Paddle the hidden canyons and teeming marshes along the lower Colorado River

Paddle the Colorado | River Outfitters | Lodging and Dining

Aided by a slow but steady current, the 11-mile paddle fromthe base of Hoover Dam down the Colorado River has delivered on itspromises. The towering volcanic walls of Black Canyon have beenGrand Canyon-esque, and we've spotted wildlife. With the exceptionof a few short riffles, there's been no whitewater.

Of course, this stretch, like three other great canoe and kayaktrips along the roughly 300 miles of the lower Colorado betweenHoover Dam and Yuma, Arizona ― Topock Marsh, Topock Gorge,and the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge ― is less aboutadrenaline rushes than just getting out and exploring the naturalside of this heavily managed river.

The Black Canyon run is filled with discoveries. We explorenarrow, twisting canyons, clambering over boulders and walkingthrough creeks warmed to over 90º by water pouring from hotsprings. At Emerald Cave, we paddle into a chamber in the canyonwalls. And now we have a bird to identify.

As our boats drift closer, guide Shawn Coleman of Down RiverOutfitters begins ticking off a series of recognizablecharacteristics, finally noting the trademark helmetlike black headmarking of the peregrine falcon. The raptor takes off and emits asharp call as it flies downriver. "Yeah," Coleman says withsatisfaction and admiration. "There goes the fastest-flying bird onearth."

Taming a wild river

If not the fastest, the Colorado has always been one of thewildest rivers on earth. Through much of its existence, theColorado raced 1,750 miles from the Rockies to the Sea of Cortez,plunging about 13,000 feet along the way.

But starting with the Hoover Dam in 1935, the Colorado has beenslowed by a series of dams, pooling in sections to form desertlakes. By the time we see the peregrine, the lack of currentindicates that we've reached Lake Mohave, which forms above DavisDam.

Below Black Canyon, the Colorado has never been a river ofwhitewater legend. No longer channeled through narrow canyon walls,the water tends to spread rather than rage. Farther downriver, theTopock Marsh area offers a hint of this side of the river'scharacter.

Just north of Interstate 40, a paddle through the Topock Marsharea of the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge reveals a river edgedby tangles of reeds. The Colorado's once-abundant cottonwood andwillow stands are long gone, swamped by higher water pooled upbehind Parker Dam in Lake Havasu State Park and overtaken byinvasive plants.

Even so, the area remains a major bird habitat. For 8 miles, aswe navigate reed-lined channels and slalom through a forest ofbranches and trunks of partially submerged trees, we're treated toviews of grebes, American pelicans, and great blue herons. Theriver's blue and the green reeds contrast sharply with more distantviews of barren expanses and rocky peaks.

South of the interstate, the river briefly changes again. If notmonumental like the Grand Canyon, the Topock Gorge stretch has itsown drama. Turrets and pinnacles of volcanic rock rise above theriver, which in places has a greenish, almost tropical color. Withperfect little sand beaches, this hidden spot is a place to lingerbefore the rock walls open and the river is swallowed up by LakeHavasu.

Still a wildlife haven

Seeking an area with limited powerboat traffic, we head south toMartinez Lake, north of Yuma. There we hook up with Ron Knowlton ofYuma River Tours. He shuttles us 16 miles upriver through theImperial National Wildlife Refuge to Norton's Landing, a onetimestop for the shallow-draft river steamers and paddle-wheelers thattraveled the lower Colorado starting in the 1850s.

Knowlton and his family spent 2 1/2 months traveling down theColorado from its headwaters to the sea, and for his money, this ishis favorite stretch. He loves the desert mountain backdrop of theParadise Valley section, the old stone prospectors' cabins, and theback channels filled with wildlife.

Knowlton drops us off, and, paddling into the current, we slowlydrift downstream. A few feet away a lone snow goose gives us alook, seems to consider flying off, but then decides not to forsakehis hidden haven as we float past.

The snow goose may have traveled thousands of miles from theArctic to reach this spot. His presence, like that of the peregrineupstream, is a reminder that the lower Colorado remains alive andvital: good enough for a goose, and good enough for a gander from acanoe too.

Paddle the Colorado | Top
With mild temperatures and abundant bird populations, springand fall are the best times to explore the lower Colorado River.Here are four options for beginners between the Hoover Dam andYuma. Outfitters can customize itineraries.

Black Canyon

HIGHLIGHTS: Deep canyon with hiking side trips to hotsprings; rare chance to see Hoover Dam from base.
DISTANCE: 11 miles to Willow Beach.
DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate.
DETAILS: Volume is limited to 30 craft daily; reserve wellin advance, especially for weekends. Use outfitters for guidedtours or to launch your craft and provide return shuttles; someoffer camping trips.
NEARBY TOWN: Boulder City.

Topock Marsh

HIGHLIGHTS: Top bird-watching site; lots of side channels toexplore.
DISTANCE: About 9 miles.
DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. No current, but snags make fortough maneuvering in spots; channels can be confusing.
DETAILS: Launch north of I-40.
NEARBY TOWN: Needles is closest; Lake Havasu City andLaughlin are within 45 minutes.

Topock Gorge

HIGHLIGHTS: Steep-walled gorge is one of the lower ColoradoRiver's most spectacular stretches.
DISTANCE: About 17 miles.
DIFFICULTY: Moderate to difficult due to length.
DETAILS: Trip begins just south of I-40. Fall is the bettertime here. This stretch can get too much powerboat traffic inMarch, thanks to spring break.
NEARBY TOWN: Same as for Topock Marsh.

Imperial National Wildlife Refuge

HIGHLIGHTS: Historic sites, dramatic section of desertpeaks, and large bird populations.
DISTANCE: Norton's Landing to Martinez Lake is 16 miles.
DIFFICULTY: Moderate to difficult due to length.
DETAILS: The steady current through this section is helpful,and boat traffic is not as heavy as in Topock Gorge.

River outfitters | Top

Down River Outfitters. Guided Black Canyon trips are $137per person. Rentals are $50 for a single kayak, $42 per person fordouble kayak or canoe. or (800)748-3702.

Jerkwater Canoe & Kayak. Black Canyon canoe and kayaktrips from $45. Topock Marsh and Topock Gorge trips from $35 perperson. Guides available for a fee. or (800)421-7803.

Yuma River Tours. Covers Imperial National Wildlife Refugeareas. Call for prices. or (928)783-4400.

Lodging and dining | Top

Boulder City, Nevada,Chamber of Commerce, (702) 293-2034.

El Rancho Boulder Motel. Renovated 1950s-vintage motel inthe heart of town. 39 rooms from $60. 725 Nevada Way; (702)293-1085.

Evan's Old Town Grille. A local favorite for pasta, seafood,and grilled items. $$; lunch Tue-Fri, dinner Tue-Sat. 1129 ArizonaSt.; (702) 294-0100.

Lake Havasu City Convention& Visitors Bureau, (800) 242-8278.

London Bridge Resort. All-suite condos on Havasu waterfront.122 rooms from $159. 1477 Queens Bay; www.londonbridgeresort.comor (800) 624-7939.

Angelina's Italian Kitchen. Homestyle Italian food. $$;dinner Mon-Sat. 2137 Acoma Blvd. W.; (928) 680-3868.

Laughlin VisitorsBureau, (800) 452-8445.

Golden Nugget Laughlin. 300 rooms from $29. 2300 S. CasinoDr.; or(800) 950-7700.

Boiler Room Brew Pub. Microbrews and mesquite-grilled items.$$; dinner daily. In Colorado Belle Hotel, 2100 S. Casino Dr.;(702) 298-4000.

Yuma Convention & VisitorsBureau, (800) 293-0071.

Best Western Coronado Motor Hotel. Updated missionrevival-style hotel is close to river. 86 rooms from $69. 233Fourth Ave.; or(928) 783-4453.

River City Grill. Innovative seafood in a stylish setting.$$$; lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. 600 W. Third St.; (928)782-7988.

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