Kayak Emerald Cave near Las Vegas

Las Vegas
Feb 2020
Kayaker exits the Emerald Cave in Nevada

Lake Mead Recreation Area outside of Las Vegas, NV was the first national recreation area designated in the United States. The area of course includes Lake Mead —known for boating, bathtub lines and water scarcity —but the recreation area is also comprised by sections of the Colorado River below the Hoover Dam, including the Black Canyon Wilderness and the Black Canyon National Water Trail. Along this 26-mile section of flat, scenic river you will find jaw-droppingly beautiful tributary canyons, natural hot springs, rugged cliffs, remnants of early settlement and the kayaker’s favorite Emerald Cave. This part of the Colorado River forms the border between the states of Nevada and Arizona.

The combination of the strong southwestern sun, the cavern’s yellow-brown rock walls, and the water of the Colorado River play together to light up this otherwise shadowy cave in a brilliant way. Each year, about 25,000 people canoe, kayak or raft this section of the Colorado but from the outside Emerald Cave is easy to miss.

Know Before You Go

  1. Expect to spend 4 + hours of time in your kayak for the shortest paddle route to the cave. This section of the Colorado River is very flat with minimal current but can get windy which makes paddling more difficult and can slow you down.
  2. Emerald cave is not very large and will only fit 2 or 3 kayaks inside at a time which makes it quite an intimate experience but also means you may need to wait your turn if there are other visitors there at the same time.
  3. In order to get the full experience when the cave is at maximum levels of emerald vibrance, visit on a sunny day and go midday when the sun is hitting the cave at the right angle. Clouds in the sky? Emerald Cave will appear a deeper green. Still beautiful, but maybe not as photogenic. The best time of year to visit is between April and October.
  4. If no one is there, you can spend as long as you want at Emerald Cave, but chances are that won’t be the case! A good 10-20 minutes in the beauty of the cave is enough time to take pictures and take in the beauty of this unique combination of rock, water, and light. There is not a good beach near the cave to stop, so keep your eye out for another option to rest on the return downstream.
  5. If you launch from Hoover Dam, you will need to purchase a ($22) permit for your kayak trip. Permits are limited in order to control the traffic going in/out of the canyon, so plan your trip well in advance!

How to Get To Black Canyon’s Emerald Cave

kayakers on their way to emerald cove  

There are two options when planning a kayak trip to Emerald Cave. Because the Black Canyon Water Trail section of the Colorado River is entirely flat, your deciding factors will be the time you have and how much you want to see of this unique area.

Start and End at Willow Beach

If you’re looking for a short day trip, your best option is to kayak from Willow Beach to Emerald Cave. Willow Beach is an access point in Lake Mead Recreation area on the Arizona side of the river (entry fee required). The beach is 2 miles downstream of the cave, so you’ll paddle 4 miles total. Most visitors take from 4 – 6 hours to kayak to Emerald Cave and back to Willow Beach.

Start at the Hoover Dam, End at Willow Beach

For a longer point-to-point kayaking adventure with a stop at Emerald Cave, choose the 12 mile route that begins below the Hoover Dam. This full-day adventure along the Black Canyon Water Trail offers many incredible side canyons and natural hot springs to stop at. Twelve miles of potentially windy paddling can make for a very long day, make sure that you are appropriately prepared with food and water. Kayaking from Hoover Dam to Emerald Cave involves more logistical planning. You will need to plan for or hire a shuttle in order to do this as a 12 mile day trip.

There is plenty to see while kayaking through Black Canyon. Paddlers frequently enjoy wildlife sightings of bald eagles and bighorn sheep peeking over the cliffs, and there are several historic landmarks such as the Willow Beach Gauging Station of 1931 right on the banks of the Colorado river.

Traveling from Phoenix? – Rent a Kayak before you go!

Emerald Cave is located closest to Las Vegas, but it is famous among Arizona residents. If you’re planning a trip to travel from the Phoenix area to Emerald Cave, consider renting an inflatable kayak in Phoenix to bring with you for your trip. The drive from Phoenix to Emerald Cave is about 4-5 hours by car.