Paddling Black Canyon & Visiting Arizona, Boy Scout, Gold Strike, and Sauna Hot Springs

  • Updated: January 19, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

January 19th to 21st, 2020

An overnight paddle trip within driving distance of LA / Orange County with access to multiple hot springs? Sounds awesome doesn't it?

Black Canyon is an area just south of Hoover Dam that is known for the hot springs that flow out of the various side canyons.

It's the northern part of a 30 mile designated National Water Trail stretching from Hoover Dam (mile 64) to Eldorado Canyon (mile 39).

Paddling up river from Willow Beach to the hot springs has been a trip I've been wanting to do for years. There's been at least three times I was all set to go only to have to cancel the trip at the last minute due to weather extremes or other issues.

With big changes on the horizon that may limit our access to our kayaks Jen and I decided we really wanted to make doing this trip a priority. And when weekend plans cancelled in mid January we jumped at the chance and headed off for two nights and three days paddling up from Willow Beach.

Planning Particulars

If you look online you can find multiple companies that offer trips paddling Black Canyon. You pay for either a single or multi day trip and put in at Hoover Dam traveling downstead to come out at Willow Beach. Some of them even cook for you.

Or, if you want to save some money / don't particularly care for guided groups you can bring your own kayaks and put in at Willow Beach. That means fighting the current upstream but generally it's not flowing too hard and you can camp in any of the canyons along the way.

Note that I said the water is generally not flowing too hard. The current changes when water is let out of Hoover Dam and that's done without warning. While we were here we saw the water levels vary by the better part of a foot and there are warnings online about the potential for much larger changes. So it's always a good idea to drag the boats up the shore a fair ways and / or secure them with a rope.

Wind can also overwhelm the current and I'd strongly recommend not trying to do this when the forecast is for strong winds. When it's calm you really get to appreciate just how clear the brilliant emerald color water is.

It's reasonable to do the trip in two days but it's nice to spend extra nights if you have the time particularly if you can manage to be out there on a non weekend when it's liable to be significantly less busy.

Also they restrict motorcraft from the water on Sundays and Mondays which makes for a much more pleasant paddling experience.

Permit wise the only thing you need is an Aquatic Invasive Species decal available online for $5. That lets you have your boat in the water and nothing is needed for camping. There is an access fee at Willow Beach but I've never actually been able to pay it in three visits here as the gatehouse is always closed.

Beyond that you can have fires but have to pack in your own wood. We didn't figure it was worth doing that in our boats. Also depending where you camp you might want to bring a wag bag along since you can't always get to an ethical location to dig a cathole for human waste.

You can filter water out of the river but we just brought along a few gallons in the boat.

Day 1: Willow Beach to Boy Scout Canyon

We drove out Saturday night and ended up just bivying near the beach. There is a campground nearby that had spots available for $31 but considering it was already after midnight we just crawled in the back of the jeep and got moving early.

At the south end of the Willow Beach area there is a paddle craft launch. We offloaded the boats here and then I went to leave the jeep in the big parking lot across from the store. 

When we launched a little before 10 the water was spectacularly smooth and with the sunlight you could see the bottom even at the deepest parts of the river.

Back in early 2019 I did a dive from Willow Beach and hadn't been overly impressed. Looking back the fact it was near evening on a cloudy day was unfortunate because today the water was a brilliant clear emerald color with 30+ ft of visibility.  Now I can't wait to come back and do a dive in better conditions.

Per a sign at the parking lot the water is clear and cold because it comes from the base of Hoover Dam. So expect the water here to be a chilly 55 degrees pretty much year round.

One of the first stops along the way was Emerald Cave. It's not deep, just about the length of our boats, and the colors that give it it's name are more apparent later in the afternoon when the sun shines inside the opening.

A few hours later we arrived at Arizona Hot Springs to find the beach packed. Since this is one of the two canyons that you can hike into it tends to fill up with backpackers in addition to the groups coming in from the water. We decided to keep going and come back on Tuesday when it might be a little less busy.

It was now early afternoon and the wind and current had picked up a bit to the point where we were having to put in a good effort.

We found Boy Scout Canyon which is only accessible from the water and while there were a few other people there we decided to make it our basecamp. We found several tent sites up in the lower rocks in the center of the picture and that's where we ended up staying.

There was another couple staying on the beach to the right and a few boats from some people just there to visit the hot spring.

We went back to explore the canyon and were surprised by the amount of scrambling required to reach the pools. We found them occupied and decided to come back the following morning when we'd likely have them to ourselves.

Back at the beach we pulled the boats around the corner and set up the tent in a large site above a small private cove.

We could hear the neighbors talking on the other side of the rock but we mostly just enjoyed the feeling of solitude along side the almost empty river.

Day 2: Boy Scout Hot Spring, Sauna Cave, Hoover Dam, Gold Strike Hot Spring

The next morning we woke up, made coffee, and set off to visit Boy Scout Hot Springs again.

Boy Scout Hot Spring is a good hike back and includes a bit of scrambly terrain along the way. We were wearing Crocs which weren't ideal for a few of the more rocky moves but we made it work.

At two points along the way there were bolts with a piece of rope hanging off. We used these as a handline to get up or down the sections.

There were indications along the way that there had been some additional pools along the way but we only found the big one shown above. It was pleasantly warm and we had it to ourselves.

After soaking for a bit we went up further to explore.

The next rope wasn't difficult but it was a bit of a higher consequence climb and soon after that we came to another right before the confluence that was in bad enough shape we decided to turn around.

The canyon does get quite striking at times with multi hued green slime forming where the hot water comes out of the wall. The water comes down in a rain pattern which Jen loudly described as magical.

Back at camp we hopped into the kayaks and set off upstream to see the north end of the canyon.

We went up as close to the dam as we were allowed. -ish. Right before you get to the place where the companies are allowed to put in there are signs warning you not to enter. My understanding is they didn't used to be there as local dive shops tell stories of starting drift dives right up against the dam but post 9-11 security concerns put a stop to all of that.

Suna Cave was just north of Gold Strike and below a few small caves accessible from a small lagoon. Sauna was originally an attempt at making a tunnel for the nearby dam until they hit hot water and gave up.

The only real pool we saw was currently underwater (see below the front of my boat) but the water right near the shore was pleasantly warm until very suddenly cooling down to the normal 55 degrees.

Then it was time to visit Gold Strike itself. We pulled up on the sandy beach and walked a short distance back up the canyon. Most everyone looked to be day hikers though we saw one lady pull out an inflatable kayak and head down the river.

This was the biggest and most popular pool with several different groups hanging out in subdivided areas which were all slightly different temperatures.

We went up a bit higher and found a pool we had to ourselves and decided to try it out for a few minutes.

After that we drifted back down to Boy Scout Canyon which went incredibly easy now that we didn't have to fight the current.

We found we now had the canyon to ourselves and settled down for a nice dinner water the water flow past.

Day 3: Arizona Hot Spring, Back To Willow Beach

We had a nice morning slurping down cups of coffee as we went about packing our gear back into the boats. The water was looking pleasantly smooth and moving rapidly in the same direction we'd be traveling for the day so I was looking forward to a nice relaxed paddle.

Sadly that wasn't to be. By the time we launched around 11 the current had slowed and the wind had picked up which left us having to once again paddle just as hard as we'd had to to come up the river.

Our first stop was at Arizona Hot Springs where we wanted to check out the pools. And sure enough it was far less crowded on a Tuesday morning vs Saturday afternoon.

The beach it was deserted. There was a single group camped back in one of the canyons and a few random day hikers who came by while we were there.

From the beach we followed the canyon off to the left and then passed the turn to the hiking trail leading out instead staying in the canyon and walking through warm water.

This narrowed and soon brought us to a slightly rusted ladder which we climbed to access the pools.

There were three pools set up when we were there and we had a nice chat with a gentleman named Mike who introduces himself as the guy that takes care of the hot springs. He told us how much of a toll weather and people take on the pools and how he was constantly working to maintain them.

It was a bit hard to take pictures politely due to a few individuals hanging out sans clothing. The picture above is of the top two pools that I managed to snap when the young lady wearing nothing but bikini bottoms was around the corner. The bottom pool was occupied by two gentlemen splayed out with even less clothing so no pictures of tha tone.

Suffice to say there's plenty of room but you shouldn't expect to have an area to yourself.

After a quick lunch on the beach we continued our paddle back towards Willow Beach. Unfortunately the wind only got worse and we ended up having to fight the entire way making wry comments likening it to our grandparents having to hike uphill to school both ways. It also ruined the effect of the brilliant emerald water that had so captivated us the first day.

Willow Beach was almost deserted as well when we pulled in around 6 pm. We loaded up and started the 5 hour drive back to Orange County managing to arrive at a decidedly agreeable time.

Next  up: some hiking, some diving, and a little something called Wilderness Travel Course.

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