Kayak Camping Horseshoe Bend Overview
Horseshoe Bend is one of the most popular overlooks of the mighty Colorado River just outside Page Arizona. Horseshoe Bend overlook is extremely popular due to its ease of access combined with stunning views of the Colorado River. Due to the overlooks ease of access ABC News reports that they see over 2.2 million visitors a year which is over 4,000 visitors a day! Parking the car and walking a little over half a mile to the edge of the canyon to peer over is cool and all, but kayaking down the Colorado River and camping in that canyon sounds even cooler to me!
Last year my wife and I planned an epic trip to Kayak Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend in one trip. We had a blast day paddling Antelope Canyon but unfortunately the wind was too crazy the next day and we had to cancel our trip down the Colorado River through Horseshoe Bend. We were literally on the banks of the Colorado River with our Kayaks packed when we canceled.
Horseshoe Bend Camping and Permit Information
There is a small fee to use Lees Ferry and you will have to stop at the information booth as you drive in. You just swipe your credit card and leave the printed receipt on your dashboard when you park.
No permits are required to camp between Black Canyon Dam and Lees Ferry. There are designated campsites and you can only camp in these designated areas. I have the campsites mapped out on the map in the next section. Each campsite does have its own pit toilet which is a nice touch so no Wag Bag (Amazon Affiliate) needed. Since there are no permits or reservations for the campsites, they are first come first serve. Plan to get to your campsite early if you want a good spot!
ℹ️ Gear Recommendations
Check out the Ten Digit Grid Gear Locker for expert gear recommendations for your next adventure, including detailed descriptions of why each item belongs in your pack.
Kayaking Horseshoe Bend Backhaul Service
In order to Kayak Horseshoe bend you have to start at Lees Ferry. From here you have two options. Attempt to paddle upstream (Not recommended), or hire a backhaul service to take you the 15 miles upstream in a power boat and drop you off.
My wife and I are strong paddlers and I wanted to kayak upstream, but my wife convinced me not to, and I am glad I listened to her. In fair conditions it wouldn't have been too bad but conditions and river conditions can change quickly. If we paddled upstream we would not have been able to see the entire canyon, and may have missed our amazing campsite we stayed at.
There are a number of Backhaul services, we used Kayak Horseshoe Bend and they were fantastic. When we went it was $75 a person for the backhaul. We brought our own kayaks, our trusty Pakayaks, but you can rent kayaks or paddle boards through them for an extra fee.
Kayaking Horseshoe Bend Maps
The 15 miles of Colorado River from the Black Canyon Dam back to Lees Ferry can be kayaked in one day. I recommend staying at least one night in the canyon. Camping next to the Colorado river will be an experience I will never forget. The backhaul service can drop you off at a number of different locations if you do not want or can not paddle the entire length.
The map below can be viewed and downloaded on Caltopo here.
Day 1: Glen Canyon Dam to Ferry Swale Campsite
My wife and I drove out to Page Arizona the night before our scheduled departure date and spent the night in a hotel. We had an early 4:30 am wake up to drive the final 50 minutes to Lees Ferry. We had a 6:30 departure time and had to un-pack the car, set up our Pakayaks, park the car and load the backhaul boat.
If you are camping overnight there is a seperate lot you have to park in, which is a short walk back to the boat boarding area. So make sure you leave yourself enough time to move the car if you are camping down in the canyon. I have marked the areas on the map below in the following colors:
- Red Oval: Overnight Parking
- Blue Circle: Day Parking
- Green Circle: Gear drop off and dock to board backhaul boats
After dropping off all our gear in the dirt parking lot, I swung the car over to the day lot while we prepped our kayaks and organized all our gear. After setting our Pakayaks up and making sure we had everything we needed out of the Jeep, I then moved the car to the long term lot.
When we prepped the kayaks on the dirt, we didn't load all our gear in them. I did not want to weigh our kayaks down with three days of gear and then have to lift and maneuver them onto the backhaul boat. Instead we used out G.O.A.T Totes from Hyperlite Mountain Gear. These indestructible super lite and impossibly strong tote bags are perfect for hauling gear around and were perfect for quickly loading our stuff on the backhaul boat.
We brought two 70L and one 20L G.O.A.T Tote on this trip to hold all our stuff. That includes both our life vests, and two kayak skirts as well as all the camping gear and food. These things are awesome! The Totes were also perfect for carrying our gear from the beach to the campsite as it was a little bit of a walk. This was much easier than dragging the heavy kayaks. Best of all they take up almost zero space in the kayak when folded flat!
We timed everything perfectly and did not miss our boat! On our backhaul boat there was one father daughter pair, and another daughter mother pair who were all doing day trips.
Despite being the last pari on the boat, we somehow managed to get the prime two seats at the front and had epic morning views up the river! I was in shorts and short sleeves while we rode up river. The boat driver had a light puffy on, and told us it might be cold driving up with the breeze. I was fine in shorts, but if you take the early morning trip up you may want a light layer to wear as you travel up river.
Our boat driver was an absolutely fantastic guide as we traveled up river. Within the first few minutes he slowed the boat down and pulled up to the side of the river, and pointed out a couple wild horses that came down to drink from the canyon! We didn't know it at the time but this would not be our last wild horse encounter on this trip!
As we traveled upriver our boat driver would slow down at each campsite or marker along the river and point it out to us, so we could make mental notes and get a sense of where we were.
After a fantastic upriver journey we finally got a peak at the massive Glen Canyon Dam that was holding all of Lake Powell behind its massive walls. For security reasons you can not actually get too close to the dam, so we took a quick look and then got dropped off right around the first bend.
Our boat driver expertly beached the front of the boat on a very tiny beach. At this point Rachel and I jumped off the bow of the boat while our driver gently handed our kayaks and our gear to us on the beach. After a few minutes of unpacking our G.O.A.T Totes and packing up our Pakayaks we were finally ready to begin this journey down the epic Colorado River!
It was still pretty early in the morning as we pushed off the first sandy beach in the canyon, and it was a nice cool temperature in the shade. My first few steps into the icy cold water that was fresh out of the Glen Canyon Dam, woke me up and excited me even more!
We didn't really have a hard plan on what we wanted to accomplish each day. We packed enough food for two nights, three days in the canyon. We were not in much of a rush, even though you could float down the river in one day if you really wanted too. We loosely figured we would camp the top half the first night and then were thinking of camping right at Horseshoe Bend the second night. That plan changed as we came up river though, the Horseshoe Bend campsite looked like a mad house of people and we just looked at each other shook our heads and said, "nope". Without much of a plan, I felt like a real explorer just going with the flow of the river!
Our first stop was to check out a natural spring of fresh water. Our boat driver graciously pointed out to water sources that he claimed were fresh and safe to drink one. We didn't need any water at this point, but thought it would be fun to check out. This water source is marked on my Caltopo Map I made.
As we rounded the bend we could hear the running water as we slowly approached it. Water was basically gushing out this crack in the canyon wall! I pulled up, got out of my kayak and ran my hands through the running water. As I was running my hand through the crisp cold water I was thinking to myself, "I wonder how far this water traveled underground before sprouting out of this crack".
The water was flowing fast and I effortly felt like I was flying down the river. We mostly Kayak in bays and the ocean, so the river was a different experience for us. The water was not rough, it was calm but flowing with a decent speed. I was having fun watching the different currents and speeds of the water running around the large bends. There was even once or twice my kayak just got spun around and then I was just going down river the opposite direction.
A very fast 3.7 miles after we started from our drop off location we arrived at the Ferry Swale Campsite. Ferry Swale Campsite is the second campsite as you move down river from the Glen Canyon Dam. I heard it was a pretty popular spot, and when we arrived I could see why. We luckily arrived early since we were one of the first backhaul boats up the river and we were the first campers to arrive here.
At this point the sun was out in full force and easily over 100 degrees in the canyon. It was nice to beach the kayaks and walk waist deep into the river and cool off. The brisk water felt amazing rushing by and dropping my body back to a normal temperature. Our boat driver mentioned there were a couple people within the last week who got heat stroke in the canyon. He kindly reminded us that the water in the Colorado River is always brisk and a great way to cool off!
We sat in the water cooling off and enjoying the views for a bit and decided we would camp here for the night, even though it was still pretty early in the morning. I was a bit anxious to get our tent setup because we were starting to see more and more people float down the river. I wanted to claim our campsite before it got too crowded.
After setting up camp I was really hot. Just 20 feet away from our beautiful beach the sand felt like it held in all the heat. It wasn't hard work setting up the tent and carrying items from our kayaks to the tent but it was really hot out. After this short period away from the water I was ready to cool off again.
We dropped our chairs at the water's edge and let them slowly sink into the sand dangling our feet into the water. This felt amazing after the short time on the hot sand! As we sat there talking we watched other paddlers coming down river, and more backhaul boats coming up river dropping more paddlers off. I was happy we got here early and claimed our amazing campsite at Ferry Swale.
The best part about having our chairs at the water's edge was when the backhaul boats went up stream their wakes came at us in our little private splash zone raising the water in rythms to send splashes into our laps.
Descending sheep Ancient Petroglyphs
After cooling off in the water again, it was time to do a little bit of exploring. We decided to jump back into our Pakayaks and head just about a mile downstream from our campsite to check out the Ancient Anasazi Petroglyphs! As you head downstream it's pretty easy to notice the petroglyph beach. There are stone stairs on the beach that larger tour rafts use to bring people to check them out. You can even see the large tour rafts in the Google Satellite Imagery of the location.
One thing to note, which we got really lucky with is, try and time it when these tours are not landing at the petroglyphs. If you are there when one or two of the tours land, it's going to be pretty loud and crowded. Checking out ancient petroglyphs is a pretty mind boggling thing, the Ancient Anasazi were there between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago! I appreciated this internal reflection in the peace and quiet as I looked at their carvings on the wall. The Ancient Anasazi are also known as the Ancestral Puebloans and you can learn more about them on Wikipedia.
While you are at the petroglyphs please stay on the path and behind the rock wall keeping you back a few feet from the ancient art. For something so old and rare, it's amazing to me that it is still open to the public to visit on their own. There is a sign there with a short story of a Jerk named Trent. He carved his name on the wall next to the petroglyphs. He was caught and fined $10k dollars. Don't be like Trent, respect the area you have the privilege to visit and experience.
These petroglyphs are referred to as the Descending Sheep:
This trip really has it all. Beautiful canyon kayaking on clear cool water, camping, star gazing, ancient history and wild animals! As we left the ancient descending sheep petroglyphs it gave me a new lens as I looked around at everything around me thinking of the ancient tribes that depended on this river. I kept trying to think about what the river and area must have looked like before the Glen Canyon Dam as I paddled along.
After we left the petroglyphs we started to paddle up stream back toward our campsite at Ferry Swale. As luck would have it though, my wife caught something out of the corner of her eye, that looked like something falling down a steep path. Don't worry it wasn't a human getting hurt, it was a Bighorn Sheep, coming down for a drink!
When our boat driver brought us up river earlier in the morning, he pointed out a slight steep trail that the Bighorn sheep often use. As we kept our eyes on the sheep and followed it down to the water, we noticed there was an entire pack of Bighorn sheep at the water! It was almost as if the ancient Descending Sheep Petroglyphs were coming alive right in front of us, it was magical! We paddled up the river then silently let the river pull us down stream so we could observe the Bighorn sheep while not spooking them.
After enjoying our live nature show of Bighorn sheep, we continued back towards camp. At this point the wind was picking up a bit, and the last 100 meters or so back to the campsite were pretty tough paddling! We came pretty close to just getting out of the kayaks and walking them the last part up stream!
Once we made it back to camp it was pretty low key and relaxing. It was a nice chill camping trip after having just gotten back from Mt Shasta only two weeks before!
This was definitely more of a glamping trip for us, and we made sure to bring a couple bottles of wine for a nice beach picnic dinner between the towering canyon walls.
AS we ate our dinner, watching the shadows grow on the canyon walls, we were getting tired fast. We have been on the road a lot lately, and we had a very early morning start. Despite the tiredness setting in, I was not eager to go to bed myself. I recently purchased a new intervalometer, the LRTimelapse PRO (Amazon Affiliate), and I wanted to make a timelapse of the stars tonight! I am a photography nerd, and shooting astrophotography is a privilege I didn't want to miss out on.
I set up my trusty Peak Design Travel Tripod (Amazon Affiliate) and started shooting! After about two hours of shooting, and a few light quick naps in the tent, I went to put the camera gear away. Right as I was about to turn my camera off, I took one last long look at the night sky. As I looked over the canyon wall to my left, I saw the Milky Way Galaxy starting to peak over the canyon wall! I just spent two hours shooting and was dead tired, but I knew I had to set everything back up.... I mean it was the milky way rising over the canyon! After another hour and half of shooting I finally went to bed for a few hours.
Day 2: Kayaking Horseshoe Bend
Once I finally got to bed I slept pretty well. It was pretty warm but there was a really strong wind gust throughout the night. In the morning we ate a quick breakfast and packed up pretty quick as the sun was rising. We were planning to spend a second night in the canyon and we were going to move down river to another campsite.
Today was the day we would get to kayak through Horseshoe Bend, and I was pretty excited! Horseshoe Bend was not far from camp, just about 2 miles down river. Literally right around the bend from the petroglyphs we saw yesterday afternoon.
Last year when we attempted this trip, we did go to the Horseshoe Bend overlook and got to gaze down at the river below where we were paddling now!
After taking these pictures I would stare down at the canyon below dreaming of adventure. I really wanted to beach my kayak on the island and stand there looking up at the people looking down at the river below.
As we came around the bend leading into the Horseshoe I was all smiles, it took two attempts but we finally were kayaking through Horseshoe Bend at the bottom of the canyon looking up! As we approached the island we beached the kayaks and got out standing in the heat and just took in the view. You can barely see the little tiny microscopic people at the top of the cliffs looking down at us. It really put the size of the canyon into perspective knowing those tiny sticks were people at the top!
After taking it all in from the island, we jumped back into our kayaks and paddled a little bit further to the tip of the Horseshoe and stopped again at the campsite. Compared to when we saw it yesterday and it looked like a madhouse we were actually the only people there! I think since today was actually July 4th, everyone was home getting ready for their 4th of July BBQs. Since we were at the tip of the Horseshoe we had to take a selfie on the beach.
Next decision was where we would spend night number two. There were only a couple of campsites left down river from us at this point and we figured we would camp as close to Lees Ferry as we could in order to wake up early and get an early start on the road back to San Diego.
I read online that 4 mile campsite had no camping on it, but I must have misunderstood our boat driver when he pointed it out on the way up. We set ourselves down river towards the 4 mile campsite and quickly realized when we got there that you can not camp there. From here there was only 4 miles to Lees Ferry so we decided to just call it, and break up our drive to San Diego into two days so we wouldn't be too exhausted for work when we got back home.
At this point the sun was getting high in the sky and the heat was turned up real hot. We spent a little time in the water at the 4 mile camp cooling down before the final push to Lees Ferry. Enjoyed a few snacks and purified some water topping off all our Nalgenes. I wasn't taking any chances on this trip with water, we broke out the MSR Guardian Purifier (Amazon Affiliate) after the Grand Canyon reported more than 150 rafters / backcountry campers had gotten sick with norovirus which is extremely rare for this area.
The last few miles were mostly peaceful, there were a few spots of strong wind which we had to fight for a little bit, but we moved pretty easily through it all compared to all the paddle boards. Our Pakayaks breezed by everyone on the water.
Since we had good luck the previous day with the Bighorn sheep, we kept our eyes peeled for the wild horses as we got close to Lees Ferry. Once again we were very lucky and saw some horses grabbing drinks and munching on the river grass. I think we got lucky with all these animals because we respected the petroglyphs.
Observing the wild horses was a fitting end to our amazing trip kayak camping through Horseshoe Bend. We really did have an amazing unique experience following the ancient flow of the Colorado River.
As we rounded the final bend approaching Lees Ferry, we paddled slowly taking in the vast views one last time.