Arizona Kayaking Guide

Discover Arizona’s best kayaking experiences

In a word association game, few people would match the word “Arizona” with “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.

Willow Beach kayak launch site
Willow Beach kayak launch site is located about a quarter-mile downstream from the motorboat launch ramp

Tips for kayaking in Arizona

Today’s kayaks are generally designed for use on either flat water or whitewater. A novice paddler can head out on a lake or slow-moving river and get a good feel for the water fairly quickly. Taking to a fast-flowing river requires a little more skill and experience.

Related: Practical guide to the most scenic lakes in Arizona

Where to find flat water in Arizona

On the mild end of the kayaking spectrum, several manmade reservoirs in Arizona are great go-to spots. For starters, Tempe Town Lake is a relatively small body of water just a few miles from downtown Phoenix that is easily accessible from the dock of a city-run marina. A firm no-wake rule keeps the water calm.

front portion of inflatable kayak in shallow water
Paddling my Sevylor Quikpak K1 in a cove at Canyon Lake AZ

Stunning beauty exists deep in the shallow coves of Canyon Lake

In the foothills surrounding the Phoenix valley, 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 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. Not to be overlooked are Bartlett Reservoir and Lake Pleasant, both filled with water from the Verde River.

Kayaking into Antelope Canyon
Kayaking into Antelope Canyon on Lake Powell

If you are looking for a flat-water kayaking adventure a little further from the Valley, 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 landscapes 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.

Colorado River viewed from Plateau Point in Grand Canyon
Colorado River flows through Grand Canyon below Plateau Point

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 falls through the mile-deep canyon before calming back down as it winds along the Arizona-California border and pours into Mexico.

Some sections of the Upper Verde River, northeast of the town of Miami, AZ, offers challenging whitewater rapids during the spring months.


Map created by Jason Webb

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.

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.

About the author

In 2014, Paul Fiarkoski went on a hiking trip to world-famous Havasupai Falls in the Grand Canyon. After three days of hiking and wading in the turquoise pools beneath 100-foot waterfalls, his perspective of Arizona changed forever. He created an Arizona bucket list and began checking places off.

Arizona Bucket List Adventure Guide & Journal includes his list of top 50 natural wonders.

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