For 27-years I hid in the house during the peak of Vegas summers. Every year the scorching sun leaves the roads desolate during the day and overcrowded after sunset. Locals will do just about anything to avoid the relentless heat. That leaves out-of-the-house activities sadly non-existent. I have good news, Vegas folks, I have discovered a way to overcome your summertime sadness. Kayak tours!
And no, I will not be referencing Lake Mead, our home-grown aquatic graveyard.
Just on the other side of Hoover Dam, there is a goldmine the National Park system has been keeping from us: The Black Canyon portion of the Colorado River. The water is shockingly clean with visibility of 70-feet on good days. Incredible! Am I right?
Did you know just 40 minutes from the Strip there is a beautiful and clear river perfect for kayaking? No? Neither did I until I responded to a Craigslist ad looking for a guide to join their summer team. Fast forward four months and I have kayaked countless miles, explored numerous caves, ran from rattlesnakes, and let the minimal stress of life wash away in hidden hot springs. The company I worked for last summer, Blazin’ Paddles, offers three different tour options: 12-mile full day, 4.5-mile half day, and a 4.5-mile twilight tour that goes out once a month during a full moon.
Full Day 12-mile Kayak Tour
The full-day 12-mile kayak tour starts on the south side of Hoover Dam and ends down the river at the Willow Beach Marina in Arizona. This is, by far, the most popular and sought-after tour they offer. Due to safety concerns, the Bureau of Reclamation does require paddlers to have a permit to launch a watercraft from the base of the dam. The company will secure the permits for you, but availability is limited so make sure to book in advance!
On this tour, the paddlers first stop is a quick exploration of a hot spring that comes with a great story! During the early 1900’s when Hoover Dam was being built, workers dug through a rock wall just south of the dam in hopes of creating a tunnel that would bypass a dirt road and make moving explosives from point A to B much easier. After about 25 yards of digging, they hit a sweet spot that created what we now know as Sauna Cave. As the kayakers make their way through the steamy water, the cave starts to veer to the left, which eventually leaves you in complete darkness. If you’re a chicken, like me, bring a headlamp. You can thank me later.
If that hot spring didn’t do it for you, the next one certainly will. Arizona Hot Springs is more well-known and often has other paddlers and a few naked folks bathing in the warm water. When arriving at this hot spring via the river, you will have to climb a questionable and rust covered latter to access the springs. If heights aren’t your thing, or perhaps you haven’t yet taken out a life insurance policy, I would avoid this stop. Although potentially risky, this hot spring is great because it offers multiple pools for visitors to explore (or avoid). Each pool is naturally a different temperature ranging from “I can do this” to “my skin has melted.” This is also a great opportunity to snap a few pictures, eat a snack, and chug that water your body so desperately needs.
Please keep in mind that if you’re on the water during peak summer months, the hot spring trail used by hikers will be closed by park services because of the extreme heat. Although this may put a damper on your hot spring plans, trust me when I say, nothing good comes out of jumping into 111-degree water when it’s 117 degrees outside.
Aside from the out of kayak excursions, the scenery from the water is incredible and some of the best you’ll see in this city. The soft whisper of the wind brushing past you as you glide through the water and the faint echo of hawks soaring in the distance is an experience you won’t want to miss.
Half Day 4.5-mile Kayak Tour
If 12-miles sounds a little too strenuous, a 4.5-mile tour might be more your style. This half day tour starts at Willow Beach and consists of a 3 hour round trip paddle filled with amazing wildlife sightings and a rich history lesson. Just after your first mile, the guides will direct you to dock your kayaks on shore where they will then take the group on a short hike that reveals the best view on the river. Here you’re able to snap some ‘gram worthy pictures, grab a snack, and take a moment to enjoy the landscape. Before hopping back into your kayak to head to the next sight, I highly recommend taking a quick dip into the water to bring down your body temperature because it is likely higher than you think. Pro Tip: submerge your life jacket into the water before putting it back on!
When everyone is back in their kayaks, the guides will lead you up the river to the legendary Emerald Cove. During the afternoon tour, the sun hits the water and reflects in the cave at just the right point to reveal a gorgeous green glow that you won’t believe is real. This breathtaking picturesque view has even been featured in National Geographic. Needless to say, this is a must-see. After the oo’s and awe’s, you will be led to a nearby beach where you’ll hop out of your kayak and rest your arms from the up-river paddle. At this point, the brave dive into the 52-degree water, while the less daring hangout onshore and soak up the sun. Once everyone is good and happy, you’ll jump back into your kayaks and head toward to the marina. Once there you can grab a $2 beer (or 6) and some beef jerky while you wait for the guides to load the kayaks onto the trailer.
Full Moon 4.5-mile Twilight Tour
This is, by far, the most unique tour. This tour launches once a month during the full moon and typically starts at 6:00 pm. It is essentially the same as the 4.5-mile half day kayaking tour, but with a few added perks. The most talked about addition to this tour is the high probability of seeing rattlesnakes. They typically come out of hiding at dusk because it has cooled down significantly and there is less foot traffic. On my last Twilight tour, I spotted a 4ft speckled rattler hiding in some shrubbery and snapped some pretty cool pictures before hightailing it out of there.
Aside from the exciting wildlife sightings, this excursion is excellent for social folks looking to make friends and swap stories. After the checking out Emerald Cove, the paddlers are guided to a beach where a campfire is set up with a variety of hot dog options and s’mores. Little by little, as everyone gathers around the fire, with marshmallow dripping from chins, the stories begin. If you’re lucky, you may even get to hear the infamous tale of the drowned bat that received CPR compressions from a good Samaritan. Want to know how it ends? Ask the tour guides!
When the paddlers have reached their sugar limit, they load back into the kayaks and head for shore. At this point, lanterns have been placed in the front and back dry hatches of the boats to illuminate each kayak as it glides across the still dark river. With moonlight reflecting off the water and the current on your side, paddling back to the marina is effortless. This memorable evening tour is unique and unlike anything else offered in the area. For this reason, passing up an opportunity to experience the stillness of night on the Colorado River would truly be a shame.
Because of this fantastic experience, I spent last summer meeting people from around the globe, swimming in fresh river water and dodging thirsty bighorn sheep on the daily. If you’re a local and haven’t explored life beyond the dam, you must! And if you’re one of the lucky ones that live outside of the bright lights and strip clubs, make your way down to our barren desert and check out the hidden gems outside of the strip. When you do, make sure to use promo code shestrayed99 for 27% off your half day tour. See you on the water!