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. Keep reading for tips on how you can bag this gem of an experience.

Kayaker in Emerald Cove
Arizona Bucket List author Paul Fiarkoski relaxes in the calm 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?

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

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 from both Kingman, AZ and Las Vegas, NV.

From the marina, it’s about a 2-mile paddle upstream. Click the map below to see it on Google maps.

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

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

Plan for at least 4 hours on the water

Four hours is enough time to paddle from the marina to the cave, and back. 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. You can paddle beyond the cove for many more miles, if you want. 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 speed of the river’s current 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.

Video: Kayaking from Willow Beach to Emerald Cove

Want the inside scoop on more amazing places like this? Grab a copy of Arizona Bucket List Adventure Guide.

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
This small, rustic cable car hanging over the river is a sign that you’re getting real close to Emerald Cove.

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

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. In these parts, early morning is the only smart time to exert yourself 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 motorboat traffic, Monday is the best day to go. Sunday is second-best.

Why Monday is best:

  • No powerboats
  • Fewer people

Tip: 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 to Emerald Cove.

There are several outfitters that help simplify this process with shuttle services and rental gear ( if needed). 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?

Regardless of your camping style (glamping or primitive), you have several camping location options for this adventure. Following are some of the more popular options available to you.

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 available throughout the campground. There are also well-maintained restrooms with running water and private shower stalls.

Related: Free Camping Near Me? How to Find Free RV Camping Sites

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 know-how. 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 chose the self-guided tour option, I came away with a favorable impression of River Dogz based on some interaction I had with one of their guides. He was very professional and his group seemed to be having a lot of fun.

Several people kayaking on the Colorado River
Numerous tour companies offer guided kayaking tours to 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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8 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!

    1. Sorry for slow reply. Just seeing your question now. When I went in October the flow was so slow it was like paddling on a lake. I imagine it flows faster in spring and summer months. We did have some strong winds and choppy water to deal with in the afternoon. I hope that helps.

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