Think of Arizona, and you’ll likely envision some variation of saguaro cacti, rugged canyons, and blistering sun.
But white sand beaches? In land-locked Arizona, could there be such a thing? As any visitor to the state’s Colorado River Corridor knows, beaches are real in Arizona, and they are fabulous.
In fact, take the 200-mile road trip from the megalopolis of Phoenix to Lake Havasu City on Arizona’s western border, and you will not only experience the state’s cacti, canyons, and sun, but also beaches that border the startlingly aqua-hued waters of the mighty Colorado.
The region, known as Arizona’s West Coast, is not exactly a hidden gem, though. Thousands of college-age spring breakers flock to the community to party amidst a parade of speedboats and pontoons, music thumping.
Unless you are into the party scene, March and April are probably not the months to visit Lake Havasu City. It’s better to go in the winter, when average highs range from the high 60s to the low 70s, or in the fall when November is at a mild 75 degrees and October averages in the high 80s. May is also a good option, with its average highs in the mid-90s. Summers tend to bring extreme heat, with average highs in June, July, and August approaching the 110-degree mark.
While the beaches and boating are the main draws of Lake Havasu, the trip there from Phoenix yields many other traveling pleasures as well.
With nearly 5 million people living within its sprawling mass, the Phoenix metro area has a virtually inexhaustible choice of things to do, places to dine, and hotels and resorts at which to stay.
If you’re heading northwest to Lake Havasu, I suggest staying in one of Phoenix’s West Valley communities: Glendale, Peoria, or Litchfield Park. There, you will be close to an array of entertainment and recreation options, such as the State Farm Stadium where the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals play football, the Gila River Arena where the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes play hockey, and the beautiful White Tank Mountain Regional Park where a host of hiking opportunities await.
For a sumptuous resort with an old-time feel, check out Litchfield Park’s The Wigwam Resort. The resort dates back a century or so, and it features 440 lushly landscaped acres. Sprinkled throughout the lovely adobe-and-timber complex are numerous swimming pools, tennis courts, lawn games, and three adjoining 18-hole championship golf courses. The resort also has a number of on-site restaurant and bars, including the charming courtyard-style Wigwam Bar.
For a bustling shopping and entertainment scene, Glendale’s Westgate Mall offers a range of convenient chain hotels, countless restaurants, a 20-screen multiplex theater, and close proximity to the community’s pro sports scene.
For NASCAR lovers, the Phoenix Raceway is also in the West Valley. And history lovers should make a point to check out the bungalows-turned-specialty-shops in Historic Downtown Glendale.
Plan to spend at least a day or two in the West Valley to take in the main attractions.
About 20 minutes northwest of Glendale along Highway 60 is the rapidly growing community of Surprise, where baseball and golf lovers could spend weeks reveling in the numerous choices.
The community makes for a great first stop on your road trip, or a base for your Phoenix stay. With a population of just under 150,000, Surprise retains the feel of a smaller city, but with the amenities of a major population center. A 45-minute drive will get you to the middle of lively downtown Phoenix.
In March, Surprise hosts two major league baseball teams, the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers, for spring training at the Surprise Stadium — one of many in the Phoenix area’s Cactus League.
Golf and other outdoor activities also take center stage in Surprise. The area boasts eight golf courses that are open to the public, as well as the Wildlife World Zoo with its adjoining aquarium and safari park. Surprise is close to the gorgeous cactus-studded shores of Lake Pleasant, too.
For Arizona history at its finest, a stop in the town of Wickenburg is a must along the road trip to Lake Havasu.
With a population of about 8,000, Wickenburg embraces its small-town atmosphere. I love strolling through the restored downtown, past the colorful Western-themed mural that welcomes you, and along the Jail Tree Walkway and Outlaw Avenue, where a tree and sculpture mark the spot where outlaws were once chained.
Numerous open-air cafes and bars offer refreshments. Among the choices are the sidewalk tables at Anita’s Cocina and the Western fare at the Rancho 7 Bar.
For the real deal in Western art and history, stop by the downtown-area Desert Caballeros Western Museum.
As the dude ranch capital of the world, Wickenburg offers many options for Western lodging, including the Rancho de los Caballeros, the Flying E Ranch, and the Kay El Bar Guest Ranch. A dude ranch stay comes at varying price points, but all offer horseback riding through the high desert terrain, peaceful hikes, and a get-away-from-it-all atmosphere.
Plan to spend anywhere from a few hours exploring the downtown area to a few days relaxing and exploring at a dude ranch.
A half-hour detour from Wickenburg will get you to the high desert town of Yarnell, billed as the spot “where the desert breeze meets the mountain air.” Along a series of hairpin turns on Highway 89, you’ll have a number of vantage points for excellent sweeping views of the vast desert terrain.
While Yarnell is home to several antique shops and rustic restaurants, its main attraction is the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park, a somber reminder of the wildfire that took the lives of 19 elite firefighters in June of 2013. Located 2 miles south of Yarnell, the park offers a strenuous, rocky hike along the route that the Hotshots took on their last stand in fighting the fire. There is no water along the 7-mile round-trip hike, and it is best done in the cooler winter months. Plan for a 4-hour-plus hike and an emotional journey along the steep trail.
Wenden, Salome, Hope, And Quartzsite
After doubling back to Wickenburg, continue on Highway 60 through the lonely desert terrain and the small towns of Wenden, Salome, and Hope.
Because of the region’s mild winters that offer refuge to winter-weary residents of the Northern United States, this is RV country. Plenty of RV parks are sprinkled along the route, and a 30-minute detour from Hope will get you to Quartzsite, where thousands of vendors gather in the wintertime to showcase wares that include rocks, gems, jewelry, apparel, home decor, and more. These little desert towns are good for a quick fuel refill or snack as you head toward the Colorado River.
As you approach the river, you will pass through the town of Parker, with its rows of palm trees and variety of fast-food restaurants and gas stations. Parker also offers several spots for river access, including the Bureau of Land Management’s River View Day Use Area, Buckskin Mountain State Park, and River Island State Park. All have limited space, so an early arrival is essential. Riverside camping spaces are available at the two state parks.
Accommodations are also available at Parker’s BlueWater Resort & Casino, which has a magnificent setting on the Colorado River.
Lake Havasu City
Along with its beaches, Lake Havasu City is best known for the historic London Bridge, which was purchased from London by an Arizona developer and recreated over a Colorado River channel in the 1960s. The Bridgewater Channel area should be your first destination on a visit to Lake Havasu City.
There, you are likely to find thousands of visitors clustered along the shores of the stunning Colorado. The bridge attracts more than a million visitors a year, so you will likely be sharing the area with family groups cooking hot dogs over a charcoal grill, young people dancing on pontoons, and people strolling along the boardwalk.
The area features 60 miles of navigable waterways, and water sports reign supreme. Plan to rent a boat, pontoon, or jet ski at one of the numerous rental spots, such as Arizona WaterSports. Or just saunter along the boardwalk taking it all in. Along the way, be sure to check out the series of 27 small lighthouses — all replicas of famous lighthouses around the U.S.
Riverside accommodations are plentiful in Lake Havasu City — everything from the London Bridge Resort located right in the middle of it all on the Bridgewater Channel to cabins and campsites at Lake Havasu State Park.
The dining options are equally numerous. I recommend heading to the Island Mall & Brewery, where you can sit on an outdoor patio and watch boats drift beneath the arches of the London Bridge, or the Javelina Cantina on the other side of the bridge that features margaritas and big views of the river and the surrounding mountains.
Plan to spend at least a day or two exploring Lake Havasu City and taking in the riverside sights.
Pro Tip: Regardless of when you visit, parking is likely to be scarce near the London Bridge. I recommend heading to the pretty Rotary Community Park, where you’ll find numerous parking lots, picnic areas, and playgrounds, as well as a 2-mile walking and jogging trail. From there, you can easily walk along the flat concrete boardwalk to the London Bridge area.