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Camping at Boulder Campground was cheap ($10.00; sites with hookups are more expensive) and comfortable – they have large sandbox tent pads for their tent sites. The lake was very low – but we enjoyed strolling on the shore, and stretching our legs after our drive. We decided to have dinner at the Lake Mead Marina restaurant, which is only about a mile from our campsite. Food there was decent – burgers / sandwiches & fries run around $8 to 11.00. Our friends arrived late Thursday night, and we all got up early Friday to head to our river launch site and begin our river camping adventure!
We drove out of the park, and headed across Hoover Dam. The security check at the dam was brief – they are definitely used to seeing kayaks and canoes cross the dam, and both our vehicles made it through without any hesitation. Our launch site, Willow Beach, was about a 12-mile drive down Hwy 93. The road from 93 to the beach is paved and an easy drive, even in my low-rider car. The facilities at Willow Beach are good – they have paved boat launches for the trailered powerboats, and a completely separate, large gravel beach area for canoes & kayaks. This allowed us all the time in the world to cram umpteen pounds of gear into our boats, without feeling like we were holding up other boaters.
Willow Beach has bathrooms, a small store, and a ranger station on site, so you can pick up maps and last minute supplies if you need to. It is part of the Lake Mead National Recreation area, and like Lake Mead, it is posted as an area requiring fees, although there was no checkpoint to pass through to gain access.
After packing the boats, we finally launched around 10:30 a.m. under cloudy skies with temps around 70 degrees. There were six of us in all: me and my husband John, and our friends: Gary, his daughter Carly, his son Brandon, and Spencer. John and I have sea kayaks and the others were in two tandem SOTS, which rounded out our flotilla. The terrain at the launch is rather like rolling desert hills with low scrub, barrel cactus, and rocks, etc. As we progressed upstream, the hills became steeper, the rocks more prominent, until we were paddling along cliff faces. The current at the launch site was seemingly non-existent, which was good, as it allowed Brandon & Spencer some time to get used to kayaking for the first time.
In areas where the canyon narrowed, we did see some swifter water, indicated by dark water and lots of riffles. At times, it seemed like we weren’t making any progress – we did have to work to make our way upstream in some areas. By noon the clouds had cleared, and we were paddling under gorgeous desert blue skies!
The Colorado River below Hoover Dam has river mile marker signs so you can gauge your progress; something I wasn’t used to seeing back in the Midwest. A map showing all of the mile markers is found online (see resources below). Willow Beach is about at mile marker 52, and Arizona Hot Springs, our camping destination, is just shy of mile marker 60. The river has numerous campable areas – including a nice spot on the AZ side near mile marker 54, and a couple of good-sized sites just upstream from AZ Hot Springs as well. However, Arizona Hot Springs has 2 backcountry bathrooms; porta-potties, really, that are maintained by the park service. This is a very large, popular campsite, and I can’t imagine the damage to the environment that would be done if everyone had to dig a cat hole for bathroom purposes. The site is frequented by many of the canoe renters as well as backpackers hiking in from Hwy 93. Even heavily trafficked, there was ample space to set up camp, and we had our own little canyon area all to ourselves.
Although we didn’t get the total seclusion we were in search of, we met some really great new paddling friends because of our choice of campsites. Friday night was too warm to sit by the fire…, which brings me to another good point: you are not allowed to gather wood in Black Canyon; you must bring in your own firewood (we had LOTS). It also should be noted that it was St. Patty’s Day, so we threw two 4 packs of Guinness into a drag bag to cool it down, so we could enjoy them with the Irish Stew we brought for dinner Friday night. Needless to say, we all slept like babies.
Saturday was a beautiful day to paddle to the Dam. Between our campsite and the dam were several areas of faster water, some with small standing waves due to the upstream winds. It made for an interesting and fun paddle! We arrived at the dam and took lots of dam pictures. It’s amazing to think that the dam is over 700 feet tall; somehow after looking up at canyon walls all weekend, the dam didn’t appear to be so big…until you look closely and saw little dots moving around on the top of it! I imagined the people looking down at us, wishing they were with us instead of up top. On the way back, we visited Sauna Cave, Gold Strike Canyon, and saw numerous falls and springs pouring from the rocks. Hot water is everywhere in the canyon, you just need to look for it!
The scenery in this area of the canyon is intense; it actually felt like we could have been on Mars! When I think back to all my trips paddling the Wisconsin River I realize that this terrain is just so foreign to me! It was beautiful, awe-inspiring, and really got us excited for our upcoming trip rafting through the Grand Canyon.
Saturday afternoon the upstream winds continued; this made our paddle downstream to camp a little more interesting. When gusts would kick up, and we stopped paddling, we would actually get blown upstream! Gray clouds moved in and threw the occasional rain shower down on us, but we made it back just fine. The rain let up in the late afternoon and we prepared for our big pasta and salad dinner at camp. Overnight temps were a little lower Saturday, I’m guessing that we did get into the low to mid 40’s.
Sunday was so sad, to leave our campsite, the beauty of the canyon, and our new friends. We met some great people on this trip, most notably, our new friend Daryl, from Las Vegas. Daryl paddles a NovaCraft canoe, and hits the canyon one or two times a month – I’m so jealous of him for that! He shared with us (in addition to hot coffee) lots of knowledge on the Canyon. He knows it so well, and we are staying in touch with him so he can join us again the next time we head to Black Canyon, which I’m hoping will be sooner rather than later.
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