As we stood at the Horseshoe Bend overlook, an iconic spot along the Colorado River near Page, Arizona, we could hear people next to us point out kayaks in the water about 1,000 feet below. They were wondering how people were able to get down there. We knew how, because we had just returned from there a few hours earlier after spending a night under the stars at the base of Horseshoe Bend.
We didn’t need a private guide. We didn’t need special access. We didn’t even need a permit. We just needed to plan ahead and paddle through the rough spots — which in retrospect is a little bit like life, and parenting.
Anyone can kayak or paddleboard the Colorado at Horseshoe Bend, even with kids, even overnight. If you don’t want to camp out, it’s still possible to paddle the entire trip in one day if you start early or get shuttled to a midway point instead of getting dropped off at the Glen Canyon dam. That’s how the 15-mile paddle begins after all, with a backhaul shuttle of your kayak or paddleboard and your gear to the dam from Lee’s Ferry inside Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Here’s how to do it and what to expect.
Plan ahead. Whether you’re camping out or planning to paddle the length of the route in one day, you’ll need to plan ahead. If you’re camping, you’ll need all the food you’ll need for the entirety (including snacks, especially with snack-loving kids) and any overnight gear you’ll need once you set camp. With seven of us, we decided to tow a dinghy to carry some of our gear, and we utilized the storage in the kayaks for the rest of it. You’d be surprised how much fits, although we knew we wouldn’t need bulky sleeping bags in the heat of summer so we packed lightweight blankets instead. Since the entrance to Glen Canyon is south of Page, and somewhat out of the way, we made sure we brought all of our food from our own house.
Schedule a backhaul. There are a couple outfitters who operate out of Lee’s Ferry, providing backhaul service to the dam, and we’ve used Kayak the Colorado a couple times. We’d recommend getting the earliest backhaul you can manage, and stay overnight the night before your adventure either at the Marble Canyon Lodge or somewhere in Page. The earlier you start, the more flexibility you have to choose a campsite if you’re camping out and to make sure you complete the entire route if you aren’t camping. Campsites down there are not able to be reserved, so the earlier you start, the easier it is to secure the spot you really want.
Bring enough water. We have completed this adventure in two different seasons — one where you consume a lot of water, and one where you don’t. Both times, we’ve filled our water bladders (there’s a spigot of fresh water available at the boat launch) and relied on a water filter to supplement with clean water when we needed it. If you’re camping, you might need water for cooking, so bringing a filter along might be easier than hauling additional gallons of water.
Don’t worry about bathrooms. The campsites along the route offer clean, compost-style bathrooms that are honestly the nicest we’ve seen around. So, don’t worry about bathrooms. There are abundant options along the way.
Novices are welcome. The water between Lee’s Ferry and the dam is pretty calm. There are a few spots with mild ripples (I wouldn’t even call them rapids), and even beginners won’t have any problems navigating them. I cruised through on a paddleboard, and the kids managed just fine on their own in their kayaks. This section of the river is not wild and full of crushing rapids — that’s further down the way. In fact, if you didn’t paddle at all, the current would carry you down on its own.
Don’t plan on swimming. Even in the summer, the Colorado River is cold. Really cold. Like, in the 50s, can’t-feel-your-legs-after-a-couple-minutes frigid. So don’t plan on swimming if you get hot. Splash yourself, sure. But you don’t want to fall in. It’s not recommended.
Take photos. There is nothing like the scenery you’ll experience along the river. You’ll see people at the overlook high above the river, you might get lucky and see bighorn sheep or wild horses snacking on the river’s edge, and the views of the canyon walls are breathtaking. The water is so clear you’ll see fish underneath you, too, and the stars at night are beyond compare.
Don’t forget! Here are a few more tips we learned during this trip, including must-have gear:
- Use sunscreen. The route is about 50/50 protected and unprotected from the sun. No matter the season, use sunscreen.
- Invest in drybags. Get a waterproof drybag, even if it’s just for your phone. Wet things dry pretty quickly there, but phones won’t. Invest in a dry bag that allows you to take pictures through it.
- Pack smart snacks. You’re burning calories, so pack a blend of protein and carbs for snacks.
- Stop for petroglyphs. Pay attention during your backhaul, and the driver will point out spots of interest, including an area of petroglyphs. Be sure to stop there.
- Try fishing. Live bait isn’t allowed in this part of the Colorado River, but the fishing is great here with artificial lures.
Lisa Van Loo is a Gilbert freelance journalist. Ron Abelar is an avid outdoorsman and photographer. Together, they are parenting five children. Follow them on Instagram @RaisingOutdoorKids