How to Kayak Horseshoe Bend: Insider Tips From a Local
The gem of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is iconic Horseshoe Bend, with its unique shape carved out of the massive rock.
Located on the Arizona side, just a few minutes from Lake Powell, many hike to the overlook for Instagram-worthy photos. But 1,000 feet directly below the viewpoint, others know that the best way to enjoy this spectacular area is to kayak Horseshoe Bend (yes, those tiny specks you can see from above are kayakers!).
Kayaking Horseshoe Bend is not only an epic adventure and the best way to skip the crowds at the wildly popular tourist attraction. It’s also a fantastic alternative to whitewater rafting in the Grand Canyon. Those trips require a commitment of several days and have waitlists exceeding 1.5 years!
Experience the same, just-as-scenic river — in a calmer section (rated Class I rapids; practically flatwater) suitable for literally everyone — without needing special skills, a permit, or any other “red tape.”
Find out everything you could possibly want to know about kayaking Horseshoe Bend in this comprehensive guide, written by an Arizona local who’s done it!
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Kayaking Horseshoe Bend at a Glance
- Location: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, near Page, Arizona
- Distance: 10 miles round-trip to Petroglyph Beach (5-7 hours) and 15-16 miles round-trip to the dam (8-10 hours; best as an overnight)
- Difficulty Rating: Easy to Moderate
- Timing: Anywhere from five hours to overnight; best from September through November and March through May
- Permits: No permit needed to paddle the river or camp overnight, but you do need either an America the Beautiful Pass or a Glen Canyon National Recreation Area pass
- Guide required? A guide is not required, but hiring a backhaul service is extremely helpful with the logistics of shuttling
Seeing Horseshoe Bend in person is a magical experience, but imagine kayaking the Colorado River and being inside the iconic bend!
Up top on the viewing point, hundreds of people try to get that perfect social media-worthy photo, but 1,000 feet below the rim, you’ll be peacefully enveloped by the sandstone walls with clear water all around you.
What’s great about when you kayak Horseshoe Bend is that it’s an easy route — even if you have exactly zero prior paddling experience.
You can take a backhaul service (i.e.; a shuttle) to go upstream and get dropped off wherever you wish. Once you’re ready, the gentle flow of the river guides you back down to Lees Ferry over the course of several hours. It’s little effort for maximum adventure!
For those who want to take their time, you can opt to stay the night at a campsite directly along the river, breaking your paddle up over two days. You’ll even have enough time to visit Horseshoe Bend fro above in the morning!
Know Before You Go
Although you don’t need any special skills or permits to kayak Horseshoe Bend, there are still a few things to consider and logistics to plan.
- Kayaking the Colorado River is permitted on the 15-mile section below the Glen River Dam and above Lees Ferry. Fun fact: Lees Ferry is the official start of the Grand Canyon, so permits are required downstream of here
- All Horseshoe Bend kayaking trips launch from the Lees Ferry Boat Launch in Marble Canyon, AZ
- Beginning paddlers should start their kayak trip from Petroglyph Beach, while more experienced folks can tackle the entire length from the dam to Lees Ferry in one day
- You can technically shuttle two vehicles and bring your own gear, like an inflatable kayak, but hiring a backhaul service is exponentially easier and less stressful!
- The water on this stretch of the Colorado is exceptionally calm, with Class I rapids (the gentlest)
- There are several little beaches, coves, and other places to safely stop or pull out of the water if you want to take a break
- If you plan to camp overnight in Horseshoe Bend, keep in mind you’ll need to pack (and paddle!) in all your own gear
Best Time of Year to Kayak Horseshoe Bend
Although you can technically do it year-round (with stipulations; more on that in a minute), the best time to kayak Horseshoe Bend is during fall or spring. During both time periods — specifically October through early November and late March through early May — the days are warm and the nights cool.
We did our Horseshoe Bend kayaking trip at the very end of October and I can’t imagine more perfect weather conditions! The morning started off with us needing sweaters, but by late morning, we were perfectly comfortable in short sleeves and sandals.
Important: ALL of the outfitters offering backhaul service and Horseshoe Bend kayaking tours take an off-season break from mid- to late October through early March.
In other words, you could technically bring your own kayak and put-in near Lees Ferry in the winter, but you’ll have to either coordinate your own vehicle shuttle or paddle upstream as well as downstream. It also gets COLD in this area in the winter, as Horseshoe Bend sits at 4,200 feet elevation.
Even early spring can be cold and unpredictable weather-wise and, in particular, windy. High winds do not make for an enjoyable kayaking trip, even in Horseshoe Bend!
The summer months are extremely hot and sunny, with daytime temperatures soaring above 100 degrees. Even the evenings often don’t see temps lower than the 80s! To make things even worse, Arizona experiences monsoon season in July and August. During this time, unpredictable thunderstorms and flash floods are frequent, and there’s a ton of humidity to deal with (yep —Arizona isn’t always dry!).
We truly do not recommend anyone kayak Horseshoe Bend in the summer! The Arizona heat and sun exposure is no joke, and rescuers save people on the brink of death from dehydration or sun poisoning every single day.
However, if it’s truly the only time you can make it work, book the earliest possible launch time. Also, wear a good sun hat, slather on that sunscreen, and pack a ton of water.
How Long Does it Take to Kayak Horseshoe Bend?
For those who don’t have a lot of time, great news: a half-day trip is enough to kayak Horseshoe Bend!
Hire a backhaul service (we went with Kayak the Colorado), who you’ll meet at the Lees Ferry Boat Launch at a specified time. Instead of going all the way up the dam, have them drop you off just upstream of Horseshoe Bend itself, at what’s known as Petroglyph Beach.
From there, it’s approximately 10 miles back downstream to the boat launch. When we went in October, we seriously took our time, stopping for lunch and to take endless photos (including of grazing wild horses!), plus a few bathroom breaks, and the route took us almost exactly seven hours. If you didn’t stop much and had a bit more hustle, the trip would take closer to five.
There is a longer route for kayaking Horseshoe Bend, the 15-mile trip from the Glen Canyon Dam downstream to Lees Ferry. This trip takes about eight hours, of course depending on the number of stops and how quickly you paddle.
Our backhaul boat captain recommended we do the shorter Petroglyph Beach route, because in late fall you have very little sunlight in the canyon itself and it gets very cold. We were happy to take that recommendation and enjoyed a much more leisurely paddle kayaking the Colorado River.
It isn’t at all necessary to camp overnight to enjoy kayaking Horseshoe Bend, but that’s definitely a more leisurely way to take in the beauty of it all. In fact, we decided we’ll go back next year and camp! The only thing that can top this is the once-in-a-lifetime experience of sleeping at the bottom of Horseshoe Bend!
There are four campgrounds between Glen Canyon Dam and Horseshoe Bend at numerous points. All are very rustic sites, although there are fire rings and pit toilets. As this is Arizona, please make sure you check on fire restrictions ahead of time to find out if you’re allowed to have one!
How Difficult is Kayaking Horseshoe Bend?
In general, kayaking Horseshoe Bend is easy. The Colorado River is incredibly calm here (Class I rapids), with just enough of a current to gently guide you downstream. There were several long stretches where we didn’t paddle at all, and instead just leisurely floated along, taking it all in.
Side note: this is also why we took a bit longer to finish our paddle, but we were 100% okay with that!
Wind is the main thing that could make kayaking the Colorado River more difficult. Being at the bottom of such a deep canyon, wind really accelerates down on the water. If it’s at your back helping you along, that can be a good thing — but if you’re heading into it, you’ll be struggling to make progress the whole time.
If you do experience heavy winds, find a spot to pull over for awhile and see if you can wait it out.
The starting (and ending) point of all Horseshoe Bend kayak trips is the Lees Ferry Boat Launch. This is where you’ll board your backhaul boat along with all your gear, then head up to the point upriver where you start your paddle. You’ll kayak back downriver to the boat launch to end your trip.
Although there aren’t any physical signs along the river, boaters use a mile marker system for navigation, with 0 being the Lees Ferry launch point and 15 being the Glen Canyon Dam.
When you see the following landmarks, you can make a pretty decent guess about your position and progress along the route. Note that Lees Ferry has a modern bathroom and there are vault toilets at each milepost except for the Glen Canyon Dam. All the designated campgrounds and Petroglyph Beach also have campfire rings.
- Mile marker 0: Lees Ferry Boat Launch
- Mile marker 4: 4-mile Recreation Area
- Mile marker 6: 6-mile Campground
- Mile marker 8: 8-mile Campground in Horseshoe Bend
- Mile marker 9: 9-mile Campground in Horseshoe Bend
- Mile marker 10: Petroglyph Beach
- Mile marker 11: Ferry Swale Campground
- Mile marker 14: Ropes Trail Campground
- Mile marker 15: Glen Canyon Dam
Do You Need a Permit to Kayak Horseshoe Bend?
The short answer is NO. However, you do need either an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or a pass for the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area ($30).
If you don’t have either, you can get the Glen Canyon pass in-person at the entrance to Lees Ferry or from a ranger station at Lake Powell.
Tips for Kayaking Horseshoe Bend
- Watch out for powerboats! They go up and down the center of the river, so always stay to one side. Note: all the water taxis periodically check on their kayakers, both for safety and as a progress check
- Avoid whirlpools, as they may make your kayak tip over
- If strong wind gusts or rain move in, take cover by getting over to a riverbank as quickly as possible and taking cover until conditions calm
- There are plenty of bathrooms, campgrounds, beaches, and other places to stop on the route while you’re kayaking Horseshoe Bend
- Even though Arizona law doesn’t require adults to wear a life vest while paddling, you should still consider wearing one for kayaking Horseshoe Bend. The water is cold and you’ll have a safeguard against drowning.
You can safely expect to encounter wildlife while kayaking the Colorado River. Keep an eye out for ospreys and eagles (look for their huge, impressive telltale nests!) flying overhead or diving to fish in the water, and scan the cliffs for bighorns.
Best of all, however, are the resident wild mustangs! They’re often drinking from a shoreline or wading in the river to cool off, especially when it’s hot out. If you encounter them, remember that they are wild animals and therefore, unpredictable. Give them plenty of space and do not attempt to touch or feed them.
Where to Camp Near Horseshoe Bend
Aside from the rustic, boat-in campsites at the bottom of Horseshoe Bend, there are several campgrounds and campsites in the general area.
Lake Powell and the surrounding Glen Canyon National Recreation Area are massive, so if you enjoy boondocking, you’ll find tons of free camping options on public land.
In addition, here are some other places to camp near Horseshoe Bend.
- Page Lake Powell Campground – free wi-fi, full hookups, and even glamping in a covered wagon!
- Wahweap RV & Campground – free wi-fi, full hookups, and clean restroom facilities right near the Wahweap Swim Beach
- Lone Rock Beach Primitive Camping Area – one of the most iconic views on Lake Powell, this primitive campsite is on a sandy beach and has access to vault toilets and off-road trails
Other Places to Stay Near Horseshoe Bend
If you’d prefer slightly cushier accommodations to round out your adventure kayaking Horseshoe Bend, there are plenty of options.
- Marble Canyon Lodge – pet-friendly accommodations super close to Lees Ferry with a variety of options including apartment-style suites, plus an onsite restaurant
- Lees Ferry Lodge at Vermilion Cliffs – a vacation rental-style lodge with private bathrooms and patios, plus stunning views (we stayed here when we kayaked Horseshoe Bend with Kayak the Colorado!)
- Cliff Dwellers Lodge – a historic homestead-turned-lodge 20 minutes from Lees Ferry that also offers backhaul services to kayak Horseshoe Bend
- Vacation rental home – need a place for a larger group? Check out one of these spacious rental homes in Page, one that sleeps up to 12 with a brand new kitchen and one within walking distance of downtown that sleeps 10
What to Pack for Kayaking Horseshoe Bend
- Plenty of water (a hydration pack is fantastic idea for kayaking Horseshoe Bend, plus bring a few extra bottles!)
- Sun protection – sunscreen, sunnies, and a large sun hat!
- Water-appropriate hiking sandals like Chacos or water shoes
- Light layers (even on the hottest days, wind in the canyon can be chilly!) – bonus if they have built-in sun protection! We’re huge fans of the Columbia Sun Trek Hooded Pullover and The North Face Wander Pullover Sun Hoodie
- Dry bag (check out some of the best dry bags in this guide — they aren’t all created equal!)
- Waterproof phone pouch
- Bug spray
- Just-in-case toilet kit – there are bathrooms along the river, but it’s always a good idea to be prepared! Pack TP, a small shovel or trowel, and hand sanitizer