Arizona may best be known for its desert landscapes, golf courses, year-round activities, cities like Phoenix and Tucson — and,…
Arizona may best be known for its desert landscapes, golf courses, year-round activities, cities like Phoenix and Tucson — and, of course, the Grand Canyon — but there are also five major rivers and 128 lakes to explore. There are only two natural lakes in the state, so the rest of these Arizona bodies of water are artificial, or reservoirs, created by dams built on rivers or streams. Some of them sit at higher elevations situated in pine forests and there are even Arizona cities with lakes making them a true desert oasis. The state is also home to the largest artificial lake in the United States, Lake Mead, which straddles the border between Arizona and Nevada. And while these lakes are known for boating, fishing and other outdoor activities, they also have another purpose: They help preserve water during times of drought in this extreme dry climate.
So, if you’re ready for outdoor lakeside fun and adventure this year and want to head west, then consider planning a trip to one of these top lakes in Arizona. Depending on the activities and accommodations available, you’re sure to find a perfect lakeside escape at one of the best lakes in Arizona. (Note: The lakes fluctuate in size and depth, depending on the time of year and the climate, so it’s best to check on the current conditions before you book your vacation.)
Located approximately 205 miles north of Flagstaff in northern Arizona and on the Colorado River, stretching up into southern Utah, Lake Powell is the second-largest artificial reservoir in the U.S. Formed by the flooding of Glen Canyon by the Glen Canyon Dam, this area is a thriving summer destination, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The lake has nearly 2,000 miles of total shoreline with depths of up to 532 feet and is surrounded by the otherworldly landscapes of red rocks and other rock formations. Boating, kayaking, wakeboarding, fishing and water skiing are just a few activities to enjoy. What’s more, on-site equipment rentals are available. You can also go horseback riding and take an excursion to visit Rainbow Bridge National Monument, one of the largest natural bridges in the world at 290 feet tall and 275 feet wide. The tour departs from Wahweap Marina and includes a 50-mile cruise along Lake Powell and a hike of just over a mile to reach the bridge. And stargazers will appreciate that Rainbow Bridge is a designated Dark Sky Sanctuary. For accommodations, houseboats are a popular option to rent, and there is a wide selection to choose from, with some as long as 75 feet. You can also opt to camp by the lake or in a recreational vehicle. If you prefer the creature comforts of a hotel, reserve a room at Lake Powell Resort at the south end of the lake. The property features two restaurants, marina and lake access, two swimming pools, fire pits, a fitness center and more.
Lake Havasu City, known as “Arizona’s West Coast,” sits on part of the western and northern limits of the Sonoran Desert, approximately 195 miles northwest of Phoenix. Lake Havasu is a year-round vacation spot with 300 days of sunshine, 400 miles of coastline, 60 miles of waterways and white sand beaches. Anglers will appreciate the excellent fishing as Lake Havasu is known as one of the best lakes for bass fishing in the U.S. You can also rent a wide variety of water sports equipment, including pontoon, ski and wake boarding boats, water skis, stand-up paddleboards and kayaks. Another top attraction is the historic London Bridge. The city’s founder, Robert McCulloch Sr., purchased the bridge from the city of London in 1968. After three years of reconstruction, it opened in Lake Havasu City in 1971 providing access to an island that’s home to The Nautical Beachfront Resort, the only property located on the beach. Other accommodation options include The London Bridge Resort along the lake. You can also rent a houseboat, book a cabin in Lake Havasu State Park or camp under the stars at a campsite.
Tempe Town Lake
Tempe Town Lake is adjacent to downtown Tempe in the heart of the Phoenix metropolitan area. This 2-mile urban oasis, and one of the Arizona cities with lakes, offers recreational activities for all ages, including kayaking, sailing, paddleboarding and rowing, and there are 5 miles of pathways for roller skating or jogging. You can even rent donut, pontoon and pedal boats or surrey bikes for even more family or group fun. After a day on the lake, head over to Mill Avenue where you’ll find plenty of shops and restaurants. If you prefer more active pursuits, take a hike up to the top of Hayden Butte, known as “A” Mountain, for incredible views of Tempe and the surrounding Phoenix area. The AC Hotel Phoenix Tempe/Downtown is an excellent choice for your stay. The hotel is situated along the lake, near Arizona State University and the Desert Financial Area, and offers views of downtown from its rooftop pool.
Watson Lake is one of five lakes in the Prescott area. The blue water lake sits just 4 miles from downtown and is surrounded by hiking trails and granite boulders. At approximately 5,100 feet elevation, the lake is the perfect respite from the desert heat at lower elevations. Located within one of the largest ponderosa pine forests in the U.S., Prescott boasts landscapes with lakes, streams, rolling meadows and granite mountains. There are plenty of activities to enjoy on the water like fishing, boating and canoeing, but you can also go rock climbing and hiking around the lake. You can even take a full moon kayaking excursion in the warmer months. Before you plan your visit, you should know that swimming in the lake is not permitted (due to not meeting the state’s water quality standard for swimming). Camping is available only in the summer months and there are restrooms, picnic tables, barbecue grills and other facilities. If you prefer to sleep indoors, make a reservation at The Motor Lodge. This quirky property has been in service since 1937 with more than 70 owners and many renovations. Today, it’s a 13-room boutique motel situated just three blocks from Courthouse Square and Whisky Row.
Situated approximately 50 miles northeast of Phoenix, Canyon Lake is one of the four reservoirs formed by the damming of Arizona’s Salt River in 1925 and one of several lakes near Phoenix. The 900-acre lake sits along the Apache Scenic Byway (Arizona State Route 88), which was once an Apache tribal route. Over the years, it became a road used primarily by miners and cowboys. Rental canoes, kayaks, runabouts (small motor boats) and Jet Skis are available at Canyon Lake Marina and Campground. Anglers will want to come to catch rainbow trout (when it’s stocked between November and March), along with fish species like walleye, crappie, catfish and smallmouth bass. And for campers, the waterfront tent sites offer some of the best lake camping in Arizona with showers, restrooms and a swimming area. For an outing on land, follow the Apache Scenic Byway to Tortilla Flat. Located in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, in the Superstition Mountain Range, this authentic old western town is a step back in time. While there, enjoy a cold sarsaparilla or a local brew at Superstition Saloon, pick up a few Southwestern-inspired souvenirs and then grab a prickly pear gelato at the Tortilla Flat General Store.
Apache Lake is another one of the four reservoirs created along the Salt River in Central Arizona, and it’s the second-largest behind Lake Roosevelt. It has a surface area of 2,568 acres and is 17 miles in length. Located approximately 65 miles northeast of Phoenix, it sits about 5 miles downstream from Lake Roosevelt and upstream from the Canyon and Saguaro lakes. The scenery of this remote destination is dramatic, surrounded by the Three Bar Wildlife Enclosure and Superstition Wilderness Area, and the only way to arrive is by an 11-mile dirt road from the Roosevelt Dam. Once you’re there, you can spend days wakeboarding, wakesurfing, water skiing or boating on crystal clear calm waters. Rentals are available at the marina. It’s not easy to make a quick run out for supplies, so bring everything you’ll need if you’re camping in an RV or trailer. You can also book lakeside rooms in motel-style accommodations at the Apache Lake Marina & Resort. Some of the rooms have a small kitchen area, and there’s also an on-site bar and grill.
Situated approximately 40 miles northeast of Phoenix, Saguaro Lake is the fourth reservoir built on the Salt River with the completion of the Stewart Mountain Dam in 1930. The lake has 22 miles of shoreline and stretches 10 miles long. Popular activities include renting runabouts and pontoon boats or going sailing, Jet Skiing, kayaking, fishing and camping. If you prefer to sit back and let someone else steer the boat, then take a Desert Belle Cruise around the lake. The company offers daily narrated cruises where you’ll learn about the local wildlife, geography and geology of the Sonoran Desert. The cruise also has live music on weekends and operates seasonal wine and craft beer excursions from October to June. For a room with a view, make reservations at the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch. This picturesque property features 20 rustic cabins nestled along the banks of the Salt River with the Bulldog Cliffs as the backdrop.
Lake Mead sits in both Arizona and Nevada on the Colorado River, approximately 25 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Formed by the construction of Hoover Dam, it’s the largest artificial lake in the U.S. at more than 100 miles long, 532 feet deep and covering nearly 250 square surface miles. Lake Mead is also located in the nation’s first and largest national recreation area. The entire area has an astounding 1.5 million acres of mountains, red rocks, valleys and canyons and two large lakes — Lake Mead and Lake Mohave — and there are nine wilderness areas. The striking scenery includes vibrant turquoise waters, 750 miles of shoreline and the surrounding mountains and landscape. Year-round visitors come for the fishing, hiking, swimming, boating, cycling and stargazing in search of the Milky Way. You also might want to take a guided tour of the Hoover Dam during your visit. For overnight stays, there are 15 different locations with more than 900 camping and RV sites offering a variety of settings. The sites have restrooms, picnic tables, running water, grills and other amenities. You can also opt for hotel accommodations at the Hoover Dam Lodge Hotel & Casino across the state border in Boulder City, Nevada.
Located in Tonto National Forest, Bartlett Lake offers outdoor enthusiasts a surface area of 2,815 acres of water sports, boating and fishing. With the close proximity to Phoenix — about a 60-mile drive north of downtown — you can opt to visit for a day or plan an extended getaway while in the city. This was the first reservoir built on Verde River. Known for its pristine waters, Bartlett Lake has been described in legends of Native American tribes from the valley as “sweet water.” Wildlife viewing is part of the lake experience, so watch for javelina (boar-like animals), mule deer, bald eagles and coyotes. There is also an abundance of desert plant life with mesquite trees, saguaro cactus and blooming ocotillo. If you visit in the springtime, look for the plentiful displays of wildflowers that blossom after the area’s wet winters. If your getaway is for a minimum of two nights, and you’re looking for unique accommodations, reserve one of two 40-foot floating cabins moored on the lake from Aqua Lodge. If you want to splurge on a stay at a luxury property not far from the lake, the acclaimed Boulders Resort & Spa is 22 miles west in Scottsdale.
Peoria is home to Lake Pleasant Regional Park, one of the top recreational areas in the state. Part of the popularity is that it’s close to Phoenix, 43 miles north of the city, but the park is also a beautiful oasis boasting 23,000 acres of water and pristine desert scenery. In addition to the usual lake activities departing from Pleasant Harbor Marina or Scorpion Bay Marina, such as boating, fishing, kayaking and Jet Skiing, visitors to Lake Pleasant can also go scuba diving, spend evenings stargazing and try the local pastime of moonlight scorpion hunting. For another land-based activity, Betty’s Trail Rides offers guided one-, two- and three-hour and half-day horseback rides in the desert. On the two-hour ride you’ll have incredible views of Hells Canyon Wilderness Area, and on longer rides, you can look for local wildlife including foxes, coyotes, javelina and maybe even a bobcat. There are several campsites for tents and RVs with restroom and shower facilities where you can see those famous fiery Arizona sunsets and spend nights under the starry sky.
Patagonia Lake State Park is nestled in the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona, 11 miles from the town of Nogales, which sits along the Mexican border. The 265-acre artificial lake is 2 ½ miles long. It’s not as large as other lakes in the state, but it’s still a scenic destination with its blue waters surrounded by rugged desert hillsides covered in cacti and yucca. Boating, fishing, hiking and bird-watching are a few of the top activities, with trout fishing at its best between October and March. You can relax on the beach and enjoy a leisurely picnic lunch where you might see great blue herons or catch a glimpse of white tail deer up in the hills. The park also hosts boat tours to learn about the area and the native birds, and guided birding walks are also available. If you want to spend the night at Patagonia Lake, rental cabins are an option, or you can camp on one of the 105 developed campsites that offer picnic tables, grills and parking.
Situated at 9,000 feet elevation in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in east-central Arizona, Big Lake is known as one of the best fishing lakes in Arizona’s White Mountains. Access to the park is restricted in the winter months, typically from December to early April, but springtime brings excellent fishing conditions and summer is the best time for anglers to visit. The State of Arizona stocks the lake with primarily rainbow, brook, cutthroat and brown throat, and sometimes the state fish, Apache trout. The 575-acre lake also offers hiking and mountain biking trails, wildlife viewing and more than 200 camping sites. There’s also a small store that rents boats and sells limited supplies and fishing licenses.
Roosevelt Lake is Central Arizona’s largest lake with approximately 21,500 surface acres of water. The setting is beautiful with 128 miles of shoreline and sparkling blue water, surrounded by Arizona’s red rocks. This lake was also part of the Salt River Project and was formed in 1911 when the Theodore Roosevelt Dam was completed. The marina offers daily or package rentals for pontoon or ski boats, and accessories for lake time fun like water skis, kneeboards, tubes and wakeboards. And anglers will enjoy the opportunity to catch crappie, carp, sunfish and smallmouth and largemouth bass. When it’s time to relax, the marina has an open-air bar serving casual fare and cold beverages, and on some weekends, it hosts live music or karaoke. The on-site RV campground has spaces for RVs, trailers and tents with concrete pads, full hookups and restrooms close by. Another option for lodging is Roosevelt Lake Resort in the Tonto National Forest. This property offers cabin accommodations with full bathrooms and kitchenettes or motel-style rooms. If you don’t have a kitchen, or don’t want to cook, check out the on-site restaurant, which serves hearty breakfasts, dine-in or carry-out lunches for days on the lake and casual bites for dinner.
Stoneman Lake is one of the few natural lakes in Arizona, and it’s located approximately 45 miles south of Flagstaff in the Coconino National Forest. The lake is small and shallow with a surface area of less than 100 acres and a depth of less than 10 feet. However, this all depends on the rainfall and local conditions and sometimes the lake dries up completely. There is a debate over whether the lake was a collapsed sinkhole or if it’s the remains of a volcanic crater, as it sits at the bottom of a bowl-shaped valley, but most experts agree that it was likely a sinkhole. Surrounded by ponderosa pine-covered basalt slopes and Gambel oak, the lake provides excellent migratory bird-watching and a scenic spot for a picnic lunch. The natural spring-fed lake and surrounding area also offer opportunities for wildflower viewing, hiking and fishing, depending on the season and drought conditions. There are no on-site campgrounds, so your best lodging options will be in Flagstaff where you’ll find a variety of chain hotels, lodges and camping sites.
Chevelon Canyon Lake
Located approximately 15 miles west of the town of Heber-Overgaard in northern Arizona, Chevelon Canyon Lake sits at an elevation of 6,300 feet. It’s a smaller reservoir with a surface area of 208 acres, and it’s narrow, with an average depth of 35 feet. The lake area is a remote destination with a 3/4-mile steep hike to reach its shores, but it’s worth the view — and the trout fishing opportunities — once you arrive. The lake is a popular spot for float-tubers as you need to carry your boat or tube in with you on the hike in. The lake also has strict regulations on trout fishing and leaving your boat or tube on the lake at night, so it’s best review the guidelines and rules before you go. Amenities are limited to primitive campsites at the lake, so check out the WorldMark Bison Ranch in Overgaard for accommodations. The exterior of the property is reminiscent of an old-fashioned western town, but there are modern amenities like pools, a spa tub and a fitness center.
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