Think Arizona is Just Desert? Think Again!

For most people, thoughts of Arizona evoke imagery of dry deserts and hot sands. While the Sonoran may reign supreme as the dominating element, hidden lakes and rivers dot Arizona’s landscape like sparkling gems. Next time you’re in The Grand Canyon State, be sure to plan extra time to explore these excellent paddle locations.

Please note, It’s also important to remember that water levels in these areas can be especially susceptible to change. Make sure to ask for local advice depending on the season, and as always wear a life jacket.

With that said, let’s jump right in and get paddling!

Saguaro Lake - Mesa AZ

It may be hard to picture the juxtaposition of calm waters and majestic cacti side by side, but here at Saguaro Lake, you really can have it all. Add in the fact that this area is just a short drive from Phoenix and you have one of the most popular areas for watersport recreation. The lake is situated within the Tonto National Forest and boasts over 22 miles of shoreline. Amenities include a restaurant, picnic tables, restrooms, and a boat ramp at the park marina. Locals suggest launching from Butcher Jones Recreation Area, a beach that is accessed by road a few short miles north of the marina. If you are lucky, you might also see some of the wild horses that live around the area and are known to visit the beach as well!

Lone Rock Canyon - Page AZ

Arguably one of the most recognizable and unforgettable paddle experiences in the state, Lone Rock Canyon is a must for any avid paddle enthusiast. Stunning views and peaceful waters are all around, and a multitude of beaches and access points makes it easy to get out on the water. Thrill seekers will love jumping from cliffs along the walls of the canyon, while chill seekers will love setting up shade on the beach and watching the world float by. If you are in the Page AZ area, don’t miss the chance to stop at Lone Rock and paddle around some of the finest waters the state has to offer.

Big Lake - Apache County AZ

If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, pack up your board and head to the hidden gem that is Big Lake. Located at an elevation of over 9,000 feet, this lake does not allow the use of gas engines which preserves the peacefulness and serenity of the water. This makes it a great place to start out if you are just learning, or to explore more in depth if you are an established expert. If you are inclined, you can also pack a fishing rod as the lake boasts a healthy population of trout. Load up and leave it all behind to enjoy the spectacular mountain and forest scenery that envelops Big Lake.

Lower Salt River - Mesa AZ

Photo credit: scottferrisphoto via flickr

Towering cliffs and vibrant vegetation surround you as you venture to the Lower Salt River. The gentle waters provide refreshment from the hot Arizona sun, and the slower pace of the river provides an exceptional opportunity for people of all levels to hone their skills. The river meanders through the Tonto National Forest so you can enjoy a long, comfortable ride while traveling through some of the finest scenery the state has to offer.

Upper Salt River - Mesa AZ

Photo credit: Richard Durnan via flickr

If you are looking for a more challenging paddling experience, the Upper portion of the Salt River may be just what you seek. Taking proper safety precautions, you can access portions of faster moving water and churning water that will get your adrenaline flowing along with the river. The initial part of this stretch is fascinating from a geological standpoint, boasting impressive rock formations that adorn the natural landscape. Remember to pack plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen, and other essentials to maximize your enjoyment!

Blue Ridge Reservoir - Flagstaff AZ

This scenic high-country lake is a favorite for paddlers of all kinds. Located between Flagstaff and Payson, and nestled at 6,700 feet elevation among lush forests and rolling peaks, you are sure to find plenty of liquid adventure here. The surrounding Coconino National Forest is home for various kinds of wildlife, and the narrow, deep lake is home to species of trout, green sunfish, and bullhead. Locals suggest fishing in the spring or early summer before temperatures rise. Once you are exhausted from your exploration and adventure, pitch a tent at one of the first-come, first-served campsites that surround the area, get a good night’s rest, and wake up early to do it all over again.

Lake Roosevelt - Gilbert AZ

This manmade lake was formed as part of the Salt River dam project and thus is typically full of tranquil water for most of the year. You can make a stop nearby in Gilbert to acquire whatever essentials you need, then embark for a trip onto the serene waters of Lake Roosevelt. The shape of the lake hides numerous features so you’ll have plenty of exploration to do as you cruise around. Locals suggest launching from the east side of the lake where the Schoolhouse Point boat ramp provides easy access. If ornithology is your thing, keep your eyes out as there is a vast population of birds in the area--it is common to see turkey vultures, yellow-headed blackbirds, great blue herons, osprey, and many others.

Woods Canyon Lake - Payson AZ

Although this lake is relatively smaller than the others on this list, it still provides an excellent opportunity for exploration and recreation. The lake stretches over approximately 55 acres and its shoreline is stacked with majestic pines, hearty bushes, and flowing grasses. There are also some rock formations of note dotted about the shoreline; a paddle board provides the perfect way to access these areas and study the natural splendor. We love the fact that the lake is pet-friendly so even our four legged friends can enjoy the water. In addition, this lake forbids the use of gasoline powered engines so you--and your pet--can enjoy the scenery in peace.

Black Canyon Water Trail - Willow Beach AZ

If you’re up for some serious adventure, this float is perfect for you. Designated a National Water Trail in 2014 by the Secretary of the Interior, this 30 mile stretch of the Colorado River passes by caves, coves, hot springs, wilderness areas, and open desert. It is not uncommon to see desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife along the cliffs, and historic structures from the time of the Hoover Dam construction are also visible along the way. The river can be accessed at the Hoover Dam, but take note: a permit is required and must be obtained prior to launch. Because of the security surrounding the Dam, as well as the uniqueness of the experience, the paddle is required to be done with an authorized vendor so you’ll need to check in first before heading out. It may take a little extra advance planning, but this is an incredible experience you won’t want to miss.

Bear Canyon Lake - Apache-Sitegraves National Forest AZ

This last place on our list is reserved for those who want to avoid the crowds and aren’t afraid to work a little extra to do so. Access to the 60 acre lake requires a short, fairly steep hike, which makes it ideal if you are looking to avoid the populus at the other lakes of the Mogollon Rim. Watercraft are permitted, but they must be carried in--making an inflatable paddle board the ideal way to get out and enjoy this area. Fishing is permitted and a primitive first-come first-served campground is nestled roughly a quarter mile from the lake. If you are seeking a more secluded getaway and aren’t afraid to earn it, this is the perfect place for you.

Although water can sometimes be in short supply in the desert, Arizona still holds some of the nation’s premiere natural and manmade waterways for recreation and adventure. From lakes to rivers to reservoirs, you will love experiencing the marvels of the desert while enjoying the comfort and convenience of inflatable paddle boards. With opportunities such as history, natural science, fishing, camping, and others, paddling Arizona is an experience as unforgettable as the colors of the desert sunset.

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