Leonie Sherman
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A magical packraft and canyoneering adventure near Las Vegas

I used to avoid Las Vegas, but then I got obsessed with Death Valley canyoneering, and started hanging out with a bunch of badasses who chose to live in Sin City. Turns out Las Vegas is only an hour drive from world class canyoneering, rafting, climbing and hiking. And running Secret Canyon with a packraft lets you sample all of these activities in a casual six-hour day, like a sampler plate of outdoor fun.

The trailhead for Secret Canyon is less than an hour from the strip and the car shuttle takes about 20 minutes. After ducking under a tunnel, we began picking our way down a steep boulder field. Kris is 6’6”, so can easily lower himself down long drops; Abby and I sent him first and used his shoulders, knees and outstretched arms to aid our descent.

After the boulder field we enjoyed a pleasant sandy stroll and the walls began to slot up. The first rappel is over 60 feet of sheer smooth sandstone. The second rappel, which follows pretty quickly, is 20 feet over chunky broken rock. After making anchors out of rock piles and rappelling off slender creosote bushes in Death Valley, rappelling off bolts is downright relaxing, even though you’re still jumping off a cliff backwards. Less than three hours after leaving the car, we we were standing on the shores of the Colorado River inflating our rafts.

first rappel in secret canyon abby wines

First rappel in Secret Canyon (Abby Wines)

Abby brought her $700 packraft that weighs about as much as one of my approach shoes. The paddle looks like a telescoping chopstick with palm-sized paddles. I took my inaugural packraft journey in a borrowed $15 eight-pound raft with an oversized PFD and a collapsible kayak paddle. Our exit from Secret Canyon involved about three miles of completely flat water, part of the 30-mile Black Canyon Water Trail, designated in 2014. You could practically float it on a pool toy.

I’d just completed a 70-mile SUP epic on the Green River, whose sluggish manure and mud-choked waters are barely liquid. Here however, thanks to a massive concrete wall and a tiny invasive shellfish, I could watch the rocky river bottom pass below my squeaking raft through the crystal clear emerald waters.

The graceful arc of the Hoover Dam looms 736 feet above the river. Over a thousand feet long and 660 feet wide at its base, it contains enough concrete to pave a four foot sidewalk around the equator. Vegas wouldn’t exist without it, LA needs it for power and chances are you’ve eaten vegetables grown in the farmland it irrigates.

For decades it was the largest dam in the world. The lake it created is still the nation’s largest man made reservoir. Lake Mead’s bleached bathtub ring is a brutal reminder of our epic mega-drought; even after historic winter rains the lake level is 180 feet below full.

Silt, sediment and salt gather in Lake Mead, creating the clear, cold waters we were rafting on. Before the dam, that organic matter was distributed throughout the river’s lower reaches, creating fertile ground in the flood plain of the meandering river. Now four fish species are on the brink of extinction, the river no longer reaches the ocean, and hundreds of miles of riparian forest along with 1.5 million acres of wetlands are buried in a watery grave.

Secret Canyon meets the Colorado River only a couple of miles downstream from the concrete tourniquet. Abby, Kris and I floated just a mile further before disembarking at the entrance to Boy Scout Canyon. Its upper reaches have a 340-foot rappel, the longest drop of any Vegas area canyon. That’s a top-down adventure, so we settled for a short exploration, frolicking in the warm creek and waterfalls and gawking at bright green algae slick walls.


Back at our rafts, Abby maneuvered next to a boulder, trying to stay dry. She lowered herself gently into her packraft and was instantly chest deep in the frigid river. A cluster of razor-sharp thumbnail-sized quagga mussels had torn an 8-inch gash in the delicate fabric of her vessel, leaving it completely useless.

What those invasive mollusks did to Abby’s raft is nothing compared to the damage they’ve caused ecosystems from the Great Lakes to Arizona. Imported accidentally from the Dnieper River in Ukraine, quagga mussels can survive up to 20 days out of water. Voracious filter feeders, they suck up vast quantities of phytoplankton, removing the base of the food chain. They also concentrate pollutants in their bodies, which can be passed up the food chain, and has contributed to outbreaks of avian botulism, killing tens of thousands of birds. Their waste lowers oxygen levels and the pH of surrounding water and they also clog sewage and water treatment pipes.

After decimating the Great Lakes ecosystem in the early 1990s, the first quagga mussel west of the Rockies was discovered in Lake Mead in 2007. They’ve since spread throughout Arizona, Nevada and Southern California. Once established they are almost impossible to eradicate.

The fate of the ecosystem was beyond our bandwidth at the moment, as we contemplated about 500 pounds of person, 85 pounds of gear and two $15 pack rafts rated to a maximum of 200 pounds each. Kris heaped our packs into his raft and Abby and I climbed into the one he’d lent me. Amazingly, the rafts held, and we mostly let the current carry us the remaining miles.

a $15 packraft holding 130 more pounds than it’s rated for kris miller

A $15 packraft holding 130 more pounds than it’s rated for (Kris Miller)

A short ladder leads to the lowest pool in Ringbolt Hot Springs (also known as Arizona Hot Springs). Proximity to Vegas means you can watch Instagram models pose, chat with grizzled desert rats and hear about someone’s latest ultra trail run while you soak in the soothing waters. Three connected pools offer temperatures from 95-110.

the exit hike from ringbolt hot springs leonie sherman

The exit hike from Ringbolt Hot Springs (Leonie Sherman)


The 2.6-mile hike back to the car is a pleasant cruise through a slot canyon, past some interesting boulder problems, and up a sandy wash. If you’ve indulged in alcoholic celebration at the hot springs, you can easily lose your way in the final stretch and end up in the wrong car park. Abby, Kris and I refrained and happily worked our way back to the car. After picking up the other vehicle, we showered, dressed up and enjoyed a fabulous meal in a Vegas strip mall.

Where else can you canyoneer, packraft, soak in hot springs and hike in a single day that starts in a cozy bed and ends with vegan Thai food? Seriously, if you know of somewhere please tell me.


Main image: Packrafting down the Colorado River after the exit from Secret Canyon (Kris Miller)


Read other articles by Leonie Sherman here.