It’s not a mirage. In the heart of Phoenix’s arid desert landscape, sunlight dances on serene silvery waters of Tempe Town Lake. The desert breeze catches boats’ towering white sails as they drift lazily across the sparkling waters of the two-mile-long lake. Members of a rowing team rhythmically plunge their oars into the lake that spans a stunning cityscape of sleek condominium high-rises and the historic Mill Avenue Bridge. No one could have guessed that Tempe Town Lake would one day become a national mecca for rowers, named one of the country’s best rowing communities by The Rower’s Almanac.
That’s just one of many surprises about Arizona water sports, which sounds about as unlikely as growing a cactus garden in Minneapolis. But the truth is, there are many great lakes and rivers here that will really float your boat. Here’s just a sampling:
Verde River kayaking guarantees adventure along a 170-mile-long waterway that offers recreational boaters everything from tranquil pools and manageable riffles to thrilling whitewater runs during the spring snowmelt or after late summer thunderstorms. The Verde flows south from its headwaters north of Prescott through three national forests with flora and fauna that characterize the Sonoran Desert: exotic cacti perched on canyon walls, springtime desert wildflowers, bald eagles soaring blue skies overhead. Boats besides kayaks also ply the Verde, the only federally designated Wild and Scenic River in Arizona. Options include rafting or exploring the waterway in a canoe.
Looking for other Arizona kayaking adventures? Consider the tranquil waters of Watson Lake, which mirror the striking rock formations of Granite Dells outside of Prescott; 186-mile-long Lake Powell near the Arizona-Utah border, with 96 enticing side canyons ripe for exploring amidst red-gold peaks and buttes; or Lake Mead, tucked away in the northwestern corner of the state.
A leisurely float down the Lower Salt River aboard an inner tube is a favorite recreational getaway for Valley of the Sun do-it-yourselfers with their own tubes and two cars — one at each point of the 12-mile waterway that meanders through the southern part of Tonto National Forest, past rugged canyons, towering cliffs and iconic saguaros. For an Arizona west coast adventure, consider wiling away a sun-drenched day tubing the Lower Colorado River outside of Yuma.
Winter rain and snowmelt gushes down from the White Mountains, crashes against boulders and forms a churning froth known as white-water rapids on the Upper Salt River, which offers a white-knuckle adventure (some of the only Class III and IV rapids in the state) that is best left in the capable hands of commercial rafters and professional guides. It’s a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of rapids with descriptive names like Corkscrew, Eye of the Needle, and Pinball. Guides report this is one of the best seasons in recent memory, thanks to generous snowmelt from the White Mountains. Reservations are a must; offerings range from half-day trips and up to five-day trips.
Crisp white sails, dazzling sun and azure skies. It’s no wonder that the aptly named Lake Pleasant, with its 50 miles of shoreline and 10,000 acres of shimmering water, is such a magnet for water sports enthusiasts. Located just 30 miles north of Phoenix within the city limits of Peoria, Lake Pleasant provides an idyllic setting for sailing with cloudless skies, gentle desert breezes and crystal-blue water fed from the Agua Fria River. Meanwhile, Tempe Town Lake provides another enticing option for sailing enthusiasts.