Arizona's west coast

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

Paddle the Colorado | River Outfitters | Lodging and Dining

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

Of course, this stretch, like three other great canoe and kayak trips along the roughly 300 miles of the lower Colorado between Hoover Dam and Yuma, Arizona ― Topock Marsh, Topock Gorge, and the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge ― is less about adrenaline rushes than just getting out and exploring the natural side of this heavily managed river.

The Black Canyon run is filled with discoveries. We explore narrow, twisting canyons, clambering over boulders and walking through creeks warmed to over 90º by water pouring from hot springs. At Emerald Cave, we paddle into a chamber in the canyon walls. And now we have a bird to identify.

As our boats drift closer, guide Shawn Coleman of Down River Outfitters begins ticking off a series of recognizable characteristics, finally noting the trademark helmetlike black head marking of the peregrine falcon. The raptor takes off and emits a sharp call as it flies downriver. "Yeah," Coleman says with satisfaction and admiration. "There goes the fastest-flying bird on earth."

Taming a wild river

If not the fastest, the Colorado has always been one of the wildest rivers on earth. Through much of its existence, the Colorado 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 been slowed by a series of dams, pooling in sections to form desert lakes. By the time we see the peregrine, the lack of current indicates that we've reached Lake Mohave, which forms above Davis Dam.

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

Just north of Interstate 40, a paddle through the Topock Marsh area of the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge reveals a river edged by tangles of reeds. The Colorado's once-abundant cottonwood and willow stands are long gone, swamped by higher water pooled up behind Parker Dam in Lake Havasu State Park and overtaken by invasive plants.

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

South of the interstate, the river briefly changes again. If not monumental like the Grand Canyon, the Topock Gorge stretch has its own drama. Turrets and pinnacles of volcanic rock rise above the river, which in places has a greenish, almost tropical color. With perfect little sand beaches, this hidden spot is a place to linger before the rock walls open and the river is swallowed up by Lake Havasu.

Still a wildlife haven

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

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

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

The snow goose may have traveled thousands of miles from the Arctic to reach this spot. His presence, like that of the peregrine upstream, is a reminder that the lower Colorado remains alive and vital: good enough for a goose, and good enough for a gander from a canoe too.

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

Black Canyon

HIGHLIGHTS: Deep canyon with hiking side trips to hot springs; 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 well in advance, especially for weekends. Use outfitters for guided tours or to launch your craft and provide return shuttles; some offer camping trips.
NEARBY TOWN: Boulder City.

Topock Marsh

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

Topock Gorge

HIGHLIGHTS: Steep-walled gorge is one of the lower Colorado River'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 better time here. This stretch can get too much powerboat traffic in March, thanks to spring break.
NEARBY TOWN: Same as for Topock Marsh.

Imperial National Wildlife Refuge

HIGHLIGHTS: Historic sites, dramatic section of desert peaks, 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.
NEARBY TOWN: Yuma.

River outfitters | Top

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

Jerkwater Canoe & Kayak. Black Canyon canoe and kayak trips from $45. Topock Marsh and Topock Gorge trips from $35 per person. Guides available for a fee. www.jerkwater.com or (800) 421-7803.

Yuma River Tours. Covers Imperial National Wildlife Refuge areas. Call for prices. www.yumarivertours.com or (928) 783-4400.

Lodging and dining | Top

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

El Rancho Boulder Motel. Renovated 1950s-vintage motel in the 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 Arizona St.; (702) 294-0100.

LAKE HAVASU CITY
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.com or (800) 624-7939.

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

LAUGHLIN
Laughlin Visitors Bureau, (800) 452-8445.

Golden Nugget Laughlin. 300 rooms from $29. 2300 S. Casino Dr.; www.gnlaughlin.com 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
Yuma Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) 293-0071.

Best Western Coronado Motor Hotel. Updated mission revival-style hotel is close to river. 86 rooms from $69. 233 Fourth Ave.; www.bestwestern.com 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.