Colorado - 19. Black Canyon

Colorado, Arizona, US/Nevada, US


19. Black Canyon

Usual Difficulty I (for normal flows)
Length 12 Miles
Avg. Gradient 1 fpm
Max Gradient 1 fpm

Black Canyon

Black Canyon
Photo by Thomas O'Keefe © taken 11/09/13 @ 0 cfs

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-09421500 40.00 - 60000.00 ft I 00h43m 39.78 ft (too low)

River Description


This 12 mile run from the base of Hoover Dam to the slack water of Mohave Reservoir can be done as a day trip but is most typically enjoyed as an overnight. While the dam itself is managed by Bureau of Reclamation, the river downstream flows through a National Recreation Area that is managed by the National Park Service. The Black Canyon Wilderenss area extends from the shoreline on river right but river left includes equally impressive backcountry terrain. The Black Canyon is not a true whitewater run but it does have sections of strong current, eddies, and boils. The highlights of this run are the abundance of hot springs and some great slot canyon hikes, that provide a few days worth of opportunities for exploration and adventure.
Accessing the River
The road leading to the base of Hoover Dam is in a security zone and access is limited to Bureau of Reclamation employees and their contractors. Therefore, if you have personal paddle craft that you want to take down the river, you must make arrangements and reservations with one of the authorized livery services to transport your craft to the launch site (check the Bureau of Reclamation website for authorized outfitters). Most outfitters can also provide rental craft and shuttle your vehicle down to the take-out. All participants, including kids, will need to show proof of identification to enter the security zone at the base of the dam.
Paddlers need to be efficient at the dam as groups are required to quickly launch and not linger in the restricted area at the base of the Hoover Dam. Built in the early 1930's this 726.4 foot high monolith to the audacity and determination of politicians and engineers who sought to hold back the water of the Colorado River, is an impressive sight. Daily water levels typically fluctuate by a few feet in response to the power demands of Las Vegas and beyond. Outfitters warn you to pull your boats up well out of the water and secure them whenever you head off on a canyon hike or camp for the night as sudden dam releases can cause beaches to disappear without warning.
Paddlers will quickly notice one of the most striking impacts of the dam--cold water (a constant 52-55 degrees) that is completely devoid of sediment. It's a disorienting feeling for those used to desert runs and the clear emerald green water providing visibility down to the river bottom is a sharp contrast to trips elsewhere in the region.
An alternative to launching at the base of the dam is to access the river from the take-out and paddle upstream from Willow Beach. 
On The River
The best attractions are found in the first four miles of the run but the whole trip is an adventure through a scenic canyon that rises up to 2000' above the banks of the river, with numerous side canyons that invite exploration. Navigation markers are set at one mile increments, that mark the distance in miles from Davis Dam to Hoover Dam. Green squares with odd numbers on river right and red triangles with even numbers on river left, with mile 64 at Hoover Dam and mile 52 at Willow Beach, make it easy to track one's progress.
After launching you will pass by one of the old gage stations and then arrive at the sauna cave on river right at mile 63. At this point you are still within site of your boat launch and the recently constructed Highway 93 bridge (previously all traffic crossing between Arizona and Nevada had to drive the slow road set at the top of Hoover Dam). The sauna cave is man made and was drilled by miners during construction of Hoover Dam. Bring your headlamp to explore this hot spring cave that reaches temperatures of 120°F creating a natural sauna.
If you follow the gravel bar at the Sauna Cave to the downstream end, you will find more hot springs emerging from the canyon walls and the entrance to Goldstrike Canyon at mile 62.75. This side canyon has several hot spring pools and even a mid-stream waterfall that cascades into a beautiful soaking pool in this slot canyon. The walls are encrusted with calcium carbonate deposits and painted with a vivid display of colorful algae that thrive in areas where hot water emerges from the canyon walls. Signs warn of Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba common to thermal pools around the world, that can enter the human body through the nose and cause a rare brain infection and death. While the risk may be small, the best advice is to avoid submerging your head and prevent water from entering your nose in any of the hot springs or heated side canyon streams.
Boy Scout Canyon at mile 61 is one of the best slot canyon hikes in the Black Canyon so be sure to allow time for this one. You will find some nice soaking pools about 1/2 a mile up the canyon, but the best part is the journey up the canyon that requires climbing up through some fun slots. Ropes provide assistance in the most difficult sections. Continuing on upstream past the soaking pools, you will find plenty of fun canyon to explore.
As you approach mile marker 60 (visible on river left), you will be headed into Ringbolt Rapid. From the river's headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, this is the last rapid on the river but you may hardly notice it as such. Historically it was known as one of the more challenging rapids on the Colorado River but the backwater effects of Davis Dam downstream and the regulated flow of releases from Hoover Dam have significantly tamed this rapid. At most flows the river is still class I here, but if Mohave Reservoir is low and Hoover Dam is releasing you will find obvious swift current and strong eddy lines and possibly the formation of a small rapid. 
The most popular camping areas are in the vicinity of Ringbolt Rapids with several good options on river left. White Rock Canyon is the side canyon on river left adjacent to Ring Bolt Rapids and the large alluvial fan provides a few good camping areas for groups. The next big sites are at Arizona Canyon which is the next side canyon on river left. This one is particularly popular due to the accessibility it provides to Arizona Hot Springs, good camping and some great camp kitchen sites that are tucked into the rock outcrops near the river, and the only outhouses on this stretch of river. In between these areas you will find a few additional sites for small groups tucked into little coves. 
If you have the time, White Rock Canyon is a great day hike and popular with both river runners and those who hike down from the trailhead on Highway 93 which is only about 3.5 miles up the canyon. To make it a loop trip, you can hike up towards the road and cross over on the old jeep trail to Arizona Canyon which takes you back to the river. The jeep trail crosses over just before you reach the highway. Bring plenty of water and a good map as you will be out in the open desert during this portion of the hike. 
For many, Arizona Canyon is the highlight of the run this makes it a popular camp site--many spend a couple nights here to allow plenty of time for exploring the side canyons. If you are on a weekend trip when temperatures are moderate you can expect to see a couple of big groups here. The hot spring is a short hike up the canyon and at the top of a 30' waterfall. A sturdy ladder is bolted into the bedrock providing access to the hot springs above. Here the slot canyon is particularly deep and narrow and a wall of sandbags forms a large soaking pool in a spectacular setting. The source of the hot water is less than 100 yards upstream where it emerges in a steady stream from a seep at the base of the canyon wall.
Upstream of the hot spring, the river bed is typically a dry wash but you will find some great hiking with sections of open desert washes and narrow sections of slot canyons that are fun to explore. A highlight is Petroglyph Wash where a set of large boulders are covered in drawings from another time chipped into the dark patina of the rock. Continuing on up you will find another waterfall that requires some basic climbing to continue on up the canyon. Soon you will approach more open terrain and the highway as well as the jeep trail that connects with White Rock Canyon.
Continuing downstream of Arizona Canyon, more spectacular scenery awaits. Dragon's Back, a volcanic dike high on river left at mile 56.5 is a notable geologic feature, and bighorn sheep can often be seen along the riverside cliffs by those with sharp eyes. The last major side canyon, Crane's Nest Canyon, is on river left at mile 56 and makes a nice lunch spot for those who are paddling out from Arizona Canyon or a well-protected camping area for those seeking a shorter paddle out on the last day.
As you reach the end of the run you will arrive at the old gaging station on river right and the Emerald Cave on river left at mile 54. You will notice an elaborate series of catwalks on river left that are part of the trail to the old gagemaster's home site on river left at mile 53.5. The old home site is now a historic site where you can see the old foundation. 
Just before mile 52 you will pass a series of buildings on river left that are part of the Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery. At this point the Willow Beach Marina will be visible downstream. If you are using this as your take-out, continue past the marina and docks used by motorized boats to the beach on the downstream side of the marina that is the take-out for paddle craft. Most river trips take out here but you can continue on the reservoir which extends another fifty miles on Mohave Reservoir to Davis Dam with access points along the way at Eldorado Canyon (river right), Cottonwood Cove (river right), or Katherine Landing (river left). If you continue, be prepared for open water paddling, motor boat encounters, and potentially windy conditions especially once you pass Eldorado Canyon at mile 39.

Reaches of the Colorado River:
01. Hot Sulphur Springs to Hwy 40 bridge (Byers Canyon) (CO, IV)
02. Gore Canyon (CO, IV-V)
03. Pumphouse campground to Rancho Del Rio (Pumphouse) (CO, III)
04. Hanging Lake Exit 125 (I-70) to Shoshone Power Plant Exit 123 (I-70) (Barrel Springs) (CO, IV-V [V+])
05. Shoshone Power Plant, Exit 123 (I-70) to Grizzly Creek, Exit 121 (I-70) (Shoshone) (CO, III-IV)
06. Cameo Dam (Big Sur / Lucky 7) (CO, III)
07. Loma to Westwater (Ruby / Horsethief Canyons) (CO-UT, II)
08. Westwater to Rose Ranch (Westwater Canyon) (UT, I-IV)
09. Cisco (Rose Ranch) to Moab (Professor Valley) (UT, I-III)
10. Moab to Powell Reservoir (Cataract Canyon) (UT, I-IV)
11. Lees Ferry to Lake Mead (Grand Canyon) (AZ, I-V)
12. Black Canyon (AZ-NV, I)


StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2013-11-17 04:07:07

Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
-60.0Ringbolt RapidsIPhoto

Rapid Descriptions

Ringbolt Rapids (Class I, Mile -60.0)

Ring Bolt Rapids

Ring Bolt Rapids
Photo by Thomas O'Keefe © taken 11/09/13 @ 0 cfs

An area of swift current recognized as the last rapid on the Colorado River.

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