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.
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.
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.
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.
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.