Odds are you’ve either been to, heard of, or seen photos of Arizona’s famous Horseshoe Bend, a sharp curve in the Colorado River that carves a horseshoe shape into massive red cliffs. Located just 10 minutes from Page, Arizona the Horseshoe Bend viewpoint that looks down over the Colorado River is wildly popular and attracts hundreds of visitors per day. But did you know that you can escape the crowds and experience Horseshoe Bend by kayaking on the Colorado River?! Kayaking Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River is a unique way to experience one of the Southwest’s most famous viewpoints! In this article, we’ve rounded up all the information you need to know to plan the perfect kayaking trip.

kayaking Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River

Hi there! We’re Sarah and Matt, two nomads road tripping across the United States with our cat, Fitzgerald, making a new place our home month to month while working full time and adventuring as much as possible. We spend any free time we can get hiking, camping, backpacking, and exploring new places! We hope that our experiences will help you plan for your next adventure and inspire you to be an outlier!

kayaking Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River

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Horseshoe Bend Kayaking Trip

Horseshoe Bend is located 9 miles up the Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in northern Arizona. Because the Glen Canyon Dam is located 7 miles upriver from Horseshoe Bend, Lee’s Ferry is the only access point if you want to boat or kayak to Horseshoe Bend. 

The most popular way to kayak Horseshoe Bend is by taking a backhaul service 16 miles up river from Lee’s Ferry to the Glen Canyon Dam, and then kayaking back down river. Because you’ll be paddling downriver, the entire 16 miles can be kayaked as a day trip in about 6 to 9 hours depending on the wind and current. 

Alternatively, there are several camping areas along the shores of the Colorado River, meaning it’s possible to kayak Horseshoe Bend as an overnight camping trip. In our opinion, kayaking Horseshoe Bend as an overnight trip is the best option, as you can take your time, really soak in the beauty of the canyon, and enjoy the peaceful serenity of early morning on the river, before the waters become busy with motor boats and other kayakers. 

Our experience kayaking Horseshoe Bend

We visited Horseshoe Bend from the popular viewpoint near Page in 2019, and at the time never expected we’d get to see the beautiful spot again. However, after the pandemic hit and we embarked on a permanent road trip, we found ourselves living in southern Utah for several months. When we heard that you could kayak up the Colorado River to Horseshoe Bend, we knew we had to do it! 

We kayaked through Horseshoe Bend as an overnight trip in early May, using the backhaul up to Glen Canyon Dam and kayaking 16 miles downriver to Lee’s Ferry. We were completely blown away by the beauty of the canyon and the glass-like water of the Colorado River. It was surreal to experience such a popular spot from the quietly flowing water below, away from the crowds at the rim of the canyon.

a calm morning exploring Horseshoe Bend by kayak

Kayaking Horseshoe Bend Overview

Quick Stats

  • Location | Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
  • Total distance | 16 miles one way (option to reduce distance to 10 miles by having the backhaul service drop you off just after Horseshoe Bend)
  • Epicness rating | 9
  • Time | 6 to 9 hours or 1 night/2day camping trip
  • Cost | $105 day trip, $140 overnight (including backhaul)
  • Difficulty |Moderate

How difficult is kayaking Horseshoe Bend

If you opt to use a backhaul service, kayaking Horseshoe Bend is a moderately difficult trip since you’ll be paddling downriver the entire time. While the current typically isn’t very strong, it definitely helps take some of the effort off your shoulders. That being said, this isn’t a lazy river floating trip and you’ll still need to paddle so expect to finish the trip with sore arms and an aching back!

If you choose not to use the backhaul service, the trip becomes significantly more challenging. You would not be able to make it to Horseshoe Bend and back in one day (18 miles total). Instead, you’d need to spend at least one night along the river.

Alternatively, you could kayak a few miles from Lee’s Ferry before turning back, but you’d miss the highlight of the trip: Horseshoe Bend! We definitely recommend using the backhaul service. 

kayaking Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River

Highlights

  • Experience a classic viewpoint from a different perspective, away from the crowds
  • Enjoy the beauty of the Colorado River and soaring canyon walls
  • Several hiking options along the way
  • Offers the chance to find solitude, although the campsites tend to be busy

Lowlights

  • Somewhat expensive to rent kayaks and backhaul service
  • Campsites tend to be crowded, so you won’t have the backcountry wilderness experience you may be hoping for
  • Motor boats towing kayakers up river detracts from the peace and quiet of the river canyon

Where does the kayak trip start?

To Kayak Horseshoe Bend, you will start from Lee’s Ferry, located in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, about 50 minutes from Page, Arizona and 1 hour 30 minutes from Kanab, Utah. At Lee’s Ferry there are docks and a boat ramp to launch your kayaks. There is a gas station and convenience store about 10 minutes from Lee’s Ferry in Marble Canyon.

Lee’s Ferry Campground

Located just minutes from the Lee’s Ferry boat launch is Lee’s Ferry Campground, the perfect spot to spend the night before your kayaking trip if you plan to get an early start. The 54 campsites at Lee’s Ferry cost $20 per night and available first-come-first serve only, so arrive early to snag a spot.

When is the best time of year to Kayak Horseshoe Bend?

The best time to kayak on the Colorado River is from spring through fall, around late March to late October. During the spring and fall, you can expect cooler but generally mild temperatures, although conditions can vary and snow is possible.

During the summer, expect extreme heat with highs often in the 90s and no shade during the day. The cool river water offers a nice reprieve from the summer heat, but be sure to pack appropriate sun protection, including a hat, sun shirt, sunscreen and sunglasses. 

How much time do I need to kayak Horseshoe Bend?

Using the backhaul service, it’s possible to kayak the entire 16 miles from Glen Canyon through Horseshoe Bend and back to Lee’s Ferry in one day. To cut down on the length of the trip, you could have your backhaul drop you at mile 10, just north of Horseshoe Bend.

However, we think the Colorado River is best enjoyed as an overnight camping trip! To avoid taking a backhaul you will need at least 2 days to kayak to Horseshoe Bend and back.

kayaking Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River

Where can I rent kayaks?

There are several outfitters that offer kayak rentals and backhaul services right at Lee’s Ferry. You’ll want to make reservations online in advance, especially on the weekends, as the backhaul time slots tend to fill up. Here are a few companies that offer kayak rentals and backhaul services:

We used Kayak the Colorado, and had a great experience, but each of the companies above offer similar services and prices.

Do I really need a backhaul service?

While it’s technically possible to kayak the Colorado River without the backhaul, we would highly recommend using it. Starting upriver and kayaking down allows you to take your time, soak in the stunning scenery, stop at the viewpoints and hikes along the way, and of course, makes for a significantly easier trip! 

If you’re an experienced kayaker and up for a challenge, you could kayak 6 miles up river on day one, spend the night at 6-mile campground, and continue 3 miles upriver to Horseshoe Bend in the morning before heading back down river to Lee’s Ferry.

Out of curiosity, we attempted to paddle up river a few times, and it was not easy at all! We would not have made it to Horseshoe Bend from Lee’s Ferry if we did not use the backhaul service. 6-mile campsite is the first campsite upriver from Lee’s Ferry so you would have to make it at least 6 miles on the first day.

Kayak Horseshoe Bend as a overnight trip

If you plan to tackles Horseshoe Bend as an overnight kayak trip, below are a few important details to know about camping in the Colorado River Canyon.

Do I need permits to camp?

No, permits are not required to camp along the Colorado River. 

How do I find a campsite?

Although permits or reservations are not required to camp, you must camp in designated camping zones, which are marked with a sign. There are a total of 4 camping areas, each with an outhouse and many campsites available, so you should have no trouble finding a spot, even on busy nights.  Make sure you camp on a flat, previously disturbed patch of land and avoid trampling the fragile desert plants or cryptobiotic soil.

Campsites are located at 6, 8, 9 and 11 miles from Lee’s Ferry. Each site is large and well-marked. You can’t miss them. 

Can I have a campfire?

Yes, campfires are permitted in fire rings only. Each camping area has at least one metal fire ring available. Please build a fire only in the metal rings and be sure to practice safe campfire etiquette (ie. do not leave unattended, make sure to put the fire out before you go to bed, etc). 

Tips for a great trip

To make sure your trip goes as smoothly as possible, below are a few key tips for planning your adventure:

  • Make sure to book the backhaul well in advance, as spots tend to fill up during busier times. 
  • If you plan to camp overnight, be sure to pack as light as possible as fitting all your gear into a kayak can be a challenge!
  • Bring a dry sack to keep valuables safe.
  • Get an early start to witness stunning reflections over the glassy water and enjoy peace and quiet on the river, before the motor boat traffic starts to pick up.

Kayak Horseshoe Bend packing list

Below are a few essentials to make sure you pack for your Horseshoe Bend kayaking trip:

  • Dry sack for storing valuables. A waterproof backpack is even better!
  • Sun protection, including sunshirt, sunscreen, hat and sunglasses, as there is no shade for the majority of the day on the water.
  • Water sandals or shoes
  • Bathing suit
  • Compact towel
  • Cooler, for storing food and drinks (especially if you aren’t staying overnight, as you likely won’t have space for it in addition to camping gear).
  • Bug spray – while there are no biting mosquitoes, there are a ton of bugs that hover just over the water (particularly at dawn and dusk) and can be a real nuisance
  • Camera or GoPro to capture your experience

P.S. If you plan to do the trip as an overnight, check out our complete list of backpacking gear essentials to help you pack!

kayaking Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River

Horseshoe Bend kayaking trip details

Assuming you opt to use a backhaul service, you’ll be driven 16 miles upriver from Lee’s Ferry in a motor boat until you reach the Glen Canyon Dam. Below, we’ll describe in more detail each section of the kayaking trip, starting at mile 16 and working our way back to Lee’s Ferry at mile 0.

Horseshoe Bend & Colorado River map

The map below displays each of the key sites, landmarks and campsites along the Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry to Glen Canyon Dam:

  • To email this map to yourself for future use, click the three dots in the upper right corner.
  • To view more details about each location, click on the marker on the map.

Mile 16: Glen Canyon Dam

After hopping on the backhaul from Lee’s Ferry, it takes about 45 minutes to boat up river all the way to Glen Canyon Dam, at which point it’s not possible to continue any further. Here your captain will pull over on a sandy beach, help you get your kayaks into the water, and then you’re off!

a calm morning exploring Horseshoe Bend by kayak

Mile 13: Hike

At mile 13, there is a trail located on the righthand side of the river that leads up and out of the canyon. This is a steep and challenging mile hike, which requires use of a rope to pull yourself out of the canyon, so it’s not recommended if you have a fear of heights. 

There is a herd of bighorn sheep that live in the area and often use the trail to climb down to the shores of the Colorado River, so keep an eye out even if you don’t stop to hike!

Mile 11: Ferry Swale Campsite

After 5 miles of kayaking, you will come upon the first campsite at mile 11. This is where we camped because we got a late start to the day due to our backhaul being scheduled for 12:30. Because it is north of Horseshoe Bend, the campsite at mile 11 tends to be the least crowded and still offers lovely views of the canyon.

Mile 10: Petroglyphs

At mile 10, beach your kayaks and take a short hike to see Native American petroglyphs carved into the canyon wall. It takes only a few minutes to hike up to the petroglyphs. It should go without saying, but please be respectful, and do not touch, carve or vandalize these precious remnants of Native American history in any way. A viewing platform was put in place to prevent people from getting too close due to an unfortunate act of vandalism in 2021, so please do not try to go beyond the rock wall. 

Mile 9: Horseshoe Bend & campsite

From the petroglyphs, you are just around the corner from the magnificent Horseshoe Bend. Before long, you can see the viewing platform and crowds of people at the rim of the canyon! Slowly floating around the bend, with nothing but the sound of birds chirping and water rippling as you soak in the stunning view of Horseshoe Bend from the Colorado River is a purely magical experience! 

To savor the view a little longer, you can beach your kayaks at the Horseshoe Bend campsite and hike up the rock formation that forms the inside of the “horseshoe”. From here you’ll find an awesome view of the bend from the opposite side, a sight that few people get to experience! 

The campsite at Horseshoe Bend is right on the beachy shore of the river, and tends to be the most crowded of the campsites along the Colorado. While it’d be pretty cool to say you’ve camped at Horseshoe Bend, we’d recommend the campsites at miles 8 or 11 if you want to avoid some of the crowds and the ensuing search for a good camping spot.

view from the other side of the classic Horseshoe Bend viewpoint

Mile 8: Campsite

Just around Horseshoe Bend is the mile 8 campsite. This is probably the second most popular campsite, but is less crowded than the site at Horseshoe Bend. If you choose to camp here, you are close enough to Horseshoe Bend that you could set up camp and kayak back up river a bit to explore the bend further. 

Mile 6: Campsite

The last campsite before Lee’s Ferry is located at mile 6. Once again, because of its distance from Horseshoe Bend, this campsite tends to be less popular. 

Mile 4: Waterholes Canyon Hike

At mile 4, you can dock your kayak at the beach to the left hand side of the river and embark on a short 1.5 mile round trip hike up Waterholes Canyon. Perhaps we were just tired and sunburnt by this time, but we found Waterholes Canyon to be somewhat underwhelming. It simply can’t compare to the beauty of Horseshoe Bend and the Colorado River canyon. That being said, the hike is a nice break from paddling and worth exploring if you have the time.

Waterholes Canyon Hike

Mile 0: Return to Lee’s Ferry

After Waterholes Canyon, continue for another 4 miles until you arrive back at Lee’s Ferry. By this point, you’re going  to be hot, tired, and ready to be back at your car.  But don’t forget to soak up your last few minutes in this beautiful canyon!

We want to hear from you! Questions about how to kayak Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River? Tell us your favorite kayaking trip below!

Other useful resources

Below we’ve compiled a few other resources on great things to do in the southern Utah – northern Arizona area near Page and Kanab:

For all things Utah: Utah Travel Guide

Which Utah slot canyon would you add to our list? Questions about visiting any of the slot canyons on the list? Let us know in the comments below!

4 Comments on “How to Kayak Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River

  1. Wow! Love it. Did you bring a tent or just a tarp to sleep on? Planning to go with my 6-yr old, but realize there won’t be room to pack a whole bunch. Any advice?

    • Hi! We brought our small backpacking tent, and had no trouble fitting it in the kayak. You definitely want to pack lightly, but you should be able to bring a tent as long as you stick to the necessities. It can get quite buggy out there along the river, so you’d probably be more comfortable with a tent than just a tarp. Hope you have a great trip, it’s such a beautiful spot!

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