Every week thousands of people cruise the iconic Apache Trail and admire the beautiful irony of Canyon Lake – one of three scenic reservoirs formed when dams were constructed along Arizona’s Lower Salt River. Without the dams, this land would look much like the surrounding Goldfield and Superstition Mountains – rugged and steep, covered with cacti and other desert hardy plants.
Even the smallest motorboats can only cruise a few hundred yards into the coves at Canyon Lake due to shallow, rocky bottoms. However, kayakers can paddle into the farthest reaches of the coves where the water is only a few inches deep.
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If you want to see the real beauty of Canyon Lake, you’ll need to get out of the car and venture way back into its coves. A traditional motorboat won’t do you much good because the water is too shallow to pass safely. You’ll need a small, lightweight human-powered craft such as a kayak or canoe.
Below are some pictures I took from my kayak while paddling Labarge and First Water Coves of Canyon Lake in the Fall.
What you need to know before visiting Canyon Lake
Tonto Pass is required for access to Canyon Lake
No pass or permit is required if you’re just driving by Canyon Lake on Apache Trail Hwy 88 or visiting the restaurant at the marina. But if you’re planning to park in any of the designated lots or venture out on to the lake, you must have a Tonto Pass.
You can purchase a Tonto Pass from a couple of vending machines at the lake but generally, it’s better to purchase one prior to driving to the lake. Tonto Pass is available at many sporting goods and convenience stores in the Phoenix/Mesa/Apache Junction areas. They cost $8 (subject to change) and are valid for use any day you choose. You’ll validate the pass when you use it by marking the date of use on the pass and hanging it on your vehicle’s rearview mirror.
Where to park and access the lake
Your Tonto Pass provides you access to parking in any of the four access sites shown on the map below:
- Acacia Picnic Site
- Palo Verde Boating Site
- Boulder Picnic Site
- Laguna Boating Site
Tip: Boulder Picnic Site provides quick and easy access to Labarge Cove – a rather large, scenic cove that is off-limits to motorized craft.
Camping, boating and fishing
Overnight camping is available near the south end of the lake in the designated campground only. Kayaks can be launched from the campground or any of the designated parking areas, provided you can carry your boat down to the water. Motorized boats may be launched from the boat ramps at either the Laguna or Palo Verde Boating sites.
A full-service marina near the south end of the lake offers kayak, canoe and rentals by the hour or by the day. Fishing is available anywhere on the lake with valid State of Arizona fishing license.
There’s no denying it: Canyon Lake is one of Arizona’s beautiful gems. It’s plainly evident to the thousands of people who cruise by on the Apache Trail each week. But if you want to gain a true appreciation for this spectacular oasis on the edge of the desert, you might have to paddle a kayak back into the rarely traveled shallow coves.