Below the Dam
Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
I could hear them bobbing in the water as the tide rose. The five boats were tied all in a line, and made a low thudding sound that broke the silence of our camp. Our tent was just thirty feet on the far side of the shrubs where we’d fastened the kayaks, but had I paid enough attention? Did I use the right knot? I couldn’t remember, and now it seemed to matter.
Lying in the dark tent, a little cramped, it occurred to me that I’d left all my IDs, my iPad, and my keys in a dry bag still tucked inside the forward hatch. Too late now, after dark, to wade out among the tamarisk trees and pick my boat out from the ones knocking against it.
Our put-in on the Colorado River was rushed, as usual. Desert Adventures dropped us off at the early launch time and we had only fifteen minutes to haul our boats and gear down to the rocky “official” launch site in the shadow of Hoover Dam. I checked the gear: paddle leash so I wouldn’t lose my only paddle, dry bags stuffed with a couple of days worth of food, two gallons of water, sleeping gear and tent, and most importantly my zip-up insulated booties. I was ready and watched as the other four guys prepped their boats. My husband picked up my kayak’s stern and I lifted the bow handle of my canary yellow sit-on-top – and we lugged her to the water’s edge.
The Colorado River is known for its Grand Canyon rapid runs: exclusive, mostly guided, and high-priced excursions. But there is another side to the Colorado, with hundreds of miles of smooth paddling. The stretch we chose, a favorite, was Hoover Dam to Willow Beach. A lazy paddle, but with enough adventure to keep us coming back. This time, I invited a couple of novice kayakers, and one who’d been on multiple trips. The hitch is that only a professional guide company can transport boaters to the river, because Homeland Security doesn’t want just anyone down by the dam.
We set off that morning shortly after eight, a beautiful clear and windless spring day. The dry air hovered in the sixties and seventies, and the river was its usual frigid fifty-five, and running high. No wind and calm water meant a quick first landing at Boy Scout Canyon, a couple of miles downstream on river right. This stretch of the Colorado is pure desert, with Nevada sand and rock stretching away from the river to the west and the same featureless rockscape heading east into Arizona. But the river itself yields the incongruity of gushing hot springs seeping out of side canyons.
At the entrance to Boy Scout Canyon, a wall of deep green and orange moss grows like a garden out of the wall, thick as weeds. These thermal features dot the side canyons all along the river south of the dam, before the steep canyon walls open up nearly twelve miles south at Willow Beach.
The five of us walked into the canyon, warm water trickling over toes. As we ascended, the hike shifted from shallow streams and wide passageways to narrower rock-bound corridors. We adapted, bridging the rock with our bodies in a move called chimneying: pressure on one side of rock with back or hands and on the opposite side with knees or feet. Each little climb meant wet feet from the waterfalls, and made the footing tricky. Four of us fell. I took the first tumble while scrambling up a waterfall only a few feet high.
After several climbs, a near vertical ascent of about fifteen feet, with rope, presents itself. We hand-over-handed it to reach a hot pool surrounded by sandbags. The group soaked for about an hour, then headed back down to the beached boats. A small crowd had joined us – Spring Breakers and families taking an adventure trip from their home base in Vegas. Once we shoved off, though, the river was only ours. In that section, the cold green Colorado rushes between walls several hundred feet high but only a few hundred feet apart.
Adventurers have chosen the Colorado for decades, since long before the dams rose and changed the water’s normal course. On the Hoover to Willow Beach run, there aren’t any dangers from rapids, but the current is still strong. The peril that guides warn newbies about is the sudden rise in tide as water is let go from the dam. Boats get swept away, and travelers abandoned, not uncommonly. It’s a danger to camp near the water’s edge, and we’d heard stories of whole camps flooded and floating off in the middle of the night.
We paddled into camp in early afternoon. The place was filling up, more than usual. Arizona Hot Springs can be reached in a three-mile hike from the highway, so it’s popular with boaters and tourists looking for a slot canyon challenge. The camp seemed near capacity: Spring Break strikes again. We were ahead of the pack, and claimed a central campsite with a hand-built, roofless tiki hut where prior campers had left a soggy pair of black pants out to dry. The site’s best feature was its shady patch from a short mesquite tree. We were surrounded by families and boy scouts and a parade of college students lugging unicorn float toys and other strange river gear.
The campsite can handle five or six large groups, as it sits at the mouth of a wide slot canyon. Hikers and campers negotiate another warm stream to access the soaking pools beyond the last obstacle, a tall ladder. After settling in, we hiked upstream and carefully ascended the ladder – nearly twenty feet of long-legged rebar bolted to the rock. More sandbags, churning water, and an echo with the voices of new acquaintances. The pools were divided into warm, hot and steaming. The farthest pool lay nestled in a grotto where the canyon closed in and pinched off all but a triangle of blue sky.
Some fellow bathers had left melted white candles in the natural rock shelves. A woman of twenty or so carried her toddler over the waist-high wall of bags, keeping her baby’s face above the water. Faded signs warned of microscopic Naegleria fowleri, a rare but deadly waterborne amoeba that can enter through the nose. We kept our heads high, and enjoyed our mostly private, all natural, no-cost spa.
It was a slow and lazy afternoon at camp. Four guys who didn’t know each other very well meant few words. Dan lounged against the only sizeable rock, padded by his bedroll. Jared fussed with his camp stove, and looked comfortable in his brand new foldable chair (though he noted it was awfully low to the ground for an old guy). I sunk into my ancient and unreliable folding chair, which broke sometime that night. The evening settled. We sat in a ring around a lone Duraflame log, and the echoes of boy scouts were heard throughout the canyon. Something about how Brandon was missing, or was in trouble.
Tent set up, dinner made, a stray watermelon that had floated down the river consumed. We did what campers have done since before they called it camping: stared into the fire, named the constellations, and listened to the only sounds in that canyon, boat hulls knocking in the rising river.
Where to go: Boulder City (40 minutes south of Las Vegas)
When to go: Fall, spring, or winter. Summer is not recommended due to intense heat.
How to Schedule: There are many local companies; Desert Adventures is a solid one. Boats and camping gear can be rented for reasonable fees, and the companies procure the permits. Guided tours include days or overnight.
Cost: Around $60-$70 per person (shuttle and permits) for self-guided, with a group to split the shuttle cost. From $100 for day tours, that includes boat, PFD rental, shuttle and permits.
Route: Colorado River, Hoover Dam to Willow Beach, 11.5 miles.
Put In/Pick Up: Launch at 8 or 9 am (meet outside Boulder City and hour prior). Pick up by 4 pm (suggest getting to Willow Beach by 2 pm, to avoid afternoon winds).
Camping: Arizona Hot Springs, includes pit toilets, no other services. Primitive camping along the river at occasional beaches.
Text and Photos by Jean Campbell
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