Stunning beauty exists deep in the shallow coves of Canyon Lake

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.

Motorboat passes under bridge as it exits cove

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.

Considering buying a kayak? Before you do, read my Sevylor K1 QuickPak kayak review.

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.

front portion of inflatable kayak in shallow water
Paddling my Sevylor Quikpak K1 in a cove at Canyon Lake AZ
Labarge Cove Canyon Lake AZ
Calm water reflects the towering canyon walls and clear blue sky over Labarge Cove at Canyon Lake, AZ
Calm, shallow waters reflect the beauty of the canyon walls.
Large totem-like rock separated from rock cliff
This interesting rock formation is visible near the shallow end of Labarge Cove.
Small yellow flowers on plant with green stems.
Beautiful flowering plants like these grow wild along the canyon walls in the coves of Canyon Lake.
Rock with a sun image and AZ painted on it
Usually when I see defacing of any kind on rocks or other natural structures, my blood nearly boils. I have to admit, this one actually made me smile.
Tarantula climbing up canyon wall
I spotted this fuzzy little tarantula on his way back up the wall from the water line beneath him, where he presumably just took a sip.
Grass plants in rock canyon wall illuminated by sunlight
Beautiful ornamental grass plants like these emerge from rock slabs and show off their rich color while basking in the sunlight.

What you need to know before visiting Canyon Lake

Is a pass required to access 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 onto the lake, you must have a Tonto Pass.

Where to get 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 at Canyon Lake

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 a valid State of Arizona fishing license.


Map of Canyon Lake in Arizona
All pics shown in this blog post were taken in either of the coves labeled 1 or 2 on this map.

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 better 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.


    1. Yes I was there the first week of November. Perfect weather at the time. You can generally kayak at Canyon Lake year round. If you check weather for Apache Junction you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the weather is like at the lake.

    1. Ha! My set punished about as low budget as it gets. I splice the video clips together with Movie Maker then upload to YouTube and add music from YouTube’s royalty free library.

      1. Thanks. The video can save a lot of word crafting. You know what they say about a picture. Plus having content on YouTube helps people find my blog.

      2. Good idea. I’ve used movie maker to make affirmation videos, kind of like a vision board but with music. I’ve never cut and spliced videos though. Fir the positive videos I just interspersed photos and statements I wrote and used all the cool transition tools.

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