In a word association game, few people would think of Arizona to go with the word “kayaking.” But maybe more should. Arizona is well-known for its desert landscape and hiking trails, but it also offers some world-class kayaking opportunities of the mild and wild variety.
Today’s kayaks are generally designed for use on either flat water or whitewater. A novice paddler can head out on a flat water lake or slow-moving river and get a good feel for the water fairly quickly. Taking to the whitewater of a fast-flowing river requires considerably more skill and experience.
Jason Webb is an avid kayaker who has taken it upon himself to plot Arizona’s top kayaking waters on the handy, interactive Google map below.
Map created by Jason Webb
Where to find good flatwater in Arizona
On the mild end of the spectrum are several manmade reservoirs. For starters, Tempe Town Lake is a relatively small body that is easily accessible from the dock of the city-run marina. A firm no-wake rule keeps the water nice and calm.
In the foothills surrounding the Phoenix valley are bigger lakes with inspiring views and greater challenges. A chain of three reservoirs (Apache, Canyon and Saguaro) was created by series of dams on the Lower Salt River. On any of the three lakes, you can venture off the main channel to explore shallow coves and slot canyons that bigger boats can’t get into.
If you are looking for a flat-water kayaking adventure a little further from the Phoenix metro area, check out the expansive, world-renowned waters of Lake Powell or Lake Havasu, or the state’s third-largest body of water: Lake Roosevelt. There is enough surface area at any of these three lakes to spend an entire vacation on the water and not get bored.
Where to go for whitewater in Arizona
When you are ready for a little more thrill than you can find on the lakes of Arizona, it may be time to hit the rapids on one of the state’s swift-moving rivers. A couple of hours north of Phoenix, the Verde River ripples through some of the lushest terrains in the state and is a relatively safe place to test your paddling skills in moving water. While the stretches of the Lower Salt River below the Saguaro Lake dam are considered a paradise for float-tubers, spring and summer flows are fun to paddle by kayak, too.
Once you are confident enough with your whitewater skills to take on one of the most challenging rivers in North America, set your sights on the Colorado River. The river responsible for carving the Grand Canyon displays multiple personalities as it gently enters the state near the center of Arizona’s northern border (Utah’s southern border), then picks up steam as it rages wildly around bends and over waterfalls through the mile-deep canyon before calming back down as it winds along the Arizona-California border and pours into Mexico.
Want insider tips to experience more cool places like this in the Grand Canyon State? Grab a copy of Arizona Bucket List Adventure Guide & Journal
If you like the idea of paddling through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the American Southwest, you’ll find plenty of mild and wild bodies of water in Arizona to quench your thirst for adventure. Regardless of where in Arizona you decide to hit the water, you can likely rent a kayak from a marina or outfitter at your destination. Lessons and group tours are available in many locations, too.