Cruising Canyon Lake, Arizona

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(Last Updated On: January 4, 2019)

Cruising Canyon Lake in Arizona is an opportunity to enjoy drinks with friends as towering canyon walls slip by, eagles soar overhead, and saguaro cacti sprout from rocky ledges. You may even see big horn sheep as you glide past.

All this and more is part of a day on the Dolly Steamboat, a paddle wheel-style boat that offers short cruises on Arizona’s Canyon Lake. It’s one of the easiest ways for visitors to get out on the water and see this beautiful desert lake.

Cruise Canyon Lake on the Dolly or on your own

Canyon Lake is beautiful

Without a doubt, Arizona’s largest and most famous lakes are Lake Powell and Lake Mead. However, Arizona has over 100 lakes (almost all are reservoirs created by damming various rivers). Many of these lakes offer various recreational activities.

Four of these lakes – Saguaro, Canyon, Apache, and Roosevelt – were created by dams on the Salt River northeast of Phoenix.

Canyon Lake is the smallest of the four. It was created in 1925 when the Mormon Flat Dam flooded ten miles of twisting canyons. With towering walls of convoluted stone, Canyon Lake is the most dramatic of the four Salt River lakes.

Canyon Lake Apache Trail Arizona - www.explorationvacation.net

While the lake has an expanse of open water, the most scenic areas are hidden in winding channels and coves that can only be explored from the water.

Canyon Lake Apache Trail Arizona - www.explorationvacation.net

Since I don’t have my own boat, it’s unlikely that I would have ever seen more than a tiny section of the lake if weren’t for the Dolly Steamboat cruise.

Touring Canyon Lake on a Dolly Steamboat cruise

Much of Canyon Lake is only accessible via the water. However, thanks to the Dolly Steamboat cruises, even landlubbers can get a close-up view of some of the lake’s hidden coves and rocky gorges.

Although not a historic ship, the Dolly Steamboat is designed to look like an old-fashioned steam-powered paddle wheeler.

Dolly Steamboat cruise Canyon Lake Apache Trail Arizona - www.explorationvacation.netPicture of the Dolly coming into the dock by Carole Mathre

On board there is a mix of indoor and outdoor seating, a variety of tables, big windows that slide open (for lovely days, like the day I visited), air conditioning (for beastly hot days), restrooms, and a bar with beverages and snacks. In other words, it has pretty much everything one might need for a short cruise around the lake.

I’m with a small group of family and friends for the day. We settle in at a big table by an open window with a bin of fresh buttery popcorn. Beer in hand, I’m ready for an afternoon of cruising.

And the Dolly Steamboat cruise doesn’t disappoint.

We start by crossing an expanse of open water before gliding along the rocky cliff on the far shore.

landscape Dolly Steamboat cruise Canyon Lake Apache Trail Arizona - www.explorationvacation.net

Soon we are traveling between narrow, twisting canyon walls.

Along the way we see bald eagle chicks peering from their nest far above us. (The nest is perched atop a towering rock formation.) There are also a few white specks on the mountainside that seem to be big horn sheep. None of which are easy to see.

While wildlife can be hard to spot, rock formations can be observed at leisure. At several points the captain positions Dolly right along a canyon wall so everyone can get a good look at various types of vegetation and geology.

My favorite of these is the section of canyon wall studded with the butt ends of petrified tree trunks.

petrified trees Dolly Steamboat cruise Canyon Lake Apache Trail Arizona - www.explorationvacation.net

Of course, we aren’t the only ones out enjoying a day on the lake. There are a few other boats on the water, including zippy speedboats of all sizes, small fishing boats, slow-moving pontoons, and an assortment of colorful kayaks.

Dolly Steamboat cruise Canyon Lake Apache Trail Arizona - www.explorationvacation.net

Dolly Steamboat cruise Canyon Lake Apache Trail Arizona - www.explorationvacation.net

Dolly Steamboat cruise Canyon Lake Apache Trail Arizona - www.explorationvacation.net

But the lake is mostly ours, as the other boats quickly dissolve into the grand scenery.

It is a beautiful day to be on the water.

Planning a Canyon Lake Cruise

Canyon Lake is located along the Apache Trail (Arizona 88) in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains.

This is a nice day trip from Phoenix. Accessible via the lower (paved) section of the Apache Trail, visitors from Phoenix should expect to spend at least 1 ½ hours getting to the Dolly Steamboat dock. The road to the lake twists and turns along the way, making for slow going in places. This is a great place to take your time and enjoy the scenic drive.

Recreational facilities at Canyon Lake

Canyon Lake is in the Tonto National Forest and passes of various types are required to use most public recreational facilities. If you plan to picnic, hike, fish, boat, or camp, make sure you have the appropriate passes. (You do NOT need a pass to take the Dolly, eat at the marina, or visit Tortilla Flat.) Passes can be purchased in Tortilla Flat, but you can also get one before you arrive at one of many locations in the Phoenix area. The national America the Beautiful pass is also accepted in lieu of the Tonto Pass at a few facilities, so check to see what you will need.

You will find the following facilities as you travel up the Apache Trail (Arizona 88) from the southwest:

yellow flowers will lake and cliffs in background

  • The Canyon Lake overlook is an unnamed pull-off with lovely views.
  • The Acacia picnic area also has a swimming beach. Visitors must have a Tonto or America the Beautiful pass.
  • The Palo Verde recreation site is next to the Acacia picnic area. It has a boat launch and parking for trailers under 28 feet in length. Visitors must have both a Tonto Pass and watercraft sticker.
  • The Boulder recreation site has a picnic area, fishing dock, and boat landing for non-motorized boats. Visitors must have a Tonto or America the Beautiful pass.
  • The privately operated Canyon Lake Marina and Campground has a full service marina, restaurant, campground, and day use area. Slips are available for seasonal or short-term rental and there is dedicated space for jet skis and kayaks. Boat rentals area also available.
  • The Laguna recreation site offers fishing, picnicking, and both motorized and non-motorized boating. All visitors need a Tonto or America the Beautiful pass. Boaters need a Tonto Pass and a watercraft sticker.
  • The Tortilla Campground is only open seasonally during cooler months, with sites for both tents and RVs. Reservations must be made in advance.
  • The “town” of Tortilla Flat has a quirky Old West restaurant wallpapered with dollar bills. (The food is fine, but nothing special. Go for the atmosphere.) There is also a small museum, a huge souvenir shop, and an ice cream and candy shop. On busy days a separate outdoor bar often has live music.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • There is no lodging at Canyon Lake.
  • Camping is only allowed in designated campgrounds.
  • Toilets are generally available at all recreation sites.
  • Drinking water is NOT available at any public picnic area or recreation site. (Be sure to bring plenty with you.)
  • Glass containers are prohibited everywhere in this area.

Planning a cruise on the Dolly Steamboat

Named for one of the original owners, the Dolly Steamboat has taken visitors on tours of Canyon Lake since 1983. However, she wasn’t the first tour boat on the lake. Almost as soon as the dam was completed in 1925, the S.S. Geronimo (a 35 foot boat powered by a 35 horsepower engine) started taking passengers out on the lake. Obviously the lake’s beauty has been recognized for a long time!

Planning your own cruise

Canyon Lake is a popular recreation area: We saw fishing boats, speedboats, pontoons, kayaks, and even a couple of paddle boards.

You can join them on your own Canyon Lake (small boat) cruise!

Between the Dolly Steamboat cruise, boat rentals, and public recreation sites where you can launch your own boat, it’s easy to get out on the water on your own Canyon Lake cruise!

Take a road trip on Arizona’s Apache Trail Historic Road

All Arizona posts

yellow flowers will lake and cliffs in background

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