I Survived Kayaking the Hoover Dam
This is how you, too, can kayak the Hoover Dam
Updated September 5, 2019
“Take a picture of me in front of the Hoover Dam,” I urge the Desert Adventures van driver, my hand shaking just a smidge. Was the tremor from the fear that he might drop my new camera into the water? Or from the thrill of standing next to the mighty Colorado River gushing from this world-renown engineering marvel? Then again, perhaps I shivered knowing that I was about to embark on kayaking the Hoover Dam.
All-in-all, it’s quite a spectacular photo op with the nation’s highest arch suspension bridge, the Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, looming overhead, and the nation’s largest concrete dam positioned as the backdrop. Not everyone is allowed at the foot of the dam — this might be a once in a lifetime shot.
Kayak Hoover Dam Tour: Rare Photo Op
I was in the Hoover Dam high security zone, ready to “put in” for my kayak Hoover Dam tour, and because the federal guard wanted us in the water and headed downstream as soon as possible, I was anxious about lingering. Consequently, I didn’t double-check the image captured by the driver before we left the spot. You know what THAT means…
Later, when downloading the photo, I find that he took a picture of me literally “in front” of the Hoover Dam – I was blocking any view of the giant structure. The photo’s all UNSTOPPABLE Stacey and no dam. Damn!
Hoover Dam Kayak: In the water feeling quite vulnerable
“Hard hats were invented specifically for Hoover Dam workers,” explains our Desert Adventures guide once we get our kayaks in the water. “That was back in 1933 when the dam in front of you was the largest dam ever built.”
My husband, Dan, and I have visited the Hoover Dam many times, but we’ve never seen the mightiest of dams from the seat of a tiny kayak. The massive structure looms above us as we paddle against the current at the toe of the dam. The new, awesome perspective pretty much blows me away. I’m feeling quite vulnerable and insignificant, and my novice arms ache struggling to paddle against the flow.
Hoover Dam Kayak Tour: As close to the dam's bottom as legally possible
Outfitter Desert Adventures had procured permits for the Hoover Dam security area, escorted us through security checks, locked gates and finally to the launch site at the foot of the Hoover Dam. Our guide, Gary, lets go a floodgate of information about our Hoover Dam kayak tour.
“You are as close to the bottom of the dam as is legally possible,” smiles the river-runner, already a veteran in his late twenties. As we paddle down the Colorado River through Black Canyon, it becomes evident that he knows much about the geology, flora and fauna of the area, and more importantly, the locations of all the hot springs hidden in secret side canyons.
Wonky Wittig Weather Warning
“The weather predictions for our two-day trip have changed slightly. We’re supposed to get high winds at 8:00 tomorrow morning, so we’ll do most of our paddling today to avoid the headwinds. Then tomorrow we can spend more time hiking and exploring an abandoned homestead. Sound OK to you?” he asks.
“Sounds like a plan, but I have to warn you now,” says Dan. “Our friends tell us, ‘The weather always goes wonky when you go with the Wittig’s.’ We’ve ended up in epic hail storms on top of the San Francisco Peaks, hiked down ice paths on the desert’s edge of the Grand Canyon and driven through floodwaters in Death Valley.” Could we experience anything worse while kayaking the Hoover Dam? We were soon to find out.
Kayak Hoover Dam Black Canyon
The first stop on our Kayak Hoover Dam Black Canyon journey is only a few hundred yards downstream from the launch site. We hike up to a small opening in the rock wall. I bend over to poke my head inside and instinctively turn on my headlamp to follow Gary single-file through the steamy, narrow cavern.
“We call this Sauna Cave,” explains Gary. “It’s not really a cave, but actually an exploratory tunnel made during the construction of the Hoover Dam.” When workers encountered 122F (50C) water, they had to abandon the site – I, too, am ready to leave the cave behind, as my claustrophobia reaches a crescendo.
Kayak from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach
The Colorado River below the Hoover Dam is relatively flat water – you won’t run into the big whitewater rapids that the river is known for as it snakes through the Grand Canyon. However, on the kayak from Hoover Dam to Willow Beach the enormous amount of water, which flows through the narrow Black Canyon creates stronger currents, eddies and boils than I’ve experienced while kayaking other massive rivers like the Mississippi, Arkansas or Allegheny.
But that’s not all…
There is an abundance of incredible hiking to be found on this Kayak Hoover Dam Black Canyon expedition. At Goldstrike Canyon, we stop to explore the amazing slot arroyo. As we walk up a trail, a stream of water fed by hot springs flows down it. The warm water between my toes and Teva sandals is surprising and a bit magical. With hot water drizzling from the canyon walls around us, this place is literally like no other on earth.
A knotted rope assists my climb up a raging waterfall, something that a week earlier I wouldn’t have imagined doing. However, the mystical beauty of the canyon scape (and encouragement from Gary) gives me the energy and courage that I did not realize that I possessed.
Calm before the storm: the relaxing pop of the embers
After paddling about eight of the twelve miles of this overnight Hoover Dam kayak tour, we camp on a sandy hill overlooking a wide beach. Gary sets his tent on a nearby hill after starting the campfire on which we cook our dinner. The outfitter supplied food, camp chairs, and all the gear needed for the expedition. All we brought was our clothing. We enjoy the relaxing pop of the embers as we finish dinner and then head to bed.
I feel like a Bedouin
The 60-mph winds weren’t supposed to hit until 8:00 a.m., but we are awakened in the pitch dark by the incessant flapping of the tent’s rainfly. I try to ignore it and go back to sleep. I dream a crazy nightmare that I can’t talk because my mouth is full of sand. Soon I’m roused again as the windward side of the tent pushes against my face, and I find that I am, indeed, grinding sand between my teeth. I turn on my headlamp to find our sleeping bags and clothing – inside our tent – covered in a surprisingly deep layer of sand. I feel like a Bedouin.
“Honey, get up, we need to tie down our campsite,” I say, afraid that the massive winds would carry away our camping chairs and anything else we’d left outside.
“Why are you using the white light on your headlamp?” harangues my sleepy husband. He prefers the red light setting that does not destroy night vision and so turns on his red light. We unzip the tent and go out to fold up the chairs that had already toppled in the wind. A plastic bag goes whizzing by, and I dive in the soft sand to snag it.
Could it be a ‘Rescue Mirage?’
By this time, Gary arrives from the nearby hilltop where he’d set his tent. “When I woke up from the wind, and I looked over here, I saw one white light and one red light. I was so dazed that I thought they were vehicle lights in the distance. I thought I saw a road, and the lights were a ranger coming to rescue us,” he describes his rescue mirage. We all erupt into laughter, knowing full well that we’re in a remote canyon miles from any roadway.
The guys go to look for a wind shadow in which to reestablish our campsite. I re-stake the rain fly and crawl back into my sleeping bag. Soon I hear through the sound of the wind, “Put all your clothes in the dry bag. We’re going to unstake the tent and carry it to a new spot.”
“Do you want me to fill it with the sleeping bags and mats, too?” I ask.
“No, leave those. We’ll carry them inside the tent,” yells Dan over the ferocious wind.
Half asleep, I begin cramming hats, gloves and rain jackets into the dry bag that Dan had tossed inside the tent. Outside the guys were drawing the stakes. Soon they carry the shelter, with me following behind trying to carry the rainfly that is spread with a tent pole. The embedded pole makes the huge nylon rainfly into a sail, and it catches the wind like a jib. I trip over the flapping being and drop the dry bag. I’m sure that if you could see in the dark, we all looked like a bunch of Keystone Cops flailing in the sand.
Eventually, we set our tents on the leeward side of the sandy hill in a windscreen and somehow sleep through the rest of the blustery night.
Keep on Kayaking the Hoover Dam
The good news about our kayaking the Hoover Dam adventure is that the windstorm went through earlier than predicted and in the morning, we’re not paddling in the anticipated strong headwind. That leaves us plenty of time to explore the ruins of an old homestead built for early water gauge workers at mile 53.5, boulder in additional slot canyons and watch for wildlife.