Kayak Trip Log

Lake Mead National Recreation Area / Grand Canyon National Park

March 2001

Sea-kayaking from Lake Mead to lower part of the Grand Canyon



Day Start Destination Destination Lat/Long (UTM Zone 12S, NAD 1927) Distance (miles)
1 Pearce Ferry Columbine Falls 3998525N 0236862E 7.0
2 Columbine Falls Bat Cave 3990954N 0247974E 9.5
3 Bat Cave Burnt Canyon 3983291N 0252533E 6.7
4 Burnt Canyon Burnt Canyon 3986443N 0256619E [7 (day hike)]
5 Burnt Canyon Last Chance Rapids and return 3975816N 0255237E 11.8 round trip
6 Burnt Canyon Bass Cove 4004999N 0233414E 24.6
7 Bass Cove Pearce Ferry via God’s Pocket Cove 4000809N 0229978E 9.8
TOTAL 69.4 in kayaks

Overview topographic map (1243×882)

Large-scale topographic map (5630×6938)

aerial photographic view (800×986)

high-resolution version (5630×6938)

Day 0, Thursday, March 15, 2001

We left Reno at 11:40 a.m. in J.’s silver Silverado truck with K.’s plastic kayak on the rack and J.’s Feathercraft folded up in back. K. rented his kayak, a 16-foot Necky Kayaks, Kyook model, from the UNR Associated Students rec center ($100 for two weeks). We drove to Boulder City, NV, via Fallon and highway 95, with only short stops for gas and fast food. We arrived in Boulder City around 8 p.m., and stayed at the Sand’s Motel, whose main attractive attribute was that all rooms were on the ground floor. The parking lot was packed with bass boats with their battery chargers plugged in, for a weekend bass tournament on Lake Mead. After a minor parking lot altercation, we unloaded all the gear from the truck into our room, including K.’s kayak, then went out to eat at Evan’s Olde Town Grill, suggested by the motel owner. It was a very nice restaurant, where we tried to look over maps between courses. Afterward, we still had to organize food and to do other packing chores, so we didn’t get to bed until late.

Day 1, Friday, March 16, 2001

Neither of us slept very well, in part because of the bass fishermen leaving at 4 a.m., but we got up by 7 a.m., went to the Burger King for a so-called breakfast and to Von’s for last-minute grocery shopping, then reloaded the kayak and gear in the truck and departed. Boulder City is adjacent to Hoover Dam; the city was created to house workers on the dam project in the thirties. We stopped by the Lake Mead visitor’s center, in hopes of buying a navigational map and a plant and wildlife guide, and had to wait 10 minutes until the opening at 8:30 a.m. K. bought the map, which it turned out doesn’t cover the Colorado River very far upstream, and a cactus guide, but they didn’t have a general wildlife guide.

The weather forecast called for a front to come through and winds to pick up to 45 mph on the lake by afternoon, so we were anxious to get on the water. We left a note with our trip plan at the NPS ranger station in Meadview, a building with no outward sign of being the ranger station except that it had NPS vehicles and boats in the parking lot. The drive from Boulder City to Pearce Ferry took 3.5 hours, including a side trip to the Pearce Ferry airstrip by mistake (we should have been using the UGSG 100K map instead of the AAA Las Vegas area map). The airstrip is on a high plateau, with a good view of the Pearce Ferry area and the canyon entrance. We arrived at Pearce Ferry at about noon. The wind was calm, but we hustled to get on the water by 1 p.m. (Pacific Standard Time).

Pearce Ferry bay looking toward canyon mouth
As we knew from our research, the part of Lake Mead between Pearce Ferry and the mouth of lower Granite Gorge is full of shifting sand bars and dead trees (from when the lake level was lower). At the present water level, 1196 ft, the trees are all dead and standing in water. Using a few GPS waypoints entered in advance, we avigated through these obstacles, mostly but not quite staying in the river channel. (After the trip, we determined that I had incorrectly entered one of our GPS waypoints (point B), so it was off by a 1-km UTM grid.) That caused some confusion, but the water was high enough that we didn’t have problems. A definite current was visible on the trees standing in water. At the buoy marking the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park, the river channel is easily identifiable as it emerges from the Canyon.

The canyon quickly narrows as you paddle upstream. We were aided against the current by a moderate tail-wind, which against the current made the water a little choppy. The shores were lined with sand/mud bars thick with dead trees, largely unlandable. The first likely camping spot, according to our analysis of the topo maps, was an inlet on the south side of the river at Rampart Cave. This is downstream of the boundary of the Hualapai reservation on the south side, beyond which camping requires a permit we didn’t have (although the NPS ranger told J. on the phone that they don’t patrol). By the time we reached this area, the sun had already set behind the high canyon walls. The Rampart Cave inlet turned out to be filled with an inpenetrable stand of dead trees in mud, so we started looking for camping spots on either side of the river. On the north side, K. found a mudbar with few enough trees that it looked campable, although not pleasant. I decided to get out to check it out. The mud beach felt firm, but when I stood up, I immediately sank to above my knee-high rubber boots. Yuck. I managed to extract myself by straddling the kayak and working the boots loose from the quick mud. Clearly not a suitable camping spot! In the meantime, J. was checking other spots and we started communicating by our ham radios. Nothing looked great, and it was starting to get darker. The inlet cove on the maps to Columbine Falls also was an inpenetrable bog with trees. Just upstream of Columbine Falls cove, there was an area on a four-foot-high embankment that looked good if you could get there. I told J. I as afraid to try to get out with him close by. He thought I was just paranoid, until he tried to land and ended up stuck in the mud with just his paddle for support and his kayak floating free in the trees along the shore! Fortunately not in a strong current. He yelled at me to catch his kayak and worked his way up to firmer ground. I managed to get to his kayak, but had difficulties trying to tow it, because the tow ropes on the kayak weren’t long enough to reach from the bow to the cockpit of the second kayak-that is, the seated kayaker can’t reach to connect or disconnect it. An attempt to tow the kayak connected near its midpoint was ineffective because the combination could not be steered or controlled. Fortunately, J. had a much longer rope on his anchor. After a session of untangling, I was able to tow his kayak to a slightly better landing spot, then throw the anchor end of the rope to J. on shore. In the meantime, J. had been braving a tarantula-infested cliff to find flat rocks to pave a path over the quick mud. These stepping stones did support our weight, although the mud beneath still shook ominously like jello. Working carefully, we eventually managed to get both kayaks and the gear up on firm ground. I was cold with wet muddy feet.

Under fading light, we worked to set up our tents and then cooked a standard evening meal: two Lipton noodle packs with canned chicken. Desert was freeze-dried peach cobbler, which tasted good but the peaches had a odd crunchy texture. It was dark by 6 p.m. PST, but since we were actually in Arizona, we decided to change to Mountain standard time. Then we would have light until 7 p.m. It started getting light in the morning around 6 a.m. MST, but in the Canyon, the sunrise on the river is circa 9 a.m. and sun sets on the river at circa 4 p.m., depending on the height and orientation of the canyon walls.

The Grand Canyon National Park regulations require packing out all solid human waste in reusable, washable containers. (Urination is directly into the river.) For large raft trips, that apparently means ammo boxes or 5-gallon toilet pails, obviously impractical for kayaks. The procedure J. came up with was to do one’s business on a paper towel (doubled worked best), roll it up, place it in a paint can (new and unused from Home Depot), and seal the lid. We had two one-gallon paint cans each, the second one a spare packed with food. My first trial of the human waste containment system worked without incident. I added a packet of RV toilet chemical to the paint can, which wasn’t really effective because there was no liquid (good because otherwise the lid would have been messy).

After a arduous day of travel and kayaking, sleeping was not a problem, but it was cold, probably in the low 40s. I wondered whether it had been wise to leave behind my fleece sleeping bag liner, although my kayak was bursting without it and without my fully waterproof rubberized rainsuit (I only brought my Gortex rainsuit). Fortunately, it warmed up after the first night (to about 10 degrees above normal temperatures) and it never rained. I would have been okay the first night anyway by wearing more warm clothes to bed.

Day 2, Saturday, March 17, 2001

Morning came early, but we didn’t brave the cold very early. Standard breakfast of two packets of oatmeal and one of cocoa. Breaking camp and reloading kayaks is always fairly time consuming because everything has to be stuffed in to dry bags small enough to fit into the kayak compartments. The hatches on K.’s rented kayak, especially the front, seemed to be smaller than his kayak in the Everglades, and definitely smaller than the rented two-person kayak on the Alaska trip. Or perhaps I just had more junk.

We departed around 11 a.m. We were reluctant to make stops because of the quick mud on shores. My kayak seat was more confortable than other kayaks I have used, but I still urgently needed a butt rest stop if not the other kind of rest stop after 2-3 hours of paddling. Lunches consisted of snacks of power bars or trail mix, in the kayaks or on shore. Our goal for the day was the Bat Cave area, about 9 miles upstream. The river current was noticeable, but we were able to make reasonable progress upstream. The current in the “lake effect” portion of the river is 3 mph. The Canyon is gorgeous, with high reddish cliffs and intermediate plateaus with assortments of barrel cactus, creosote bushes, and yucca plants. The shorelines were either steep rocky cliffs, or mud bars covered in the lower portion with dead trees, sometimes in standing water. Many of the dead trees were cut off above about 12-16 feet, some with signs of beaver teeth, presumably at the previous high-water mark. Lake Mead reached its maximum recent level of 1214 ft elevation in summer 1998 during the last El Nino, compared with 1196 ft now.

The Bat Cave on the north side of the river was once a guano mine. It had a cable system for transporting the product across the river and out of the canyon. The cable is gone but two towers on the south side are high on a plateau and are visible for miles along the river. About a half-mile from Bat Cave, we met two fishermen in a powerboat who were landing on a sand bar. They mentioned that some people were doing a study at Bat Cave, which we took to mean that the camping spot there would be in use. However, the nice long sand bar at Bat Cave was vacant and not too muddy. In general, the farther upstream we went the more sandy and less muddy the shores became. The camping area was sloped but tentable and covered with what looked like grass at a distance but actually was tamarisk seedlings. Tamarisk is an alien invasive species also known as saltcedar and is everywhere along the river. At a higher level on the shore, that had been above water for longer, the tamarisks were high and thick.

The Bat Cave campsite was our best one along the river. We ate Lipton Spanish Rice and Beans with canned chicken for dinner with pistachio-flavor Jello pudding. Watched the stars come out–Sirius, Jupiter, and Saturn first, followed by Betelgeuse and then the rest of Orion–and then went to bed.

Star chart (pdf format)

Sunrise at Bat Cave

Day 3, Sunday, March 18, 2001

Our goal for the day was either Tincanebitts Canyon (~2 miles) or Burnt Canyon (6+ miles), which both looked like good side canyons for day-hikes. The current seemed to be getting stronger, so the kayaking was slow. We felt that the current was usually less in the shallows, usually on the mud-bank side of the river when there was one. The entrance to Tincanebitts had a fairly good campable sand bar, but the trees behind looked deep and inpenetrable. We weren’t ready to stop kayaking anyway, so we headed on upstream toward Burnt Canyon.

We frequently were hearing and seeing planes and helicopters, but this day was particularly bad and we discovered why. The south side of the river is the Hualapai indian reservation and they apparently allow heavy helicopter tourism. Some of the helicopters just fly through the canyon, keeping on the reservation side of the river, but the noise bounces off the cliffs. Between Bat Cave and Burnt Canyon are at least three helipads along the river. Some are high on plateaus, where people just get out for a while and look or picnic. One is at river level, with a fleet of pontoon boats at a dock. The pontoon ride appeared to be 20 minutes up the river and back. We guess that’s the three-hour tour of the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas.

Just before Burnt Canyon is a narrow river passage, the site of the historical Waterfall Rapids, with strong currents and eddies. Nothing dangerous for the kayaks but the currents pushed you sideways some. The entrance to Burnt Canyon was a disappointment as far as being a camping spot. Muddy, reddish-colored outflows from the canyon, impenetrable brush. Also, the currents there washed up trash–all natural, we saw very little human litter–including dead, water-soaked barrel cacti. The one point of interest was we followed a path into the brush marked by red tags, which we had been seeing regularly along the shore. K. was hoping to find a luxurious campsite at the end of the path! Alas, the path followed more red tags to a 3-foot-high poster with a short piece of PVC pipe attached to the top. Inside the pipe visible from underneath was a small instrument marked “logger” and “RH”, for relative humdity we guess.

Using binoculars, J. found a more likely looking campsite about a quarter-mile upstream. Arriving there in kayaks, we found a sand-bar lagoon which at first sight looked like an ideal kayak landing, but J. correctly diagnosed it as quick-mud. Outside the lagoon, where the current along the shore was stronger, was a sandier and firmer landing spot. So we landed there and carried gear about 100 yds to the campable area. It was about 2 p.m. and unpleasantly hot in the sun once you got off the river. We set up my tarp, using kayak paddles as poles, to create some a small patch of shade.

Burnt Canyon campsite I
Sundown on the river came by 4 p.m., after which it quickly gets cooler and more pleasant. We set up camp, cooked the standard meal of Lipton noodles packs with canned chicken. Although we had filled all of our water bladders before the trip, it was time to turn the muddy flow of the Colorado into drinking water. The ranger had suggested to J. that we use a bucket for settling out the sediment overnight. J. brought a collapsible bucket (4 gallon?), which we filled at night. The next morning, the mud had indeed settled to the bottom. We filtered the water, then added iodine tablets, then usually boiled it for cooking, saving the “good” Boulder City water for drinking as much as possible.

On the opposite side of the river was a vertical cliff, with a great echo. K. was particularly intrigued by fart echos. Watched and heard a flotilla of helicopters pass over, watched the stars come out, listened to night animal noises–bird calls, gnat buzzing, bat squeaks, and kerplops in the river, and went to bed.

Burnt Canyon campsite II

Day 4, Monday, March 19, 2001

Sunrise at Burnt Canyon
Day Hike, starting out about 9 (or 10?) a.m. Burnt Canyon (Burnt Spring Canyon on some maps) leads up to the Sanup Plateau at 4500 feet elevation, but the distance is 14 miles one way so we weren’t that ambitious. The right side of the canyon has an intermediate plateau just 200-400 ft above river level, which looked on the maps like an easy way to bypass the trees and brush in the lower part of the canyon near the river. The trick was how to get there from the river, through the ubiquitous impenetrable brush. We picked out a place where the brush was only 20-30 ft deep near a rock outcropping. So we slowly bushwacked our way through, then scrambled up the steep cliff, often over loose rocks. Unfortunately, this outcropping didn’t directly connect with the ravine leading up to the lower plateau, so we had to scramble down the other side, through another patch of nearly impenetrable brush, then scramble up the ravine. All this took more than an hour to go perhaps a quarter mile.

Once out on top, it was a gorgeous area with a view of the river and gently sloped area with very interesting flora–barrell, cholla, and prickly-pear cacti, ocotillo plants, unidentified bushes with yellow flowers, and many ground wildflowers in bloom. There was also a view of a helipad at about the same elevation across the river. It was just out-of-sight from our camp, but explained the flotillas of helicopters we had seen the evening before. Tours are all day starting at mid-morning, the last at dusk for the tourist to watch the reddening cliffs. Hiking farther up the canyon, though, we got some relief from the constant noise.

K. and barrel cactus in Burnt Canyon

Ocotillo plants in Burnt Canyon

Our hike followed the plateau, then dropped down into the dry stream bed. The slope was gently and easy going except for the loose rocks. We found running water at just one spot about a mile up from the river. The canyon walls are quite vertical up to the 4000-ft level. At the upper end of the canyon, the canyon becomes very narrow. Parts never see the sun and were quite cool, a welcome relief from the heat.

Burnt Canyon narrows

We hiked just about 3.5 miles up before turning around. Points of interest: yucca plants with bloom stalks high on the sides of cliffs (too high for K. to get a close-up photo), lizards, steep red-orange cliffs. Back at the water hole, we washed feet and filled canteens, not in that order. We noticed tadpole eggs along the edge of the water and saw a strange-looking pink-grey frog.


Waterfall Rapids passage from Burnt Canyon

We looked for a better way back to camp, but didn’t find one, so we mostly followed our previous path down the ravine, through the trees, up the outcropping, down the outcropping, and through the brush to the river. We got back not long before the sun went behind the cliffs, giving some welcome relief to the sun.

Dinner of Lipton noodle packs, with tuna for a change, and freeze-dried blueberry cheesecake, which was very good even though we didn’t actually simmer the blueberry sauce (not following the ridiculous 3-pan recipe). Watched and listened to the last helicopter tour of the day, watched sun go down with a great red light show on cliff walls, watched the stars come out, listened to the night animals, and went to bed.

Day 5, Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Day kayak trip upstream from Burnt Canyon. We set out by about 10 a.m. and paddled against the current. K. felt it was generally getting stronger as one went farther up, but it is variable depending on the local river topology, and hard to tell for certain. GPS readings while floating down gave speeds of 2 mph to 3+ mph. We could make 1.5-3 mph headway against the current. We mostly hugged the mud banks and shallows. Although I had thought the river canyon looked much the same from Lake Mead to Burnt Canyon, it changes subtly as one goes upstream. The upper cliffs get higher and steeper, and an intermediate plateau forms–like the inner and outer nested canyons in the main part of the Grand Canyon. All gorgeous, especially early and late in the changing light. The helicopters seemed to stay mostly at Burnt Canyon and below, so this day of kayaking was much more peaceful. Also no stress about finding a campsite. This part of the river has more landable sandbars that make nice stops. We paddled as far as “Last Chance Rapids” on the maps. The rapids are historical only, now submerged and no different from other parts of the river. Our farthest point was about 29 miles upstream from Pearce Ferry.

We talked to a couple in a power boat that we had seen going up and down the river several times each morning, with one or both in the boat. They are biologists doing a study of birds and their response to revegetation after inundation of riparian areas by the changing lake level. Other than the humidity sensors, we don’t know what-all data they collect, but they do it daily year-round. They are employed by the San Bernadino County Museum, under contract with the Bureau of Reclamation.

The main wildlife we saw on the river were birds: Western grebes, cormorants (I think), blue herons, a killdeer, and some small birds. Bats came out at dusk. There were many signs of beaver, but we saw none. Tracks in the mud included possibly beaver, but also possibly racoons and coyotes.

We had noticed high clouds building up throughout the day, but they looked non-threatening. After we turned around to head back toward camp, however, a head wind came up. We were alarmed that the easy float back might turn out to be less easy. So we paddled hard against the wind, logging speeds up to 6.5 mph on the GPS with the current. Fortunately the wind last only perhaps a half-hour, then it became fairly calm again. I guess a weak front had passed through. We started just floating down without paddling, a very enjoyable and restful afternoon on the Colorado River. K. spied the perfect Yucca plant, and stopped to scramble up to it for a photo. The bloom stalk was huge, more than twice my height.

Yucca Plant
Dinner of freeze-dried vegetarian chili for a change, but we were still hungry so we also cooked a Lipton noodle pack. Watched and listened to the last helicopter tour of the day, watched the sun go down with a great red light show on cliff walls, watched the stars come out, listened to the night animals, and went to bed.

Day 6, Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Time to leave the Burnt Canyon campsite and head downstream. We knew campsite options were limited–the nice spots at Tinnecanbitts Canyon and Bat Cave were too close (assuming faster travel downstream), and then there was the known quick-mud at the Columbine Falls campsite. Actually, closer examination showed a few potential campsites on sand bars or islands, upstream of Columbine Falls, although some would be muddy. However, we weren’t ready to stop by the time we got to Columbine Falls, so we continued on.

Downstream of Columbine Falls, there are few landable spots at all. So we ended up going all the way to Lake Mead proper and headed for Bass Cove (essentially passing by Pearce Ferry), which looked on the topo maps like some of the shores would be not too steep. Actually, most of Bass Cove had steep 20-40 ft walls up to the flat plateaus that had looked promising on the maps. We had to go all the way to the end of Bass Cove to find a spot, which turned out to be quite nice. Total distance: 24.6 miles, aided by the river current, but still a long day. We had essentially done two days of the planned itinerary in one day. Despite being tired, we took advantage of the clear lake water to clean the kayaks of accumulated mud.

Bass Cove
It was interesting to see the different landscape outside the canyon. The vegetation here was sparser: creosote bushes, cholla cactus, and only a little tamarisk. Beach erosion at several lake levels was visible on the shores. Above the campsite was an area with game trails, probably from burros.

Dinner of Lipton noodle packs, with the last two cans of tuna and chicken together. It had been cloudy, but some stars came out before bedtime. After dark, we heard the howls of several coyotes, one very close to camp judging by the quick echo from the cliffs across the cove.

Day 7, Thursday, March 22, 2001

A clear, calm day on Lake Mead with glassy water. We took the scenic route back to Pearce Ferry, via God’s Pocket Cove and the Cockscomb, a striking red-orange tilted outcropping. The vegetated hills were green with yellow highlights from spring flowers. One could do a nice kayaking trip just on the main part of Lake Mead. Birds on the lake included Western grebes, gulls, and a heron.

We arrived at Pearce Ferry around noon, and took about an hour to pack up. We talked to a mechanic for a firm that uses power jetboats to ferry Colorado river rafters along the flooded portion of the river. Their season starts in April and is in full gear with daily trips by May 1st. We had seen only one daily power-raft trip run by the Hualapais, probably just from Diamond Bar down, plus one set of rafts tied together with one outboard motor that may have been a training trip for a commerical rafting company. The mechanic also told us that before the week we were there, it had been “colder than a welldigger’s ass”, a phrase that boggles the imagination.

We stopped by the ranger station at Meadview and met the ranger, a spongy looking fellow (I guess I was expecting a hard, tanned river rat). We inspected the SCAT machine, a device for flushing out toilet pails, but our paint cans (one each had been adequate) did not meet the minimum size requirements. The hose connectors at the RV dump stations were too small for easy transfer. So we kept the paint cans with their contents. The road south of Meadview goes throuigh a huge, impressive stand of Joshua Trees. Back at Boulder City, we stayed again at the Sand’s Motel, stashed gear and kayaks but not paint cans in the room, and ate a real meal again at Evan’s Olde Town Grill. No Lipton noodle packs.

Day 8, Friday, March 23, 2001

We had decided to take the Hoover Dam tour before heading back to Reno. We got there when the visitor’s center opened at 8:30 a.m., but the super-duper “hard-hat” tour ($25) was already full, apprarently booked by tour groups. So we tooked the regular tour ($10), which was actually quite extensive, including the generator yards and tunnels. Quite interesting. I was just surpised that the tour guide could not answer my question, “How long will it take for Lake Mead to fill with silt?”. [According to Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert, the capacity of Lake Mead was reduced from 32.4 million acre-feet in 1936 to 30.8 million acre-feet in 1970, which extrapolates to zero capacity in about 700 years, less than half the 1800-yr engineered lifetime of the dam. Silting is slower now because of Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell.]

On the return drive, we took the scenic route through Gabbs and Middlegate and stopped briefly at the Grimes Point Petroglyphs rest area to use the latrine and trash cans. We arrived in Reno after dark, sans the paint cans.

Weather data

Daily weather forecasts obtained after the trip

Mean Lake Mead Air & Water Temperatures
Daytime Temps    60  68  70  80  85  92 105 105 102  87  75  60
Nighttime temps  40  50  50  65  70  72  80  85  82  70  69  40
Water Temps      54  54  55  57  68  72  80  84  78  70  63  58
Annual Highs, Lows and Precipitation throughout Grand Canyon
South Rim             North Rim                Inner Canyon
Max    Min  Precip    Max      Min     Precip  Max     Min Precip
JAN   41     18   1.32      37       16      3.17    56      36   .68
FEB   45     21   1.55      39       18      3.22    62      42   .75
MAR   51     25   1.38      44       21      2.63    71      48   .79
APR   60     32   .93       53       29      1.73    82      56   .47
MAY   70     39   .66       62       34      1.17    92      63   .36
JUNE  84     54   1.81      77       46      1.93    106     78   .84
JULY  84     54   1.81      77       46      1.93    106     78   .84
AUG   82     53   2.25      75       45      2.85    103     75   1.40
SEPT  76     47   1.56      69       39      1.99    97      69   .97
OCT   65     36   1.10      59       31      1.38    84      58   .65
NOV   52     27   .94       46       24      1.48    68      46   .43
DEC   43     20   1.62      40       20      2.83    57      37   .87

Historical Lake Mead water levels

GPS waypoint data

Information researched before this trip

Information researched before our postponed 1999 trip

Winter kayak trip equipment list

© Copyright 2001 Nevada Rambler