How to plan an amazing kayaking and camping adventure to Emerald Cove and Willow Beach on the Colorado River

Emerald Cove gets its name from the brilliant, greenish hues that light up the water when the sun’s at just the right angle. It was one of the most elusive natural wonders on my Arizona Bucket List.

Kayaker enters Emerald Cove
My friend Javier enters the calm, green water of Emerald Cove

Once I added Emerald Cove to my bucket list, it took me a few years to get there. Why did it take so long? Location. It’s about a 4-hour drive from my home in Phoenix, then a 2-mile paddle upstream – hardly a daytrip.

I had originally booked this trip for April 2020 and had to cancel it due to COVID-19 closures of national parks properties. My next opportunity to go was the third weekend of October. It was definitely worth the wait – and the effort.

Now that I’ve been to Emerald Cove, I can share a little more info to help you plan your visit. Below I’ll answer some of the most common questions asked by people thinking of going.

Where is Emerald Cove?

Emerald Cove is a small notch in a the Colorado River canyon wall. The closest access point is Willow Beach Marina located on the Arizona side of the river, roughly 60 miles each from Kingman, AZ and Las Vegas, NV. From there, it’s about a 2-mile paddle upstream. Click the map below to see it on Google maps.

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man in kayak pointing upstream
Pointing the way to Emerald Cove on the Colorado River, about 2 miles upstream from Willow Beach Marina

Video: Kayaking from Willow Beach to Emerald Cove

How long does it take to kayak from Willow Beach to Emerald Cove?

Give yourself at least 4 hours.

You can do it quicker, but why rush? My suggestion is to pack enough snacks and drinks to spend the better part of the day on this adventure. There are plenty of sandy beaches on both sides of the river to pull over and take a break.

Key point: You’ll start out paddling upstream. Depending on the current speed at the time you go, it may take a bit longer to paddle up to Emerald Cove than to paddle back down to the starting point.

How far is Emerald Cove from Willow Beach?

It’s about two miles from Willow Beach to Emerald Cove

Emerald Cove map

What to look for

Emerald Cove is a relatively small notch on the right side, a little way beyond the small cable car hanging over the river, as you paddle upstream.

Cable car crosses Colorado River near Emerald Cove
When you see this small, rustic cable car hanging over the river, you’re getting real close to Emerald Cove.

Emerald Cove is often referred to as Emerald Cave. Either name is fitting because it’s really just a cave with a mouth that opens to the river. If you were traveling upstream at a fast speed in a motorboat, you might not even see it. Fact is, there’s a bigger, more noticeable cave directly across the river.

When you see a big cave on your left, look directly across the river to find Emerald Cove.

Best time to go: early afternoon in spring or fall

Keep in mind, the Colorado River divides Arizona and Nevada – two of the warmest states in the U.S. In the summer, it gets dangerously hot and very uncomfortable. Early morning is the only smart time to exercise outside between May and September.

For optimal weather, go during these months:

  • March
  • April
  • October
  • November

Best time of day: early afternoon

The water doesn’t really show off the brilliant emerald color until the sun passes far enough in the sky to illuminate the vegetation growing on the river bottom. Some people swear that 2 p.m. is prime time, but lighting can fluctuate throughout the year, depending on sun angle.

Best day of the week: Monday

From a visibility standpoint, no day of the week is better than another. But, if you want to avoid crowds and the wake from motorboats, Monday is the best day to go. Sunday is second-best.

Why Monday is best:

  • No powerboats
  • Fewer people

On Sundays and Mondays, powerboats are not allowed to travel the stretch of river between Willow Beach and Hoover Dam. That means you’ll only encounter other human-powered crafts on those days. However, since Sunday is on the weekend, many more people take to the water than on Monday.

Can you kayak down the Colorado River?

Yes. Many people launch just below Hoover Dam and kayak downstream.

There are several outfitters that help simplify this process with shuttle services. Otherwise, you’ll need to coordinate with friends to leave one vehicle at Willow Beach and drive another one (or more) up to the Hoover Dam put-in spot.

Is a permit required to kayak from Willow Beach to Emerald Cove?

Not exactly. You don’t need a permit to access the river. However, since the marina and campgrounds at Willow Beach are located within Lake Mead National Recreation Area, you’ll need to purchase a national parks pass online ahead of time or at the entrance station upon arrival.

Can I rent a kayak at Willow Beach?

Yes. The marina at Willow Beach rents single- and double-seater kayaks, along with canoes and stand-up paddleboards. Check the Willow Beach Harbor website for pricing and hours of operation.

Kayaks on dock at Willow Beach Marina
Willow Beach Marina rents a variety of water-ready kayaks and other watercraft

Where are the best places to camp near Willow Beach?

Willow Beach RV & Ten Campground

tent and camp chairs with rock spires in background
“Tent only” campsite E3 in Willow Beach Campground

Willow Beach Campground is a modern campground suited for both tent and RV camping with all the amenities you’ll need. Each campsite has a fire ring, picnic table and hook-shaped pole to hang a lantern (or anything else). While cell phone service is unreliable, there is free wifi. There are also well-maintained restrooms with running water and private showers.

On a beach along the river

Beach on Colorado River

Many natural beaches exist along both banks of the river offer primitive camping opportunities for people with the gear and experience. Remember to pack out everything that you pack in.

Other camping options

Are there guided tours to Emerald Cove?

Yes. Several river guide outfitters operate tours on this section of the Colorado River.

Most of them are based in Boulder City and Las Vegas, NV – both of which are less than an hour away. Although I took a self-guided tour, I came away with a favorable impression of River Dogz based on some interaction I had with one of their guides and how much fun his group seemed to be having.

Several people kayaking on the Colorado River
Numerous tour companies offer guided kayaking tours to Emerald Cove
Kayaker in Emerald Cove
Arizona Bucket List author Paul Fiarkoski relaxes in the calm water of Emerald Cove

Now that I’ve been to Emerald Cove, I’m already dreaming of my next trip there. It’s not just the opportunity for more Instagram-worthy images that I crave. I was amazed by how beautiful and tranquil this stretch of the Colorado River is. Although I really enjoyed my stay in the Willow Beach Campground, my next trip will be planned around a night of camping on the banks of the river.

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2 Comments

  1. This blog was wonderfully informative! I’m bringing a friend along with my two inflatable kayaks to Emerald Cove from Willow Beach next week, and this provided me with some details I couldn’t dig up elsewhere, like time of day and how to spot the entrance to Emerald Cove.

    Thanks for this article!

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