Water isn’t usually the first thing to come to mind when people think of Arizona. The state is known for its dry deserts and mountains. People talk about mountain biking and hiking. But Arizona is an excellent place to kayak. Their rivers and lakes are a gorgeous and fun way to in the natural beauty of this state. It’s just a matter of knowing the rules and where to go.
Arizona has many excellent places to go kayaking, even if you are a beginner. It is a year-round activity, but the best times are fall through spring. Summers are hot, and the monsoon can cause flash flooding. Regulations are minimal: US Coast Guard-approved life jacket, a whistle, and no drinking.
Arizona may only have two natural lakes, but they are home to the country’s largest hand-built lakes. There is excellent whitewater too. Thus, no matter your skill level, there is a place to stick your paddle in. But you need to keep an eye on the weather and respect the heat, especially in summer.
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7 Excellent Arizona Kayaking Spots For Beginners
Arizona has some great beginner opportunities, from flatwater lakes and reservoirs to gentle runs that offer a bit of low-level whitewater fun. But these are all wonderful options for people who just want a laid-back day out. The scenery is beautiful, and there is much to explore.
There are also some unique adventures, such as the Water to Wine Sedona Kayak Experience that uses inflatable kayaks to make the experience fun and manageable for those with little experience.
Do note that droughts and excess rain can change terrain and difficulty. All suggestions are based on general conditions, and there are times when things may not be as easy and placid as normal.
Big Lake is 450-acres of serene beauty, perfect for people who want to leave the hustle behind. The nearest town is Springerville, 25-miles away. Set at 9,000 feet, the lake is full of trout, including rainbow, cutthroat, and brook. Big Lake Tackle and Supply offers various boat rentals, including kayaks.
Blue Ridge Reservoir
Blue Ridge Reservoir is near Happy Jack in the Coconino National Forest. It sits 6,700 feet up and is a canyon reservoir, meaning there is minimal shoreline. Thus, this is not a good area for swimming, nor is it an area of long beaches. However, there is fishing: rainbow, brown, and brook trout.
Also, it is stunning to paddle around. Mortised boats are highly restricted: single gasoline engine of 10 horsepower or less or a single electric motor. Which means there is going to be very little disturbance. A truly tranquil spot.
No permits are required for this spot, located 63 miles south of Flagstaff. The area is great for camping; open from Memorial Day to mid-autumn. However, the FR 751 is closed during winter, making the reservoir inaccessible.
Colorado River and novice are not two kayaking terms often put together. But Horseshoe Bend is an exception, and the stretch has no rapids. It is so beautiful, a must-see, even if you are typically a whitewater junkie. Great tours are Kayak the Colorado and Kayak Horseshoe Bend, both with their very useful backhaul service.
Glen Canyon, which is home to Horseshoe Bend, does have a fee. So make sure all is in order before accessing. This is the same area where you can find Lake Powell. Truly a fantastic place to explore, and some of the best sights are best enjoyed by boat. Just heed warnings about where it is safe to go. After all, the Colorado does have rougher parts best avoided.
Lake Pleasant is conveniently near Phoenix’s metro. Given its location, locals use it a lot, especially to paddle. The 11.5-mile lake is perfect for many water sports, including fishing, swimming, and paddleboarding. Additionally, there are places to rent, such as Go Paddle Arizona, if you don’t have your own kayak or board.
Many people enter from the marina on the southeaster nook. There is also a great spot on the west side, off Carefree Highway. That entrance is through the Maricopa County Parks system, so there is an entry fee. But many find it worth it.
Night kayaking is allowed, as is paddle boarding. However, you are required to have lights on at both the front and the back.
Lake Powell is the United States’ second-largest hand-made lake. It was created the Glenda Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. The lake is massive, 180miles long, and has 96 major side canyons to explore. The lake is popular with all types of water enthusiasts. One of the more peaceful sections beginners enjoy is Lone Rock Canyon, with its stunning views.
There are places you can rent a boat if you don’t have your own. Many of these operations also offer tours, such as Hidden Canyon Kayak and Kayak Lake Powell. The canyons these tours take you through are fantastic to explore, even if you are normally a whitewater enthusiast.
Lower Salt River
Lower Salt River is generally a nice beginner to novice stretch not far from the Phoenix metro. The four-hour paddle is beautiful and a brilliant way to see the wildlife. One unique feature is the Salt River wild horses. They were threatened back in 2015, but public outcry has managed to save these remarkable animals.
Back to the water, the Lower Salt River’s rapids usually are Class I, occasionally reaching Class II when the flow rates pick up after heavy rain. The two most notable rapids are Snaggletooth and Bull Dog, also known as Pinball Alley and Rocky Road. This stretch is not to be confused with the more adrenalin-filled sections of the Salt River.
If you are visiting the area and couldn’t lug your boat on the plane, REI has a brilliant and well-priced Delivery & Shuttle service. There also offer half-day tours on inflatable kayaks that are excellent family fun.
Willow Beach is set in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The Hoover Dam created the lake, and the recreation area is home to the Black Canyon National Water Trail. While the Nevada side of the lake boasts many access points, the greatest beauty is found on the Arizona side.
Boat rentals are available at Willow Beach. However, it is also a great pick-up location for tours that can guide you through all the nooks, coves, and caves that are a joy to explore. There are a few operations you can check out, including Blazin’ Paddles and the Emerald Cave Kayaking Tour operated by the Las Vegas SUP Kayak Club.
3 Advanced Arizona Kayaking Adventures
Arizona whitewater options are not as abundant as its more serene kayaking opportunities. However, the few it has are pretty spectacular. After all, kayaking the Grand Canyon is an undeniably amazing experience if you’ve got the skill. So what they lack in quantity is well made up for by quality.
Most people raft through the more chaotic parts of the Colorado River. But what skilled paddler wouldn’t want to say they’ve done the Grand Canyon? It is a mind-blowing experience, full of Class IV rapids. However, you can’t just show up and shove off, however. There is a lottery system to snag access to this experience.
The faster way around the lottery system, which still takes planning well in advance, is to join a Grand Canyon kayaking tour. Unfortunately, kayaking tours are much harder to find than rafting trips. Two options are Arizona Raft Adventures and Gene 17 Kayaking. You do need to meet their required skill levels, but Gene’s has a motorized raft for folks whose kayaking is still too green.
Upper Salt River
Upper Salt River is a very different experience than Lower Salt. Upper Salt is not only far more technical; it requires a permit. On the other hand, you’ll be treated to spectacular scenery, especially through the canon. Whitewater enthusiasts love it for its Class II to IV rapids, depending on flow rate.
Bizarrely, one of its well-known rapids, Quartzite Falls, used to be harder until a man illegally dynamited it back in the 90s. However, there is still a sizeable drop to give adrenaline lovers a rush, even in its altered state.
Most of the tour opportunities are for rafters. However, you can find some kayaking tours for this stretch, including at Mild To Wild. The launch site is Highway 60 Bridge, at First Campground on Apache Road 1. Most plan their trip as a multi-day adventure.
The Verde River has an attitude with constantly changing conditions and water levels. It is the state’s only federally designated “Wild and Scenic” river and has Class I to III rapids. Because it is highly dependent on snowmelt and ever-decreasing groundwater, it can become very low and is not always navigable.
The best time of year to give it a shot is February-March. Kayakers often use inflatables given the flow rate challenges and unexpected obstacles. However, Mild to Wild does operate in the Verde and might be your best bet on judging the river’s current mood.
But it is a great area, with fantastic scenery and wildlife. So if the conditions are favorable, it is definitely an experience to seize.
Fishing From A Kayak
Arizona has some great fishing, but spots on the shore can get crowded. Also, there are some perfect spots where motorboats are not allowed. Thus, it is common for people to use kayaks to get the best fishing in. Therefore, a fair chunk of Arizona’s kayaking rental market, such as Lower Gear, caters for this, renting you all the equipment you’ll need. Some even offer fishing kayaks.
Visitors to the state are allowed to fish. However, you will need to obtain a license, and they are a bit pricier than what the local residents pay. Also, it is requested that largemouth and smallmouth bass are only “catch and release” from February through April. You can read more here. But do note that particular areas might have additional rules and fees, so do check before casting.
Arizona weather has its hectic moments. On the hottest days, being on the water is not enough to save you, no matter if you have a hat, plenty of water, and sun cream. You will need to limit your time to early mornings. Also, always take local extreme heat warnings seriously.
July through August is also monsoon season. Not only can this create flash floods, but it brings lightning. Arizona can also be subjugated to harsh winds that can change conditions, making it challenging to get to safety.
So while Arizona is a wonderful kayaking destination, no matter the year, nowhere is perfect. Be sure to check conditions and chat with locals. Even if the morning looks flawless, respect local advice, as there is the odd day where the weather can shift fast. On the bright side, when much of the US is frozen, Arizona is still there, ready and waiting for you to paddle on.
Arizona Kayaking Regulations
Kayaking regulations are pretty simple since it isn’t a motorized boat. Thus, you don’t have to deal with the hassle of boating registration. Also, keep in mind some areas may have their own additional rules, and the following are just the highlights of the state regulations.
- No minimum age requirement
- Must have US Coast Guard approved wearable flotation device per person
- People 12 and under must be wearing their floatation device at all times
- Must have a whistle on board
- Must have a white light on board to minimize collisions
- Must not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol (under .08%)
- Class 2 Arizona State misdemeanor if operating the boat in a “careless, reckless, or negligent manner”
Kayaking is a brilliant way to explore Arizona’s great outdoors. The state’s location also makes it the perfect place to visit when you’re tired of the freezing cold up north. Just remember, the more ambitious whitewater will take planning well in advance, both for lotteries and permits. Also, always keep an eye on local conditions, and things can change. Have fun.