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Best Kayaking In Arizona – 17 Places You Need To Paddle

If you are looking for the best kayaking in Arizona, you are in luck. This post will share some of the best spots to launch your kayak in the desert.  In case you are wondering, yes, there are plenty of great places to kayak in Arizona.

From rivers to urban lakes, there are a lot of unique places to kayak in Arizona. These destinations are not ranked in any particular order, but rather information about some best places to kayak in Arizona.  If your favorite spot is not listed here, please let me know!

Canyon Lake

Canyon Lake is very aptly named as it is surrounded by stunning rock walls. The lake is absolutely gorgeous. Make sure you have a fully charged cell phone to take lots of pictures.  You might even see Big Horn Sheep traversing along the canyon walls.

There are day-use sites with easy access to the water. You can launch your kayak right from the beach; it’s super easy.  Boulder Creek Recreation site, west of the marina, offers a no boating (motorboats) area, which is incredible for paddling.

Canyon Lake does get really busy (and really hot) in the summer.  Get there early to beat the heat and snag a parking spot.  A Tonto Pass is also required, so be prepared. Also, read the parking signs. I once saw a guy get a sizeable ticket for parking a trailer in a no trailer parking area.

If you are looking for a great place to kayak in Arizona, be sure to check out Canyon Lake.

Saguaro Lake

Named after the famous cactus, Saguaro Lake is a gorgeous desert lake.  It’s not a far drive from Phoenix, but it does get hectic in the summer.  The lake itself offers amenities, including picnic tables, restrooms, marina, and boat ramps.

An excellent spot to launch your kayak is Butcher Jones Recreation Area, a few miles north of the marina.  Unfortunately, fires in the summer of 2020 have this area closed until spring 2021.  Just another reason 2020 can’t get over soon enough!

It’s hot in the summer, so make sure you are prepared with plenty of water and sunblock. It is very refreshing to get out of your kayak and take a dip now and then.

You will need a Tonto National Forest pass to park at the lake.  You can pick up a pass at the main gate or many other locations in the metro Phoenix area.

Woods Canyon Lake

Located on the Mogollon Rim, or simply “the rim,” Woods Canyon Lake is a small but popular lake.  At an elevation of 7,500+ feet, this is a trendy spot to get out of the summer heat.

The lake is easily accessible and is located about 30 miles east of Payson, Arizona.  It’s about a two-hour drive from Phoenix.  The lake is a popular fishing spot and tends to get crowded in the summer months.

The setting is beautiful, with dense forest all around the lake, not necessarily what you expect to see in Arizona. Woods Canyon Lake is a small lake perfect for kayaking.

Lower Salt River

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The Lower Salt River is a great place to paddle and see some fantastic wildlife. The big attraction is the wild horses. For a glimpse at these beauties, the best times to kayak are early morning or later in the evening.

The best time of year to kayak the Lower Salt River is mid-May through mid-October as the water flow is regulated.  You can undoubtedly paddle during other times of the year, but it’s advisable to check the flow and water level before heading out. 

For the most part, the river is pretty tame, but there are areas where you need to be careful. The run from Water Users Recreation Site to Granite Reef (the last place to pull out) will take about half a day.

Be wary in the summer months as the river turns into a giant party. You may run into mobs of party-going tubers. But don’t let that stop you.  Arrive early to get a parking spot (you will need a Tonto Pass) and avoid the rush.

Lake Havasu (area)

Known as a spring break haven, there are also plenty of great places to kayak on and around Lake Havasu.  Topock Gorge and Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge are a couple of great places to explore. The north end of Lake Havasu has a designated kayak and canoe launch site.

Site Six (marina and boat launch) to Parker Dam is an excellent stretch to paddle. You can find opportunities for camping along the way too. Watch out for boat traffic. The offseason is best.

Lake Havasu gets extremely hot in the summer, so plan your trip accordingly.  If you go in the summer, get out early, wear appropriate clothing, and take plenty of water.

Tempe Town Lake

Best kayaking in Arizona Tempe Town LakePin

Conveniently located, Tempe Town Lake is easy to access from almost anywhere in the metro Phoenix area.  The lake is located right by Arizona State University. This is urban paddling at its finest. 

Launching is easy. There is a boat ramp on the north side of the lake, a short distance from the parking lot.  There are many paddling activities, including kayaking, SUPing, canoeing, rowing, sailing, etc.

You can rent equipment at the lake, or bring your own.  Due to its location, the lake does tend to get busy at times. All watercraft need a permit to use the lake. Tempe Town Lake is one of the best places to kayak in the metro area.

Emerald Cove

Emerald Cover (or Cave as it’s sometimes called) is a jewel of the Southwest. Emerald Cove gets its name from the green glow that reflects when the sunlight hits the water just right.  

It’s a small spot on the Colorado River south of Hoover Dam.  Willow Beach Marina is the closest place to launch your kayak and access Emerald Cove. You don’t need a permit to paddle the river. Willow Beach is part of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, so you will need a permit if you launch from there. 

If you are up for the 4-hour drive from Phoenix, it’s worth it.  From the Las Vegas area, it’s about 60 miles. Because the weather can get scorching, the best times to visit are March-April or October-November.

The best days to paddle to Emerald Cove are Sundays and Mondays. Powerboats are not allowed on the river between Hoover Dam and Willow Beach these days. Emerald Cove is a paddler’s dream and offers some of the best kayaking in Arizona.

Bartlett Lake

It’s an easy drive from the Phoenix area to Bartlett Lake. Bartlett is one of the largest lakes to call the east valley home. There is plenty of space to paddle on the 2,800+ acre lake.

There is plenty of wildlife to see, including javelina, maybe a coyote or two, and even bald eagles. Indigenous desert plants, including saguaros (an Arizona favorite) and ocotillos, are everywhere.

There are plenty of beaches on the lake to pull your kayak over and enjoy the desert scenery while you eat lunch.

Watson Lake

Watson Lake is located a few miles from downtown Prescott, Arizona.  This is about an hour and a half to two hours’ drive north of the Phoenix area.

This beautiful lake is surrounded by granite boulders, but it’s easy to get on the water with your kayak.  This is a popular getaway for many people who live in the Phoenix area to escape the summer heat.

There are many other activities at Watson Lake, including fishing, hiking, and rock climbing, to name a few.  The rock formations are what define this lake, and it’s a stunning place to kayak.

Blue Ridge Reservoir

Blue Ridge Reservoir is located about halfway between Flagstaff and Payson. From the Phoenix area, it’s about a 3-hour drive to this breathtaking lake.  Tucked in a dense forest, this is one of the most beautiful lakes in Arizona.

At 6,700 feet, Blue Ridge Reservoir is a great escape from the summer heat of the desert.  You can enjoy a day kayaking on the lake without powerboats making waves.  The season is open, weather permitting, but it’s closed during the winter.

There is a boat ramp, which makes it easy to access the lake. This is another lake that will make you wonder if you are actually in the state of Arizona. Blue Ridge Reservoir is one of the best places to kayak in Arizona.

Knoll Lake

Knoll Lake is another lake on the Mogollon Rim.  This out of the way lake is tucked deep in the wilderness.  It’s about a two and a half to three-hour drive from Phoenix. 

Getting there can be challenging since there are about 20 miles of dirt road to travel.  The road is well maintained; it just takes a little getting used to. Knoll Lake is surrounded by forest, and it’s a beautiful lake for kayaking.

There is a boat ramp, but when the water level is low, it is difficult to get on the water.  There is camping nearby, so it’s easy to make a weekend of it. Fishing can be excellent in the spring as well. The wind can pick up, making it tough to paddle, though.

Verde River

The Verde River offers some of the best kayaking in Arizona.  This is a local favorite. In addition to kayaking, you can take a hike; do some fishing or bird watching. 

The river flows at a pretty reasonable pace, but you will want to check before heading out. River conditions can change quickly, especially in the summer when monsoons roll through.

The section from White Bridge to Beasley Flat is a well-traveled part of the river.  It’s suitable for many different skill levels.  Plan on about a two-hour drive from the Phoenix area.

Willow Springs Lake

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Another lake on the Mogollon Rim, Willow Springs, is located about 2 hours northeast of Phoenix. Willow Springs Lake is just down the road from Woods Canyon Lake.  It’s a beautiful retreat from the brutal summer temperatures in the Valley of the Sun.

The lake is easy to access, and you can see all kinds of wildlife, including bald eagles.  Fishing from shore at Willow Springs Lake can be shoulder to shoulder, so it’s nice to take a kayak. 

Willow Springs is a beautiful lake to kayak on, and it has many fingers you can explore.  There is plenty of parking and camping nearby for a fun weekend.

Lake Pleasant

Another metro lake that is a very popular kayaking spot is Lake Pleasant. The lake is conveniently located about an hour from downtown Phoenix. 

Get there early for parking on the water, which is great for dropping your kayak in the lake.  There is plenty of open water and large coves. On the weekends, Lake Pleasant can get really busy, but it’s a big lake.

Apache Lake

Apache Lake is an excellent option for fishing, kayaking, and exploring.  The lake is about 65 northeast of Phoenix. There are several coves to explore with your kayak and see wildlife including, javelina and big horn sheep.

Apache Lake is located between Roosevelt Lake and Canyon Lake.  It’s a little less traveled than some of the other lakes in the region because it’s harder to get to. The drive is a bit of an adventure, as you travel partway over a dirt road with some hairpin turns.

Apache Lake is a great place to kayak in Arizona if you are up for the road less traveled.

Roosevelt Lake

Roosevelt is a vast lake with lots of wide-open space for a good paddle. At one time, Roosevelt was the largest man-made lake in the world. The drive is lengthy, about two hours from Phoenix. A great spot to launch your kayak is from the Cholla Boat ramp.

Roosevelt is a popular fishing spot, so you can try your hand at kayak fishing. One thing to watch out for is the lake level as water is released at times through the dam.  Also, the wind can be rough at times. 

If you are up for a beautiful drive, Roosevelt Lake is a great place to launch your kayak for the day.

Big Lake

Located at approximately 9,000 feet above sea level, Big Lake is an Arizona wonder.  Located in the White Mountains, it’s about 4 hours from Phoenix.  Big Lake is a popular spot for fishermen.

The name is a little deceiving in that it’s only about 500 acres with an average depth of about 16 feet.  Big Lake is a great summer getaway, but access is restricted during the winter.

The wind can make for harsh paddling conditions at times, but otherwise, it’s a great spot to kayak in Arizona.

What to watch for

Water flow

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When kayaking in Arizona, you will want to pay attention to the water flow. Water flow on rivers like the Verde and Lower Salt can vary significantly throughout the year.  It’s always a good idea to check the conditions before you head out.

Be wary of large lakes

The big lakes in Arizona get really busy in the summer. There are powerboats to contend with.  Even if you get an early start, you can run into a lot of boating traffic on the weekends. Weekdays are best, and the earlier, the better.

The water can get pretty choppy with speed boats, jet skis, waterskiing, etc.  Make sure you plan for the best time to be on the water.

Parking permit

Parking permits are required at many kayaking spots in Arizona.  Make sure you have the proper permit to avoid getting a parking ticket.

Weather can change quickly

Summertime in Arizona brings monsoon storms, with high winds and rain.  You always have to be prepared when you are on the water, whether it’s a river or a lake. Your kayak can get blown over if you are not careful.

Check the weather forecast before you head out so you can dress appropriately and potentially be off the water before a storm hits. On the other hand, storms can come up seemingly from nowhere. So be prepared with a life jacket and other essentials when you are kayaking.

Conclusion

If you are looking for the best kayaking in Arizona, you have a lot of choices. There are many great spots to launch your boat and have a fun day or even a weekend. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

Steve Morrow Founder of Paddle About
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve is an avid kayaker and founder of Paddle About. When he is not on the water, Steve enjoys outdoor activities, including fishing, camping, and hiking with his family. Read more.