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Weekend Escape

Afloat on Las Vegas' Wild Side

Geologic wonders cast a spell along an idyllic stretch of the Colorado River.


MILE MARKER 52 1/2, along the Colorado River — My shirt and shorts were stiff with sweat and dirt. My hair felt like strands of straw and was standing up at odd angles. I wore no makeup. My face felt as if it had been sandblasted, and bits of grit stuck to it. I was gross, grotty and grimy, and I loved every minute of getting to this state.

Our family of four came from Los Angeles to explore the wild side of Vegas. No, not the casinos, but the wilderness that lies about 25 miles east of the flashing neon of the Strip. What we found on our two-day, 11 1/2-mile canoe trip down the great, green Colorado River were delightful hot springs and thermal soaking pools, waterfalls and caves that glowed emerald.

Our adventure started precisely at 6:55 a.m. on a sizzling late spring Saturday, when Down River Outfitters guide Brett Dawson picked us up at the Vegas hotel where we had spent the night. Down River runs guided day trips and overnight camping tours through Black Canyon, south of Hoover Dam. The price was steep, $900 for four people on a two-day trip, but the company provided nearly everything: a guide, equipment, food and the permits necessary to travel through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. More frugal travelers can book a guided day trip for $119 per person or rent canoes and kayaks for a self-guided trip for $47 to $55 per person. But Brett's knowledge of the river alone was worth the price. He knew where the rapids were, where to pull in and where to find the hot springs, and he was full of facts about the history of the canyon and the dam.

The water through Black Canyon is rated Class I or less--moving flat water with few rapids--perfect for nervous, middle-aged and creaky parents like me and my husband, Barry, and enough of a challenge for the novice thrill seekers in the family, my 12-year-old stepson, Jann, and my 18-year-old daughter, Meera.

Joining us on our floating convoy were the Coveys: Jai, 23, and Roberto, 21, and their mom, Shanny, who were taking a break from the casino scene. The Coveys rented kayaks, and my family shared two canoes. In retrospect, the Coveys were smarter for choosing the kayaks, which offered more maneuverability into the canyon's crevices and caves. But the canoes proved to be the packhorses, and because of them we were able to carry more of the gear that makes camping easier: big ice chests packed with food, a camp stove and tables.

Brett drove us to the put-in point on the Colorado, right beneath Hoover Dam. Looming over us was the 726-foot-high concrete wall. It's a view that most visitors don't see except in photos, and I couldn't help but marvel and shiver at the thought that it was the only thing between Lake Mead and us.

The best time to go is spring and fall, when daytime highs are in the 70s and 80s. (December is a bit cooler, with temperatures reaching the mid-60s.) We went in mid-June, so we ferried our gear to the canoes and kayaks in 100-plus-degree heat. Brett promised, "This is the hardest part of the trip." I nodded, slogged on and sweated, thinking: Since we'll be going downstream with the current, how hard could it be?

With Meera and me commanding one canoe and the boys in another, we headed into the slow but steady current. That first day we traveled only about five miles, but our journey took us leagues from the world we usually inhabit. We were in a geothermic wonderland that seemed more alive underground than above it in the baked, barren desert.

One stop, the "sauna cave," was an excursion into the Stygian underworld of Black Canyon that is not for the claustrophobic. A steep jaunt uphill took us to a slit in the hillside just large enough for an adult to pass through. Hot, humid air assaulted us as we followed the tiny circle of light from Brett's flashlight. Barry and Jann turned back as the crevice grew narrower. The rest of us made it to the tunnel's end, where we perched on ledges hewn from the crystalline, lime-caked rock walls.

We switched off our flashlights, and I stood hunched with rivulets of sweat dripping, loudly inhaling the superheated, moisture-laden air in absolute darkness. Only seconds passed before I became saturated with the experience and went lurching for the welcoming glare of sunlight and the bracing 56-degree river water. Meera later said, "It was like being swallowed and spit out with phlegm all over me."

Our other stops were magical by comparison: a shallow, open cave where geothermally heated water from the ceiling and walls showered us like a summer rain and created stalactites and stalagmites above and below us. And then our lunch spot, where Brett performed a minor rescue when Meera and I were carried beyond the mouth of the cove by rapids we failed to negotiate. We managed to pull over to a rocky outcrop from which Brett tossed us a rope to moor our canoe. A reminder of the river's power, even harnessed.

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