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Kayaking in Arizona

Updated on November 30, 2013
Kayking is fun and healthy!
Kayking is fun and healthy!

The Basics

There are a surprisingly large amount of places to kayak in Arizona. Before you go on a kayaking trip, make sure you have considered the following details:

  • Is it the right season to kayak in this area? Kayaking areas in southern to mid Arizona can be kayaked close to year round, depending on weather. It is beneficial, however, to avoid kayaking in extremely hot temperatures to avoid dehydration and sunstroke. Kayaking areas in northern Arizona can be used from late spring to early fall due to cold temperatures.
  • Is the kayaking route at my level of experience? You are best at assessing your skill. Take a look at the length of the route, the difficulty (are there rapids, lots of twists and turns, high waves?) and resources available if help is needed.
  • Is the water high enough right now? Due to the common droughts and desert climate of Arizona, make sure to check the water level before embarking on a kayaking adventure. Most levels can be found on state or national websites. It does not seem like a huge concern, but it is much preferable to paddle down a river than scrape your way down a river.
  • Do I have the equipment needed? Consider the following before beginning a trip:
    * Kayak- Are there kayak rentals available, or do I need to provide my own kayak?
    * Paddles- Paddles are usually included in equipment rentals, but it is always good to double check. Ensure that you have packed them if you own your kayak.
    * Personal Flotation Device (PFD)- These are commonly referred to as "life jackets," which can be misleading because there is no guarantee they can save a life. Sometimes these are provided with equipment rentals, and sometimes they are not. If you are a frequent kayaker, it is probably worthwhile to invest in your own. According to The Boater's Guide of Arizona, published by Arizona Game and Fish Department, every kayak must have one PFD on board while kayaking. In addition, any child under the age of 12 must be wearing their PFD while kayaking. For more information, go to Arizona's Game and Fish website.
    *Water- Although you will spend all day floating on water, make sure to pack plenty to drink. If overlooked, this could result in serious consequences. The amount you should take depends on time of year, length of trip and other conditions. As a general rule, you should take two standard water bottles per hour per person for your trip.
    *Sunscreen and sun shade- I prefer to use a combination of long sleeves and sunscreen. You can also use hats, sunglasses, cotton clothing, or any combination. Just keep yourself protected from the sun.
    *Any other equipment is going to vary from trip to trip. Do not forget about food, travel supplies, ropes, or anything else.
  • How will I get there? Or more importantly - how will my kayak get there? Before traveling long distances, do a trial drive with your kayak securing equipment.

Kayaking Locations in Arizona

Canyon Lake, AZ:
Canyon Lake, Tonto National Forest, Arizona, USA

get directions

Rentals available, beginning kayakers +

Tempe Town Lake Marina:
SRP Tempe Town Lake Marina, 550 E. Tempe Town Lake, Tempe, AZ 85281, USA

get directions

rentals available, beginning kayakers +

Watson lake:
Watson Lake, Arizona 86301, USA

get directions

rentals available, beginning kayakers +

Willow Lake, az:
Willow Creek Reservoir, Arizona, USA

get directions

no rentals available, intermediate kayakers +

Verde River:
Verde River, Arizona, USA

get directions

rentals vary, intermediate kayakers +

Canyon Lake

Where: Off of the AZ-88, East of the Phoenix Metro Area

Skill level: Beginning to intermediate - generally fine, but beware of navigation around larger boats and their wakes.

Rentals Available: Yes. Single and double sit-on kayaks available. Make sure to check hours before going.

The Pros: This location is close to the East Valley and is large enough to provide a lot of practice without having to go far from shore. Double kayaks are available for rent, which can provide an entirely new kayaking experience to those who are used to single kayaks only. The lake itself is a great places for families to visit, with a decent, although rocky, beach, a small swimming area and plenty of picnic areas. Ideal for a day trip especially for those who have family member who don't kayak.

The Cons: Larger boats also use this lake. For unskilled kayakers, it can be difficult to navigate out of the way of these boats, especially the steamboat that offers rides to visitors for a fee. Although it is unlikely that your kayak will be upturned, it can still be unsettling for a new kayaker to experience the wakes created by the larger and motor powered boats.

A family renting double kayaks at Canyon Lake
A family renting double kayaks at Canyon Lake

Tempe Town Lake

Where: Off the 202 and Rural, near ASU campus in Tempe

Skill Level: Beginner

Rentals Available: Yes, single and double sit-on kayaks available. Check hours before visiting.

The Pros: Any level can use this lake! Because it is man-made, it lacks the waves often found on larger bodies of water. The lake is calm and easy to navigate. Although smaller in size, it can be a great place to test out new paddling strategies, increase in speed, or keep kayaking muscles in shape without leaving the Phoenix area. This lake is great for those who live in the Phoenix area because it is embedded in the middle of a large city - Tempe. A plethora of events are also held at this lake throughout the year, including running events, triathlons and rowing competitions.

The Cons: It is a bit small and, unlike other Arizona locations, lacks in wildlife. It is also used by many valley high schools for rowing practice, so be prepared to share the lake.

Tempe Town Lake is in the middle of a thriving city
Tempe Town Lake is in the middle of a thriving city
Architecturally intruiging arches and a sunset make for great kayaking scenery
Architecturally intruiging arches and a sunset make for great kayaking scenery

Watson Lake

Where: Off the AZ-89 in Prescott

Skill Level: Beginner to Intermediate

Rentals Available: Yes, seasonally. Check for hours before visiting.

Pros: The area surrounding the lake is gorgeous. You can kayak among granite dells, exploring around different formations as you go. It is even possible to stop for a picnic among some of the larger granite dells. Bird enthusiasts will enjoy the marsh on one side of the lake where many different birds nest. If they are lucky, they may even spot a wood duck. The weather is fantastic from spring to fall with the exception of windy conditions. This lake is fun and interesting to explore without being too difficult to kayak.

Cons: It may be difficult for beginning or young kayakers to navigate in the wind. Depending on the water level, it is also possible to scrape on some of the lower granite dell formations.

Wildlife at Watson Lake
Wildlife at Watson Lake
Granite dells surround Watson Lake
Granite dells surround Watson Lake

Willow Lake (formerly Willow Creek Reservoir)

Where: Off the AZ-89, in Prescott

Skill Level: Intermediate

Rentals Available: No

Pros: This is a large lake that is only open to non-motorized watercraft. There is plentiful wildlife around the lake as well as granite dells, colorful wildflowers and marsh foliage. This is a great place for an intermediate kayaker as the ever present wind creates decent-sized (but not daunting) waves. There are also large flocks of waterfowl that are enjoyable to observe. Beginning kayakers can kayak here, but should stay closer to the shore, in the area of the lake closest to the dock.

Cons: Windy conditions may be difficult for some kayakers. There is a lot of kelp which may get stuck on oars and slow paddling. Only one access point.

Traveling with a kayak
Traveling with a kayak
Dock at Willow Lake
Dock at Willow Lake
This is only a small portion of the lake
This is only a small portion of the lake
Wildlife at Willow Lake
Wildlife at Willow Lake
Willow lake is large - look for the kayaker in the middle of this picture!
Willow lake is large - look for the kayaker in the middle of this picture!

Verde River

Where: Off the I-17, in the Verde Valley/Camp Verde area

Skill level: Intermediate +

Rentals Available: Yes, but check location and hours before visiting. There are many entry/exit points along the river.

Pros: A great, secluded in nature experience. The river cuts through much of the Verde Valley and has plenty of water plants, fowl (including large herons), insects (from butterflies to mosquitoes) and other wildlife. It is usually far enough away from roads and campgrounds that you can kayak to the sound of water ripples and bird chirps. It is a more challenging route and can be many lengths which makes it ideal for intermediate to advanced kayakers.

Cons: Check water levels before going! Depending on time of year, you may end up scraping your way down the river instead of paddling. The only thing worse than encountering rapids is getting stuck on the rocks that used to be rapids. (Although if you are more experienced, rapids can be enjoyable.) There are also many twists and turns along this route, so more advanced navigating skills are necessary if you do not want to end with you and your kayak covered with dirt, twigs and spiders. There is also a fair amount of refuse in the river, including old tires, rusted, fallen-in fences and other metal and wood structures.

Kakaying the Verde River
Kakaying the Verde River

Arizona Kayaking Locations

Skill Level
Canyon Lake
Beginning to Intermediate
large, near Phoenix area, great family location
Tempe Town Lake
calm, great for practice, in Phoenix area
Watson Lake
fantastic wildlife, great to explore
Willow Creek Resevoir
plentiful fowl, gorgeous views
Verde River
Intermediate +
great wildlife experience for more advanced kayakers

Kayaking Arizona

Have you ever kayaked before?

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