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Hot Springs, Sauna Caves & Kayaks on the Colorado River

Last Updated on August 3, 2023

(This article originally appeared in 2009 on the former Examiner.com website.)

When I tell people I’m off on my semi-annual pilgrimage to kayak the Colorado River, I’m often praised for my bravery. What my friends and colleagues don’t know is that this particular section of the river is little more than a pond with a slight current. Paddling is barely required; sticking an oar in the water to act as a rudder does the trick for the majority of the 12-mile journey.

Jenn and Zi kayaking on the Colorado River
Kayaking with my PIC made me nostalgic for our days at camp, where we met.

As long as the weather is right (not like two years ago, when the wind made the river appear to flow in the opposite direction), even your gramma can kayak this river. She may not be able to scramble over all the red rocks to reach the hot springs that will ease her aching joints, but she can certainly float downstream and enjoy the emerald green waters flanked by the red-rock canyon walls.

Our group of 28 put in at the base of Hoover Dam, where we enjoyed a view of the bypass bridge being built 900 feet above our heads, which an outfitter representative said would be the highest bridge in North America and the fourth highest in the world, upon its completion. The dam itself looked puny in comparison, even as it towered over us in the morning shadows.

The upper portion of the journey — which flows through Black Canyon and ends at Willow Beach (see PDF map) — is so studded with hot springs and other natural wonders that you barely paddle five minutes before it’s time to stop again and come ashore to explore. The first of these onshore excursions took us to a sauna cave, formed by a hot spring flowing from deep inside the 50-foot-deep crevice. Our headlights picked up the colorful formation formed by eons of minerals collecting on the stone walls — reds and whites and oranges all flowing like melted candle wax and shimmering through the steam. At Gold Strike Canyon, just a few minutes’ float further down, we followed the cascading waters upstream and found several pockets of hot springs and warm showers flowing off the canyon walls.

A little more than halfway to Willow Beach, just past the sensationally named Ringbolt Rapids (about as treacherous as a toilet flush), we made camp at Arizona Hot Springs, the most popular location along the river for overnight stays due to the idyllic hot springs located just a short hike up through a slot canyon. At night, one of our guides/hosts placed dozens of candles in the canyon nooks to create a fairy-tale walk up to the springs, where dozens of campers came to soak after a hard day’s paddle.

On the final push the next day, the river had far fewer stop-offs for us to explore, so we passed the time scoping out the cliffs for bighorn sheep and ducking our kayaks into spring-fed coves and echoing caves that provided homes to various arrays of birds. When we stopped for lunch at one of the few beaches along the way, we spotted a tiny bat clambering in a niche, and he soon became the focal point for a dozen digital cameras.

Close-up of a gray bat on a rock
Our bat friend scurried about as we all sought to get the best photo.

Although the entire 12 miles from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach can be paddled in a single day, it’s highly recommended that you make it a two-day trip. Our group combined the river portion with a one-day excursion to the nearby Valley of Fire. Several other parks are a short jaunt away.

More info: Black Canyon and Willow Beach River Adventures | 928-767-4747

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