Nan kayking down Horseshoe Bend

Kayak Horseshoe Bend: Ultimate Guide to Kayaking the Colorado

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When we arrived in Utah, we wanted to experience the true outdoors. Beyond the Mighty 5 National Parks, we also sought to discover Utah off-the-beaten path. The moment we saw the option to kayak horseshoe bend, we knew this would be the perfect adventure

After having spent over 2 weeks road tripping through Southern Utah, this ended up being one of our most memorable experiences!

To help you better plan your trip, we have written a guide highlighting everything you’ll need to know about paddling down the Colorado River through Horseshoe Bend

We also share with you our personal experience, how to organize the trip, what you should expect from this adventure, and loads of useful tips to avoid the mistakes we made.

Let’s jump right in!

Nan sitting on her paddle board when kayak horseshoe bend

Quick facts for kayaking Horseshoe Bend

🏁 Starting and Ending points

  • Starting point: You will be starting anywhere between 8-16 miles upriver depending on the level of difficulty and how long you want to paddle for. Horseshoe Bend is located at around the 8-mile mark so make sure you go at least a bit further upriver than that.
  • Ending point: Lee’s Ferry (you cannot go past this point as you will then require a permit, and it heads towards the Grand Canyon)

🕙 Duration of activity: 5-8 hours

Depending on the water flow speed, and how far upriver you get backhauled, kayaking down the Colorado River back to Lee’s ferry can take anywhere between 5-8 hours.

Your boat captain will ask you how long you want to paddle for and your skill level, and based on that, will recommend a starting point (by distance). They will also factor in the current water flow rate, which determines how fast you will be going. 

A good starting point for beginners would be 10 10-mile marker. We started from a little past there and the journey still took us 7 hours. This included several stops to take photos, eat lunch, and 2 short hikes to see the petroglyphs.

Map to Kayak Horseshoe Bend from Glen Canyon to Lee's Ferry
Map of paddling from Glen Canyon Dam to Lee’s Ferry, with distance markers

📏 Distance: 10 miles

The total distance from Glen Canyon Dam all the way to Lee’s ferry, crossing through Marble Canyon, is 16 miles. You will likely be starting at the 10-mile marker though.

⛰️ Difficulty: moderate

This activity can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be. For a more challenging experience, you can be backhauled 16 miles upriver right to the Glen Canyon Dam. 

For an easier experience, you will be backhauled less far up, between 6-10 miles.

Kayaking down the Colorado River can also be beginner-friendly as the water is extremely calm, and the current helps you significantly.

🎫 Do you need a permit?

No, you do not need a permit to kayak this section of the Colorado River or camp overnight.

Make sure to follow the Leave No Trace principle to minimize your impact on the environment. As this is a remote region, it is important to ensure that whatever you bring into the area, you bring out of the area as well. There are no roads that can access here so cleanup services are not available.

💵 Cost: starting at 75$ per person

Backhaul service usually costs 75$ per person including up to 100lbs of watercraft and luggage, a minimum of 2 people. Additional people will cost 50$ per person.

Inflatable Kayak and paddleboard rentals start from 35$ which includes PFD and paddles.


Nan and friend paddling down the Colorado River

The experience of kayaking the Colorado

Below we highlight our experience of paddling down the Colorado River through the beautiful canyons and Horseshoe bend. This way, you will know what to expect and what marvels await you!

Arrival at Lee’s Ferry and the start of Backhaul service

Upon arriving at Lee’s Ferry, you will first park your car and then find the backhaul boat at the dock. After loading the paddleboards and kayaks onboard, the boat will depart upriver towards Glen Canyon Dam. 

The ride takes about 30 minutes and you will get your first glimpse of the massive 1500-foot rock cliffs surrounding you. As you cruise upriver, the captain will explain to you the history of the canyon as well as some important tips. At this point, you will also determine where your starting point is. Based on the weather conditions, river flower speed, your skill level, and how long you want to paddle for, the captain will judge what is most appropriate for you.

We decided as a group to start at the 10-mile mark, which provides for a good 5-7 hour paddle downriver. The furthest point is 16 miles which is where the Glen Canyon Dam is located. This would be an 8+ hour journey though.

Once you arrive at your starting point, all the equipment will be unloaded and you are ready to start your journey!

Starting our journey kayaking down the Colorado River

Tip: If you are renting equipment, make sure to verify that the paddleboard/kayak has the appropriate pressure, that all your fins are present, and that you have your PFD, paddle, and leash. Because once the boat leaves, you are on your own!

Start of the journey paddling

We had expectations of how amazing it would be to paddle down the Colorado River and through Horseshoe Bend, but this experience exceeded all those expectations

It was mesmerizing being surrounded by the towering red rock walls that were sculpted by the erosive forces of the Colorado River over millions of years.

As you know from reading our blog, we love experiences that are remote, off-the-beaten-path, where you are not disturbed by tourism, and where you can fully connect with nature. This was one of those adventures!

Throughout our 7-hour journey downriver, we ended up only seeing 2 other people. The rest of the way, we had the entire canyon all to ourselves, allowing us to fully immerse into the nature.

Here, you will not only get to admire the geological beauty but also glimpse the ancient petroglyphs created by the Native American Tribes, as well as witness the local wildlife.

The first thing you will notice is that the Colorado River flows rather quickly. You won’t see it at first, but if you stare through the clear waters, you will see your kayak is zooming past the river grass. Don’t worry though as the water tends to be quite calm.

Nan paddleboarding down the Colorado River
See how calm the water is? ๐Ÿ™‚

This also means that even if you’re not the strongest paddler, or you are a beginner, you will still get to enjoy this experience.

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Stopping points along the way

With every twist and turn around the valley, you will enjoy yet another incredible view. Along the way, you will also notice several stopping points where you can camp for the night, or embark on a short hike. 

At one of the stops, we found ancient petroglyphs carved into the cliff walls. Another point we had the chance to do some rock/cliff jumps!

nan starting towards the red rock cliffs of the canyon

Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs are ancient rock carvings that depicted cultural symbols, animals, and people and were used to tell stories about their daily lives, instructions, or their beliefs. The carvings we saw seemed to depict the migration patterns of the animals as well as where the indigenous people can hunt. To find these stops, most will be depicted by signs on the riverbank and the pathway marked by arranged trails of rocks.

Rock pathway leading to the Petroglyphs
Rock pathway leading to the Petroglyphs

Cliff jumping

After several hours of paddling, and with the blazing Arizona sun, we craved to cool off in the water. The boat captain had advised us to be very careful if entering the river as the water temperature can get quite low. We tested it carefully and felt it wasn’t too cool and that it would be safe.

We first cooled off by the river bank at Horseshoe Bend but then also found a rock outcrop by the river that was designated for cliff jumping. By the rock, there was a carabiner and chain that allowed you to hook your watercraft to it as you climbed up. We spent a good half an hour taking turns jumping into the water and cheering each other on!

Ancient routes

You will also surely notice by the cliffs the remnants of ancient routes. These were used by both the Mormon pioneers in the 19th century as well as the Native American tribes, including the Navajo. The historic routes were used for trade, hunting, and communication between the villages. The other best trade route used by the indigenous tribes was actually the Colorado River itself.

As you arrive closer to Lee’s ferry, you will notice the valley opens up and the cliffs are no longer as high. Make sure not to miss Lee’s ferry as paddling further requires a permit and you will be heading towards Grand Canyon, where there are rapids.

Canyon cliffs along the Colorado River

End of trip: Arrival at Lee’s Ferry

Upon your arrival at Lee’s Ferry, you will bring the watercraft out of the water to the designated unloading area. Once that is done, you are free to go! 

This is also why we recommend renting the equipment from the backhaul service. If you bring your own equipment, you will then have to strap it to your car and then drive 45 minutes back to Page to return it. We were exhausted and so thirsty by the end of the day and certainly did not have the energy for that.


Where to stay after Kayaking Horseshoe Bend


Nan beside the huge towering cliffs while we kayak horseshoe bend
Nan beside the huge towering cliffs of the canyon

FAQ

How to organize this trip?

To organize this experience, contact Kayak Horseshoe Bend and they will help you arrange both the backhaul service and kayak/paddleboard rentals. I find this to be very convenient as coordinating watercraft rental from Page, and then backhaul service from Lee’s Ferry can be quite complicated.

Can you kayak around Horseshoe Bend?

Yes, by departing from Lee’s ferry with the backhaul service, you will be passing through Horseshoe Bend. So when you kayak back towards Lee’s Ferry, you will get to go through Horseshoe Bend. It is actually really cool watching the people at the top of Horseshoe Bend staring down at you!

Looking down to the bottom of horseshoe bend from the top
Looking down to the bottom of Horseshoe Bend the night before

Is it beginner-friendly?

Yes, this activity is beginner-friendly. Even if you have minimal experience paddling, the water current will help push you back towards your Leeโ€™s Ferry. Make sure to let the captain know your skill level so they can determine what is an appropriate starting point.

Your rented kayak or paddle board will also likely be inflatable. This is an advantage as it is easier to balance on inflatable watercraft.

Best time of year to Kayak Horseshoe Bend?

The best time is the end of September to October when temperatures are comfortable at around 72-87 degrees and evenings are cooler.

From June to August, it is considered monsoon season and can have severe thunderstorms which produce strong winds and lightning. This would be particularly dangerous on the water and within a canyon as flash floods can also occur. June to August also produces very high temperatures, even exceeding 100 degrees, which can be too hot as there is no shade within the canyon.

The season for kayaking horseshoe bend is closed from November to February due to the freezing temperatures.

Can you swim at Horseshoe Bend?

The Colorado River water is quite cold, usually between 46 to 54 degrees year-round. This is also because the water that exits the Glen Canyon Dam is usually the water that is at the bottom of the dam, thus it is not warmed by the sunlight. 

Despite this, it is possible to swim at Horseshoe Bend. The water at that point is quite shallow and far from the dam, so the water temperature is quite comfortable. There is also a huge sandbank where you can put your watercraft to enjoy the river.

Can you Kayak Horseshoe Bend without a tour?

It is not possible to Kayak horseshoe bend completely without a tour. You will at the bare minimum need the backhaul service

However, you can descend the Colorado River from the starting point back to Lee’s Ferry on your own, without a guide.

Nan paddling down the canyons

This post is part of our series about Utah. If you want to learn more about Turkey, planning your trip, and some of the best experiences there, check out the guides below:

Important tips to kayak Horseshoe Bend

Make sure to bring enough water!

You will have no access to additional water once you’re within the Canyon. We brought 2 large bottles of water, one for each of us, but still ran out of water 1-2 hours before the end of the journey. We had to skip some of the short stops and hikes to not get dehydrated. Don’t make the same mistake as us and bring extra water!

Bring enough food

Paddling down the Colorado River is energy-intensive. Make sure to bring a lunch and some snacks.

Wear a hat or sun protection

In the Canyon, there is no shade so you will constantly be exposed to the hot Arizona sun. Make sure to wear sunscreen and a hat if possible.

Always wear your PFD and leash

Wearing your life jacket will ensure your security if ever you fall into the water. Wearing your leash for paddleboards will ensure that your board doesn’t escape from you if ever you fall into the water. As the river flow speed is quite fast, without the leash, you will not be able to catch back up to your board.

Rent your equipment from the backhaul service

I toiled between renting in Page and bringing it to Lee’s Ferry or simply renting it from the backhaul service. In the end, renting it directly from the backhaul service was definitely the better option as it is so much more convenient.

Nan in front of the green grass and red rock valley

Do not overestimate your abilities

We are strong paddlers and had initially wanted to do the entire 16-mile course. The captain recommended we do the 10-mile starting point and boy are we glad we listened to him. It took us a total of about 7 hours to paddle down to Lee’s Ferry so I cannot even imagine how long it would’ve taken if we had started at the 16-mile point.

Do not overestimate your abilities. There is only one way to get out of there.

Be careful of the other boats

From time to time, a boat will be going upriver. When you see it coming, make sure to go close to the shore and wait for it to pass. As the boat will be creating waves, you don’t want to topple over into the water.


Nan paddling near a horse

Summary: Kayak Horseshoe Bend

Traversing through the Colorado River by kayak or paddle board will surely be one of your best experiences in Utah. During our 2 weeks road tripping through Southern Utah, we got to do Angel’s Landing hike, Narrows hike, paddleboard through Antelope Canyon, Canyoneering in Moab, sunset at the Delicate Arch, and much more! 

Utah is filled with so many exciting things to do and if you are curious to find out how to best organize your trip, we have outlined the ideal 2 week road trip itinerary for you including the chance to stand on top of a sandstone arch or rappel down a 220ft cliff in Moab!

If you will certainly be visiting Zion, check out this post where we compare the best towns to base yourself when visiting Zion!