Wet and Wildlife in Vegas: Rafting the Black Canyon Water Trail

Nestled between sandy beaches, colorful caves, coves and active hot springs, the shimmering waters of the Black Canyon Water Trail are as brilliant as the lights on the Las Vegas Strip.

In one secluded spot, called the Emerald Cave, the water actually glows green like neon.

Starting at the base of the Hoover Dam, the crystal-clear water of this 30-mile trail flows along the Colorado River, ending at the historic Eldorado Canyon on Lake Mohave. It’s a popular spot among outdoor enthusiasts for recreational activities like rafting, canoeing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and fishing. And its less than 30 minutes from the Strip.

The trail was recently designated as a National Water Trail by Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. It’s one of 16 nationwide, the first in the Southwest and the only one that passes through a desert.


“The designation is something that publicizes to the world that this is a place you can go and see the best that America has to offer,” said Helen Howard, a board member of the Lower Colorado River Trail Alliance.

The alliance was formed in 2012 by the National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Outside Las Vegas Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce, local businesses and outdoor enthusiasts to pursue the national designation.

“It is beautiful out there,” Howard said of the trail. “It’s got cold water year round. It’s got waterfalls that fall into the lake. It’s absolutely gorgeous.”

The trail is home to a variety of wildlife such as desert bighorn sheep, owls, chuckwallas and ducks. Once a rafting tour guide even spotted some Cirque du Soleil performers doing stunts on a cable car wire along the waterway. (That form of wildlife, however, isn’t native to the area).

As for the cable car wire, it’s just one example of the trail’s connections to the construction and research surrounding the Hoover Dam. Workers would measure the depth of the water from an existing gauging station (that’s no longer used) on the Nevada side of the trail, which they accessed via cable car connecting the Nevada and Arizona sides, then scale the existing catwalk back to the gaugemaster’s home site on the Arizona side. The home has since burned down, but the old foundation still exists.

The Black Canyon Water Trail is accessible through a guided tour at the base of the Hoover Dam or from Willow Beach, Arizona, or near Eldorado Canyon.