Magazine article Sunset

Dip into Desert Lakes

Magazine article Sunset

Dip into Desert Lakes

Article excerpt

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

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.

Touring lake country

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 lor 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 2½-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. …

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