I did it! I finally, and completely, checked Horseshoe Bend off my Arizona Bucket List. This unique geological wonder is located on the stretch of the Colorado River between Glen Canyon Dam and Lee’s Ferry. It’s about 85 miles upstream from the Grand Canyon on the same river that carved it.
Keep reading for my top tips on how to experience this epic adventure for yourself.
Each year, millions of people flock to Horseshoe Bend for selfies and other awesome photos from the top. But only a small fraction of adventurers get to experience the views from river level.
It was from the upper vantage point that I first saw this natural wonder in 2019. From the thousand-foot-high overlook, I noticed a few people on paddling kayaks on the river down below and the wheels in my head began to turn. In October 2021, my dream of kayaking through Horseshoe Bend came true.
I had a lot of questions before our crew of six embarked on this adventure. Now that I have answers, I can share some tips with you.
Can I kayak around Horseshoe Bend?
Yes. The 15-mile section of the Colorado River below the Glen Canyon Dam is mostly calm water with a few gentle rapids and plenty of places to pull over and take breaks.
The most practical way to take on this adventure is to hire a “backhaul” service to carry you and your gear upstream from Lee’s Ferry. You can have them drop you off just upstream from Horseshoe Bend, or up closer to Glen Canyon Dam like my friends and I did.
Can I take a stand-up paddleboard through Horseshoe Bend?
Since I have zero experience with a stand-up paddleboard, I checked to see what others had to say on this topic. Here’s what the leading paddleboard rental company in the area has to say:
Due to the long paddling distance and very cold water temperatures, this trip is NOT recommended for beginner paddleboarders. Beginner paddleboarders should only paddle on Lake Powell when visiting Glen Canyon for safety reasons.~Lake Powell Paddleboards
Getting to know the Colorado River and Horseshoe Bend
The best way to get acquainted with this stretch of river is to learn the mile marker system that boaters use. They use a numbering system that runs from 0 at the starting point (Lee’s Ferry) to 15 at the uppermost point (Glen Canyon Dam). As you travel upstream, the numbers get bigger; coming downstream, they get smaller.
|0||Lee’s Ferry Boat Launch1|
|4||4-mile recreation area2|
|8||8-mile campground @ Horseshoe Bend3|
|9||9-mile campground @ Horseshoe Bend3|
|10||Petroglyph panel and beach3|
|11||Ferry Swale campground3|
|14||Ropes Trail campground3|
|15||Glen Canyon Dam|
1 modern bathrooms 2 vault toilets 3 vault toilets and campfire rings
Since there are no actual milepost signs along the river, the only way to know where you are at any given time is to reference a detailed map or to guesstimate your location in relation to some of the waypoints detailed above. For instance, the 4-mile Recreation Area confirms you’re four miles upstream from the Lee’s Ferry launch site.
How long does it take to kayak from Glen Canyon Dam to Lee’s Ferry?
Plan on the 15-mile trip taking between six and eight hours. Even though the current moves at about three miles per hour, you likely won’t travel downstream that fast when you factor in stops for rest breaks or to explore the surroundings.
Video: See highlights from my Horseshoe Bend kayaking adventure
Is it safe to kayak the Colorado River?
Thousands of people kayak the stretch of river between Glen Canyon Dam and Lee’s Ferry every year with no issues. That said, it’s a river and special safety precautions should be taken by everyone.
Biggest risk: water temperature. It’s very cold and hypothermia can set in quickly.
Follow these tips for a safe and enjoyable adventure
- Wear a life preserver at all times. If you fall in, the cold water can shock your system and put you at risk of drowning, even if you’re a great swimmer.
- Disperse the weight of your gear. If you have 40 lbs. of gear, try to put 20 on the front end and 20 in the rear.
- Watch out for whirlpools. They can quickly turn your kayak sideways and put you at risk of flipping over.
- Gentle rapids add excitement. They’re more like ripples and pose very little threat to most kayakers.
- Strong winds can wreak havoc. The high canyon walls can channel winds on some sections of the river, creating whitecaps (waves) that are difficult to navigate. If winds get dangerous, paddle close to shore or beach your kayak until things calm down.
- Stay out of the center. Powerboats speed up and down the center of the river and can’t always see smaller crafts. Your best bet is to stay in the outer third of the river on the left or right side.
- Use lights if you paddle at night. Fast moving boats can’t steer around you if they can’t see you.
When is the best time to kayak through Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River?
It’s tough to say there’s one best time to complete this adventure. Given the cold water temperatures and high canyon walls that cast shade on the river, you’ll probably want to avoid the winter months of November through February. No matter what season you go, you’ll encounter far fewer people on weekdays than weekends or holidays.
Seasonal considerations for kayaking Horseshoe Bend
- Summer temperatures can get pretty hot, but it’s easy to cool off with the river water. Bonus: more hours of daylight.
- Spring and Fall are more comfortable during the day, but nighttime temps get quite chilly if you’re camping on the river.
- Winter temps call for warmer, waterproof sportswear and are not very hospitable for overnight camping.
In the opinion of our backhaul boat driver, the summer months are the best time to make this trip because of the added excitement that monsoon rainstorms bring. His advice is to pull over to a sand bar during a rain shower. Once the rain lets up, you can start paddling again and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see waterfalls cascading down the canyon walls. If you get hot when it’s not raining, you can always splash the refreshing water on yourself to cool off.
Do I need a permit to kayak Horseshoe Bend?
No special pass or permit is required to kayak this stretch of the Colorado River; however, a National Parks Pass is required for all activities in this area known as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which spans sections of northern Arizona and southern Utah. You can buy a pass at the permit vending station upon arrival.
Where can you camp overnight on the river near Horseshoe Bend?
There are a total of five primitive campgrounds in the 15-mile stretch of river between Glen Canyon Dam and Lee’s Ferry. They’re labeled on this map. Mile 8 and Mile 9 campgrounds are the most popular because they’re at roughly the midpoint from top to bottom. They’re also both on the peninsula that forms Horseshoe Bend.
All campsites are first-come, first-served. No reservations are available. The only amenities you’ll find at the campsites along the river are a composting toilet and a metal fire ring. We camped at Ferry Swale campground about a mile upstream from Horsehoe Bend and had no complaints.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to camp along the river. Another approach is to camp at Lee’s Ferry Campground and just plan for one long day on the river.
Resources to help you plan your paddling adventure through Horseshoe Bend
- Get familiar with these detailed maps of the Colorado River from between Lee’s Ferry and Glen Canyon Dam (1, 2).
- Arrange a backhaul service to transport you up the river. We used Kayak the Colorado and were impressed with the experience.
- Purchase a National Parks Pass online in advance or upon arrival at the self-pay station on Lee’s Ferry Rd
- Check weather conditions at Marble Canyon, AZ for the most accurate forecasts.
- Get answers to many of your questions from this detailed FAQ page.
Sample one-day itinerary
- Board the backhaul shuttle at Lee’s Ferry boat launch early in the morning for a ride up the river to Glen Canyon Dam with your gear.
- Shorten the downstream trip by about 3 hours by getting dropped off at Petroglyph Beach.
- Paddle downstream with a few stops to rest and explore along the way.
- Arrive at Lee’s Ferry boat ramp in late afternoon or early evening.
- Plan an overnight stay at Lee’s Ferry Campground, Marble Canyon Lodge or Vermillion Cliffs Lodge.
Sample two-day itinerary
- Arrange for an afternoon backhaul shuttle upstream from Lee’s Ferry bat launch to Glen Canyon Dam on Day 1.
- Paddle downstream from Glen Canyon Dam for 2-3 hours.
- Camp overnight at one of five primitive campgrounds.
- Continue paddling downstream on Day 2 with a few stops to rest and explore along the way.
- Arrive at Lee’s Ferry boat ramp in early afternoon.
Insider tips for kayaking the Colorado River through Marble Canyon and Horseshoe Bend
Where is the petroglyph panel?
The petroglyphs shown here are located about 1/8th of a mile hike from a beach landing just upstream from Horseshoe Bend on river left (lefthand side if you’re heading downstream).
As much as I browsed the web, I couldn’t find answers to all of my questions. Below are some of the things I wish I had known before the trip.
Where are the freshwater springs located?
It’s hard to describe exactly where each spring is located, but I can tell you that there are at least two each on river right and river left (when facing downstream) between Glen Canyon Dam and Lee’s Ferry.
The first one we discovered is located on river right about 1/4-mile downstream from where the backhaul service dropped us off. It worked out perfectly because I was able to fill up the three empty water bottles I brought along. It was just enough to supply all my water needs for the two-day excursion.
PRO TIP: there’s a freshwater spring that pours into the river directly beneath the lookout point at the top of Horseshoe Bend. If all else fails, you can get fresh water there.
Is there firewood at the campsites?
Don’t count on finding wood at your intended campsite. We did find a few twigs on the ground to help stoke the flames early on, but firewood was not abundant at the Ferry Swale campground. Since there were six of us in our party, we each brought a synthetic firelog that you can purchase in stores. One of the guys also brought along some short 6″ x 6″ leftover scraps of wood from a work project. That was plenty for both an evening and morning fire.
Don’t miss this incredible spot!
Without a doubt, my favorite feature of this two-day adventure of the Colorado River was the tranquil spring-fed oasis shown in the video clip below.
Video: Tranquil, spring-fed oasis along the Colorado River
To find it: Keep an eye out for a massive boulder on the right side of the river causing a large whirlpool that literally pulls you back upstream. (You can see it in the upper right corner of the video frame at the beginning of the video clip.) It’s located on river right, roughly between Mile 11 & 12. At this point in the river, you’re heading almost directly west. I was practically swept into the spot by a whirlpool when I was hugging the right bank to make way for a powerboat cruising upstream.
How strictly are weight limits enforced?
This topic probably caused more stress for me and my crew than any other. We all worried about being told we’d overpacked. On one page of the website for the backhaul outfitter we hired, they referenced 30 pounds max carry-on weight. On a separate web page, it says 40 pounds is the limit. When I called the office for a straight answer, they told me that we’ll be okay as long as each person brings no more than 100 pounds of total weight onboard – kayak, life preserver and paddle included.
Bottom line: pack as light as you can. For the record, no scales were used to weigh our stuff when we boarded.
Is an overnight kayak rental one day or two?
This may vary by the outfitter, so check with them first. I brought my own kayak but a couple of my friends rented from the same company we hired for the backhaul shuttle – Kayak The Colorado. Their rule is that any kayak not returned by the end of the day, so that it’s available for rental the next day, is charged for two days.
It’s time to plan your Arizona kayak adventure through Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River
If you’re like me, you’ve probably been thinking of doing this adventure for a while. It’s cool to see Horsehoe Bend from the top, but I assure you many more amazing views and experiences await you down at river level. I’ve done the research and made the trip.
The best way to get started is to just put a firm date on the calendar, then used the resources above to start taking care of the details. Trust me, you won’t regret the time and effort required to check this adventure off of your Arizona Bucket List.
Have you done this experience or do you have more questions? Drop a note in the comment box below.
Map to the starting point: Lee’s Ferry Boat Launch
Guided tours of Horseshoe Bend overlook plus Antelope Canyon
About your guide
Since moving to Arizona in 2012, I’ve logged hundreds of miles on hiking trails and byways. After one particular hike to the falls of Havasupai in the Grand Canyon, I became obsessed with exploring the many natural wonders of Arizona.
Now I love sharing some of my most fascinating discoveries with others.
Arizona Bucket List Adventure Guide & Journal details my top 50 natural wonders.