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.
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.
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.
Picture 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.
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.)
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.
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.
Canyon Lake is in a wilderness area with limited services. Visitors to the lake will find restaurants at the Canyon Lake Marina (by Dolly’s dock), and a bit further up the trail at Tortilla Flat. There are no other dining options in the area. There are no gas stations at all.
Tortilla Flat, a revived ghost town with a restaurant, bar, and giant souvenir shop is located two miles past the Canyon Lake Marina. It’s a fun place to stop for a meal after a cruise on the Dolly Steamboat, but expect to have lots of company, as it is a popular stop for all visitors on the Apache Trail.
Canyon Lake is popular for water sports of all types. It is also a good lake for fishing, whether out on the water or from one of several public docks.
On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hiking right around the lake. Several trails start near the lake, but lead away from it. There are also trails near the Tortilla Campground and along the creek, but none that follow along the lake itself.
This is a beautiful segment of the Apache Trail and, because it is paved, it attracts plenty of sightseers. Despite being a wilderness area, it can be a very, very busy place.
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:
- 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 Dolly Steamboat dock is located by the restaurant.
- 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!
Today the much larger Dolly Steamboat offers regularly scheduled cruises, including the 1 ½ scenic cruise I took. There are also a couple of 2 ½ hour dinner cruises and seasonal specialty cruises, like the 3 hour big horn sheep viewing cruise that is being offered this spring. Cruises are take place throughout the year, rain or shine.
Dolly doesn’t travel all ten miles of the lake, but she travels through many areas that cannot be viewed except from the water. Even the 1 ½ hour scenic cruise took us far enough into the lake to get a good look at it and leave me wanting more!
The Dolly is 103 feet long and powered by a pair of 225 horsepower diesel engines. (Despite being called the Dolly Steamboat, there isn’t any steam involved in her operation.) She can carry 142 passengers on two decks and is operated by a crew of three.
This is a friendly, family-run operation. Things are generally casual and relaxed on a Dolly Steamboat cruise.
Most of the seating is located in one of the enclosed areas on each deck. There is also a limited amount of outdoor seating available on both levels at the back of the boat. Restrooms and a bar with snack foods are also available.
A selection of snacks and beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) are available for purchase on board. (The popcorn is made fresh while you watch.)
As you cruise, the captain will point out various landmarks, explain the area’s geology, tell a few stories, and keep an eye out for wildlife.
Buy tickets either online or over the phone in advance, as it is not unusual for a cruise to sell out. Even with a reservation, show up earlier than the required ½ hour if you want to sit in a particular spot or are part of a large group, as boarding priority is assigned on a first-come first-aboard basis. There are no reserved seats.
Don’t worry too much about seating though. Even when a cruise is sold-out, there seems to be plenty of space.
If you happen to be driving through and haven’t reserved a ticket or tried to reserve only to find that the cruise you want is sold out, stop by and check at the ticket booth. All extra and unclaimed tickets are released just before the cruise departs.
There is free parking for passengers at the parking lot for the Canyon Lake Marina and Campground. The ticket office is located there, along with a restaurant that overlooks the lake.
Be sure to bring cash. Credit cards are not accepted at the ticket office or on board the Dolly Steamboat.
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 (very small boat) cruise!
As described above, the lake has several public recreation areas where you can launch a boat.
In addition, 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. There is also dedicated space for jet skis and kayaks.
Campsites are available at the Tortilla and the Canyon Lake Marina campgrounds. In addition, there are three campsites at the Point boat camp located three miles into the lake.
A Tonto Pass and watercraft sticker is required to use a boat anywhere on the lake.
Bring your own boat
Those with their own boats can either rent a slip at Canyon Lake Marina or launch their boat at one of the recreation sites.
The public recreation sites offer boat trailer parking, picnic areas, toilets, and a launching area. They are only open for use during the day and close each evening. All require boaters to have both a Tonto Pass and a watercraft sticker.
While the public recreation sites offer a low-cost way to enjoy the lake, they have a limited capacity. On busy days the parking areas fill quickly and, once filled, the site is closed for the day. Check local radio stations for information on conditions before heading out with your boat.
Rent a boat
I’d love to spend a few days touring Canyon Lake on a houseboat. Sadly, there are no houseboat rentals available on the lake.
However, just about any other kind of watercraft can be rented through Precision Marine at the Canyon Lake Marina. They rent pontoons, runabouts, small fishing boats, and single or double kayaks by the hour or day.
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!