Black Canyon and Willow Beach are worthwhile high desert diversions
IN THE AMERICAN Southwest, the never-ending open spaces are dissected by asphalt arteries, connecting cities and transporting people and commerce.
One such artery is U.S. 95, which slices north-south from border to border. On this well-travelled stretch, it connects Kingman, Ariz., with Las Vegas, Nev. The land that lies between is barren, wind swept and full of intrigue.
There’s beauty in the void. Distant cliffs and the communities that cling to them. The way the low sun pierces the dust and haze. An approaching thunderstorm, towering above the high desert floor as lightning streaks across black-blue-grey skies.
Well documented on this route is Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, but before those tourists traps is a playground for the outdoors enthusiast.
Willow Beach, located in the Black Canyon area of the Colorado River, features 235 miles of shoreline. Here, among the scrub, the lizards and the dirt, you’ll find everything from big-horn sheep to a marina with fully stocked store.
On this trip, I was heading to Death Valley National Park in California. Having seen this dramatic bend in the river, surrounded by canyon walls and painted by desert light, I knew a one-night stop to camp and explore was worthwhile.
Through the windscreen, the two-lane artery heading toward the heart of Las Vegas stretched into the yonder as early spring heat waves wiggled skyward, as if gypsy dancers had been turned to vapor.
The navigation system offered an early prompt for a left-turn exit. The road from U.S. 95 to the marina and campground is narrow and twisty as it descends toward the river. Shadows and light play a game of tag in the late afternoon, forcing sunglasses on and visors down as quickly as that pattern is reversed.
It’s a couple of miles down, and a recent rain spilled sand and mud across the road, hastening a re-creation of turns found in the Hollywood blockbuster "Tokyo Drift."
At the bottom, ample parking provides easy access to the water. The marina and store are sleepy, as high-season for this area is still a few weeks away. The campground, nestled atop hills overlooking the Colorado River and distant mountains, is full. Early reservations are required.
With no trees, the spaces lack privacy but offer a good amount of distance between guests. The RV pads are large and easily accessed. The amenities modern and clean.
A sunset hike on a trail accessed directly from the campground offered stunning views into Black Canyon. The sun’s last rays danced off the water as the evening haze created texture to the scene. It was beautiful.
With little natural protection, heavy winds can create havoc for campers. On this night, the tent was under relentless attack from an approaching cold front. Clear skies created an after-hours celestial show. Coyotes howled in the distance.
It was a tough sleep as the wind persisted on its angry march across the high desert. Morning brought some calm, ample sunshine and a helping of desert wildflowers in full bloom. A campfire breakfast preceded packing up and heading on. The winding road leading back to U.S. 95 was empty. The rear-facing mirrors reflecting the soothing calm of the Colorado, as it continues its journey toward the sea.
Bring your favorite. While the marina store sells alcohol, it’s mostly the macro variety and generally uninspired. I brought Grand Canyon Brewing’s Sunset Amber Ale.
Ale in one hand, camera in the other, an easy hike to some nearby vistas, where the sun, the mountains and the water converged as day washed into night.
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