Cruises and water sports may not be top of mind when planning a trip to Phoenix, Arizona. But despite its desert climate, the city is less than an hour's drive from several lakes and reservoirs created by dams holding back rivers in order to control their flow and provide irrigation.

Saguaro Lake is one of these. Located in Tonto National Forest, approximately forty miles east of downtown Phoenix, the lake was created by the construction of the Steward Mountain Dam on the Salt River. Completed in 1930, it was the last of four reservoirs formed by the damming of that river.

The 1,200-acre lake is 10 miles long and reaches depths of more than 110 feet at its deepest point. Its 22 miles of shoreline include rocky crags, canyon walls, marshland, and desert shrubland. Saguaro Lake offers a variety of recreational activities and is the site of a scenic and educational riverboat cruise.

For those reasons, it makes a very fine day trip from Phoenix.

Caci and shrubs on the shores of Saguaro Lake.
Saguaro Lake. Wikimedia Commons

The Desert Belle

The Desert Belle riverboat has provided a pleasant and relaxing way to enjoy the beauty of Saguaro Lake for over fifty years. On this 90-minute, narrated cruise, you'll see rugged desert and mountain beauty, birds and wildlife. The two-level boat seats 145 passengers inside an air-conditioned lower cabin, on an open deck at the front of the boat, and on the covered open-air upper deck. Seating is first come, first serve. There are bathrooms and a snack bar on board.

The Captain narrates your ride from the upper deck via an intercom system. The ride would be enjoyable even without the narration as you lean back and take in the fresh air and dramatic scenery, but it is worth paying attention to what is being said. Not only does the Captain point out places of interest and wildlife you might otherwise miss, he provides interesting information about the history, geology, plants, and wildlife of the lake, along with fun Arizona myths and trivia.

With only snacks available on the Desert Belle, you may wish to have a more substantial meal before or after your cruise. The Lakeshore Restaurant at the Marina overlooks the lake and offers indoor and outdoor dining. You can take in panoramic views of the mountains or watch the ducks in the water closer to shore.

The Desert Belle riverboat full of passengers, moored to dock, Saguaro Lake,
The Desert Belle. Flickr / vaxomatic

Saguaro Lake is named for the saguaro cactus. The Sonoran desert is the only natural habitat of this iconic symbol of the American west. Although saguaros can reach heights of 40 to 60 feet, they are very slow-growing; a ten-year-old saguaro may be less than a couple of inches tall. It takes 75 to 100 years for saguaros to grow the first of their signature arms. Mature saguaros may have a dozen arms. Others grow none. White saguaro blooms appear on the top of the cactus in May or June, and sometimes as early as April. The fleeting blooms open at night and last through midday. The saguaro flower is the state flower of Arizona.

The scenery changes as you cruise around the lake. Given the lake's name, you may not be surprised to see saguaros of varying sizes dotting the cliffs and flatlands amid other desert shrubs and cacti. At times, a lone saguaro appears to be growing out of pure rock. However, it may surprise you to discover diverse ecosystems in the lake basin. You'll pass stands of mesquite and ironwood trees and marshlands filled with cattails.

Many types of birds live here. You may see bald eagles, woodpeckers, hawks, vultures, blue herons, cactus wrens, cardinals, quail, or thrashers. You may also spot wildlife along the shore and up the sides of the mountains. Bighorn sheep are the most common, but the area is also home to coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and deer. Bring binoculars.

The Desert Belle sails two to three times a day, depending on the season. Although tickets can be purchased at the walk-up ticket booth if there is still room on the boat, buying advance tickets is recommended to guarantee a seat. Note that payment at the ticket booth is via credit card, check, or traveler's check. Cash is not accepted at the booth. Credit/debit cards are not accepted on the boat. Snacks and drinks must be purchased with cash. The boat is accessible to people with disabilities. In addition to its regular, narrated cruises, the Desert Belle has special wine and live music sailings. Check the website for details.

Water Activities

For those who are interested in more active water activities, Saguaro Lake offers opportunities for boating, kayaking, sailing, skiing, and jet skiing. Boats, kayaks and canoes can be rented at the marina.

The lake is also a popular fishing hole. It is known for its largemouth bass, but carp, bluegill, rainbow trout, crappie, catfish, walleye, and other kinds of bass are also found. The Arizona Fish and Game Department stocks rainbow trout. (Note that an Arizona fishing license is required.)

Hiking

For those interested in walking through the scenic Sonoran desert surrounding the lake, Butcher Jones Trail skirts the edge of the lake and winds in and out of the many coves. Suitable for all skill levels, the trail is a total of four miles in and back. It has minimal elevation changes and offers beautiful mountain and lake views. Burro Cove at the end of the trail is a popular fishing spot.

The trailhead is located in the Butcher Jones Recreational Area where you'll also find a beach and a picnic area.

Overnight at the Lake

Bagley Flat Campground is located about four miles from the dam. The 30-site campground is accessible only by boat. There are picnic tables, grills and toilet facilities, but no drinking water and no trash facility. Bring your own drinking water and take your trash with you when you leave.

For overnight accommodations accessible by land and with more amenities, consider Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch. The ranch was created out of the work camp built in 1927 for workers building the Stewart Mountain Dam. It later operated as a fishing lodge before it became a guest ranch. Its twenty rustic ranchette cottages feature traditional Western decor. There is buffet-style dining hall. Available activities include a heated swimming pool, a shuffleboard court, ping pong, croquet, badminton, volleyball, guided horse trail rides, kayaking and tubing.

Lake and Land Combo

If you're interested in getting an up-close look at the Sonoran Desert on land in addition to the Desert Belle lake tour without hiking or camping, the Lake & Land Combo Tour might be for you. Stella Adventures has teamed up with Desert Belle Cruises to offer a combination tour that includes an hour tour through the Sonoran Desert forest aboard an H1 Hummer prior to the Desert Belle Cruise. The tour also includes complimentary pick up and drop off at your Phoenix area hotel. Depending on pick-up location, the entire tour takes approximately five-and-a-half hours.

Saguaro Lake is located in Tonto National Forest. A park pass is not required to take the Desert Belle tour or to visit the marina restaurant, but you need a Tonto National Park pass to enter the area for all other activities, including boating, fishing, hiking Butcher Jones Trail and camping. Although the passes are not expensive, they need to be purchased before you get to the lake. Passes are available at a number of gas stations or stores in town. Details can be found on the USDA Forest Service website.

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