Even in dry times, Arizona has plenty of water to play in

Nora Burba Trulsson  – September 14, 2004

The warm spring sun and the lapping motion of the water gradually lull you into a meditative state as the Dolly Steamboat chugs up a narrow channel in turquoise green Canyon Lake. Lichen-covered cliff walls rise straight up from the banks. A heron swoops low to the surface. The cliffs flatten out farther up the channel, and you snap out of your reverie when the boat startles some bighorn sheep, interrupting their midday trek to the watering hole. And you realize that this desert lake is a gift, a luxury for man and beast alike, particularly in this time of ongoing drought.

Canyon Lake is one of four sizable lakes along the Salt River east of metro Phoenix that provide water―and watery recreation―for desert denizens. During the warm spring months, the reservoirs become magnets for boaters, swimmers, and picnickers.

The lakes weren’t originally created with recreation in mind. In 1911 the Bureau of Reclamation built the vast Theodore Roosevelt Dam in a steep canyon between the Superstition and Mazatzal Mountains near the confluence of the Salt River and Tonto Creek, forming 22-mile-long Roosevelt Lake. The dam’s purpose was to control the water supply for agriculture near Phoenix, as were three more downstream dams constructed during the next 20 years. Those dams formed Apache, Canyon, and Saguaro Lakes, creating a lake district vast and diverse enough to support both the urban area’s subsequent growth and recreation ranging from solitary kayaking and bass fishing to full-throttle powerboating.

And yes, there’s plenty of water in the lakes, despite the drought. The Salt River Project, which controls the lake levels, keeps the lower lakes―Saguaro, Canyon, and Apache―at full capacity year-round. Roosevelt’s water levels do fluctuate: This spring, the reservoir is at about 35 percent capacity. But even at that level, it’s still bigger than the three other lakes combined and is deep enough for boating. 


That said, the best way to visit the lakes is to be on them―or in them. All four have marinas that offer a variety of boat rentals, including waterskiing packages. Anglers like to get out early or late in the day for bass, walleye, or crappie. Tour boats like the Dolly Steamboat cruise the remote reaches of Saguaro and Canyon Lakes, both of which are about 10 miles long. The cruises offer opportunities to spot not only herons and bighorn sheep but also bald eagles and mule deer.

The headwaters of the Salt River are in the snowpacked reaches of White Mountain in eastern Arizona, but by April or May, the lakes’ water temperatures have warmed enough to warrant dipping or lazy bobbing on inner tubes. The best swimming sites are at Butcher Jones Beach on Saguaro Lake and Canyon Lake’s Acacia picnic grounds. At Apache and Roosevelt Lakes, the best sites are sandy coves, accessible by boat.

The lakes don’t offer much in the way of scenic lakeshore trails for hiking enthusiasts. One notable exception: a 2 1/2-mile-long (one-way) path that leaves Butcher Jones Beach and skirts along Saguaro Lake’s edge and through the desert. And Roosevelt and Canyon Lakes both offer limited hikes.

The lack of shoreline trails does not seem to be a big issue with overheated visitors. After all, it’s not a bad thing to sit a spell and allow the simple beauty of wavelets lapping on the desert shore to lull you into a meditative mode. 


If you keep stops brief, you can view the entire lake district in one full day’s drive. Start out heading north from Apache Junction on State 88, which, from here to State 188, is also known as the Apache Trail, a scenic drive that twists through canyons and mountains. Wind past 10-mile-long Canyon Lake, and if you’re not picnicking, stop for chili or burgers at the eponymous restaurant in Tortilla Flat, once a stop for the dam’s supply wagons and now an unabashedly fun tourist attraction. Continuing northeast from Tortilla Flat, where State 88 becomes an unpaved road, you’ll pass narrow, 17-mile-long Apache Lake before coming upon the looming vision of Theodore Roosevelt Dam. Roosevelt Lake stretches out in the rolling desert hills to the north. Head to Saguaro Lake, also 10 miles long, and metro Phoenix via State 188, then State 87. If you time things right, you’ll make Saguaro Lake close to sunset. Find a beach site, picnic table, or parking spot, then watch the late light color the distant cliffs a fiery orange and the lake a silver blue.

Go weekdays to avoid crowds. This area is remote; get gas and supplies before leaving town. All services at each lake are located at the marina unless noted.

COST: $4 per vehicle for developed picnic areas, from $10 per day for camping at Roosevelt and Apache Lakes’ campgrounds.

CONTACT: Apache and Roosevelt Lakes (928/467-3200); Canyon and Saguaro Lakes (www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto or 480/610-3300) 

51 miles east of Phoenix.

  • Canyon Lake Marina. Choose from kayaks, fishing and ski boats, and more. Boat rentals from $10 per hour. www.precisionmarine.biz or 480/986-0969.
  • Dolly Steamboat tours. 12 and 2 daily; $16. www.dollysteamboat.com or 480/827-9144.
  • Lakeside Restaurant & Cantina. $$; lunch daily, breakfast and dinner Sat–Sun. 480/288-8290.
  • Tortilla Flat. $; breakfast, lunch, and early dinner daily. Two miles east of Canyon Lake on State 88; 480/984-1776.


65 miles east of Phoenix.


  • Apache Lake Marina and Resort. At the marina, choose between fishing and pontoon boats to rent (open daily; rentals from $10 per hour). The accommodations are motel-style and basic (from $65; two-night minimum on weekends and holidays); get burgers and sandwiches at the restaurant ($; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily). 928/467-2511.


80 miles east of Phoenix.


  • Roosevelt Lake Visitor Center. Museum details natural history and dam construction. 7:45–4:30 daily; free. Milepost 243, State 188; 928/467-3200.
  • Roosevelt Lake Marina. Rent fishing, pontoon, or ski boats. Rentals from $20 per hour (reservations required Mon–Thu). Milepost 243, State 188; www.azmarinas.com or 928/467-2245.


41 miles east of Phoenix.


  • Saguaro Lake Marina. Choose from fishing, pontoon, and ski boats. Rentals from $15 per hour. www.precisionmarine.biz or 480/986-0969.
  • Desert Belle Paddleboat Tours. 12:30 and 2:30 daily in Apr, 5 p.m. Sat–Sun May–Sep; $13. www.saguarolake.net or 480/984-2425.
  • Lakeshore Restaurant. $$; breakfast and lunch daily, dinner Wed–Sun. 480/984-5311.


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