into two canyons. Follow the stream of water into the left canyon and enjoy a short hike up a canyon. This hike will bring you to a twenty-foot ladder. The hot springs are nestled into a slot canyon above the ladder. The further up the canyon you explore, the hotter the springs get, ranging all the way to 111 degrees Fahrenheit. You can camp in either of the two main canyons. Note that there is a pit toilet at this site. Click here for a detailed description.

Mile 7.5 – Ringbolt Rapids: Look approximately 15 feet above the high water line and you will see large ringbolts drilled into the rock wall. These ringbolts were used in the late 1800’s to winch steamboats up through a set of extremely difficult rapids. The construction of dams downstream of the rapids led to them washing out, but the evidence of their former glory remains through the presence of the bolts.

Mile 9.25 – Boy Scout Canyon: River right. Beach your craft on the sand of the river wash and get ready for a fun, albeit mildly challenging hike. As you hike up Boy Scout Canyon you will be hiking alongside and through a geothermally heated creek. There is a fun waterfall along the creek as well as several small pools that you can soak in.

Mile 10.25 – Goldstrike Canyon: River right. Goldstrike canyon is another stellar day-hike with hotspring pools, a waterfall, and beautifully colored rocks and vegetation.

Mile 10.5 – Sauna Cave: River right. This cave was accidentally created by construction workers involved with the Hoover Dam. The intention was to build a tunnel at the cave site, but intense geothermal heating prevented the tunnel from being completed. Access to the cave is up a steep, short hill from the shoreline. The cave is relatively straight and quickly becomes pitch black as you explore its depths. The heat from the geothermal activity becomes increasingly intense as you go deeper into the cave.

Mile 11.5 – Restricted Access: For non-permitted trips, this sign that spans the river is the end-of-the-line. Please respect sign and use this as a turnaround point.


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