Rather than being a whole lotta beach without any ocean, the Sonoran Desert is dotted with oases, some natural and some man-made. There are not many land-locked states that can claim more than 1,600 kilometres of shoreline. Arizona can, easily. It is widely considered the world’s greenest desert for its abundance of naturally-occurring water.
Whitewater rafting and float trips are classic Arizona adventures. Snow runoff flows from the White Mountains into the Salt River in the early spring, creating great rafting conditions. The Colorado River as it flows through the Grand Canyon is legendary. Here, rafting assumes classic status on trips that can take from a single day to 19 days with hiking, camping and good food all part of the adventure. It’s possible to motor, oar or paddle, in a neoprene raft, hard-hulled dory or boat, depending on the desired degree of participation. Large motorized rafts in which guests just hang on can hold up to 15, plus food and gear. The Colorado is not a wimpy river. It is a stretch of wild whitewater that requires knowledgeable, experienced guides. However you do it, the experience is one of endless adventure, filled with American history, and scenery unrivaled anywhere in the world.
The Salt River north of Phoenix offers experiences that range from mellow to real high-class abuse. Among memorable moments is a challenging swirl called Maytag Rapids that leaves no doubt about the origins of its name. These usually are day trips with lunch included. For a more easy-going experience, a 13-kilometre stretch of the Gila River is a gentle float with frequent stops for swimming and picnicking.
One of Arizona’s busiest aquatic playgrounds is Lake Powell in the state’s far northern reaches, on the border with Utah. With the completion of Glen Canyon Dam, which corralled the Colorado River, Lake Powell was formed. Besides serving as a reservoir, the lake supplies endless opportunities for water sports.
Houseboating and Lake Powell were made for each other. The lake’s placid waters require a minimum of boating skills, and multiple families can rent one boat to accommodate all. Ski boats, wakeboards, personal watercraft, fishing boats and kayaks are readily rentable. The lake also attracts anglers after largemouth, smallmouth and striped bass as well as walleye, pike and scrappy little bluegill and crappie.
Scuba divers report that beneath the surface the lake has an off-beat appeal. Unlike the dramatic colours of Caribbean coral or the Great Barrier Reef, the austere beauty of underwater pinnacles and sheer vertical walls has a unique interest. The visibility is good enough so that snorkellers also can enjoy the underwater world. Jet skis and waverunners are rentable for surface fun, as are boats and water skis.
Arizona’s West Coast, marked by the lower Colorado River, comes to life at Lake Havasu, where this narrow body of water is sometimes so chock-a-block with boats that the river is hardly visible. The 72-kilometre-long lake has a number of natural sand beaches that are jumping-off points for windsurfing, jet skiing, sailing, canoeing, water skiing, fishing and swimming. The river is lined with hotels and motels, so planning a water-themed vacation is quick and easy.
East of Phoenix, Saguaro, Canyon and Apache Lakes form a chain below Roosevelt Lake along the Salt River Canyon. All three are regularly stocked with bass, crappie, bluegill and walleye. On Canyon Lake, kayaks, runabouts and pontoon boats are rentable for fishing and exploring, but many visitors prefer the comfort of the Dolly. This replica paddle-wheel steamboat does 90-minute narrated cruises, some of which include lunch or dinner. Passengers regularly report seeing bighorn sheep and bald eagles. Twenty-nine-kilometre-long Apache Lake has a marina with boat rentals, and a ramp to launch your own.
At the end of the Apache Trail, which roughly parallels the lakes, Roosevelt Dam is the edifice that forms the lakes. This impressive construction feat corralled the Salt River and Tonto Creek to create Arizona’s largest body of water, Roosevelt Lake. Anglers can fish from shore, or launch a small car-top boat or larger trailered craft to pursue their wily prey. Water skiing is generally good on the lake’s calm surface.
Just 56 kilometres from downtown Phoenix, Lake Pleasant has developed into a close-in aquatic playground. It was created when Waddel Dam stopped the flow along the Agua Fria River. Arizona’s second-largest lake, its long sweep makes it good for sailing, and is also favoured for fishing. Picnic sites and a full-service marina supply sustenance, personal watercraft rentals, and fishing gear.
With so much of it desert, it’s not readily apparent that Arizona is home to a number of wetlands. In Yuma, the Wetlands Restoration Project provides a close-up look at the natural world. Highlights of a mid-morning hike might include glimpses of elegant great white egrets poised in the branches of cottonwood trees, and pretty little Gambel’s quail scooting among the salt cedar. Invasive species like salt cedar are being eradicated and replaced with native cottonwood and mesquite. The restructured habitat already has attracted bobcats and increased bird life as well as once-abundant beaver. Nature lovers can explore more of the area’s great outdoors at Yuma’s famous Birding & Nature Festival, held in April.
In Lake Havasu, the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge has for thousands of years supplied essential winter food for migrating geese, sandhill cranes, ducks and other wildlife. Besides being a bird-watcher’s paradise, its calm beauty forms a fitting backdrop for a leisurely boat tour of the refuge.
Urban Aquatic Experience
Tempe Town Lake, formed by damming the Salt River as it flows through the Phoenix area, is a great venue for spending a day picnicking on grassy knolls, lazing on the lawn and getting out on the water. You can rent a small sailboat, or get a fishing licence to pursue any of the 11 species with which the lake is stocked. Tempe Beach Park connects to eight kilometres of paths that circle the lake for bicycling, jogging and in-line skating. New are Segway tours that let you explore the pathways around the lake in a whole new way, on the world’s only self-balancing personal transporter. Just 30 minutes of training is all it takes to be ready for an hour tour of Tempe Town Lake.