Few states offer such diverse topography as Arizona. Payson, Arizona is a short drive from both the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest and the beautiful landscape of the Sonoran Desert, the greenest desert in the world known for its iconic saguaro cactus.
Because of Payson’s location at 5,000 feet nestled below the 7,500-foot escarpment of the Mogollon Rim and above the desert valley below, boaters are near a wide variety of water features and landscapes.
Warm Water Desert Lakes
Just south of Payson in the Tonto Basin where Tonto Creek flows into the Salt River is the beginning of a chain of man-made desert reservoirs known collectively as the Salt River Chain of Lakes. This chain is made up of four lakes that continue towards Phoenix. The first two warm-water reservoirs on the chain are Roosevelt Lake and Apache Lake. These lakes are the closest to Payson and ideal for. Water skiing, houseboats, jet skiing, sail boating, and kayaking.
These two lakes are also the furthest on the chain from Phoenix and receive less traffic from Phoenix residents.
Roosevelt lake was voted the #1 place to visit in Arizona by CBS News in 2013. Roosevelt Lake is the largest lake by surface water in Central Arizona (21,500 acres). The marina boasts top-notch accessibility and convenience, featuring a RV Park (full hook ups), store, restaurant and bar, ski boat and pontoon boat rental service, fuel dock, both covered and uncovered dry storage options, wet slip boat storage and executive boat services. Fishing boats, sailboats, houseboats and everything in between can be accommodated in the state-of-the-art marina.
Situated about 4 miles (6 km) upstream from Apache Lake (the next SRP reservoir on the Salt River), Roosevelt Lake occupies about 10 miles (16 km) of the original Salt River riverbed and also extends for about 8 miles (13 km) up Tonto Creek, a significant tributary of the Salt with its headwaters along the Mogollon Rim. The lake covers much of the southern portion of the Tonto Basin.
The lake is home to a variety of game fish including crappie, carp, Sunfish, flathead and channel catfish, and smallmouth bass and largemouth bass.
Dubbed the “hidden gem of the Salt River Lakes”, Apache Lake provides its visitors with unsurpassed views and unrivaled seclusion. Surrounded by the Superstition Wilderness and the Three Bar Wildlife Area, Apache Lake is 17 miles long and a spectacular site for boating, fishing, water sports, hiking, camping, and all forms of outdoor recreation. Apache Lake Marina is accessible only by driving the historic Apache Trail (or State Route 88), which has been named one of the most scenic drives in Arizona.
Unlike lakes surrounding the Phoenix Metropolitan area, Apache Lake’s unique location creates an uncrowded and pristine atmosphere for water and outdoor enthusiasts. Break the mold of having to arrive at sunrise to avoid launch ramp lines or before the lake reaches capacity; Apache Lake is never closed due to capacity constraints. Enjoy empty coves, glassy water, and hidden beaches framed by native saguaros and awe-inspiring cliffs.
High Elevation Forest Lakes
The 7500-foot escarpment of the Mogollon Rim just north and east of Payson changes the topography and the climate. Atop the rim, cool temperatures await. The world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest stretches for miles and surrounds a series of sparkling lakes. It's hard to imagine a more perfect summer boating getaway.
The lakes up here are smaller and generally limit boating to either to either electric only or less than 10 hp gas motors. Manual powered craft are always welcome. This makes these lakes ideal for kayaking, canoeing, and paddle boarding.
Woods Canyon Lake
Woods Canyon is the first lake east of Payson as you top the rim off Highway 260.
This picturesque 158-acre lake is heavily stocked with rainbow and tiger trout from April through September.
There is a store with boat rentals and a boat ramp. Boats are restricted to electric motors only. Camping facilities abound but can fill up quickly on busy summer weekends.
Visit Woods Canyon during the week or in the fall if you are looking to avoid the heavier crowds.
Bear Canyon Lake
This beautiful lake is narrow, and canyon bound. Access to the lake’s shore is by foot-trail only so boats need to be light enough to carry to the shoreline. Small boats and kayaks are popular here.
Black Canyon Lake
This forest lake has a surface area of 78 acres when full and is stocked by the Arizona Game and Fish Department with catchable size rainbow trout. The lake has a boat launch area and is restricted to electric motors.
C.C. Cragin (Blue Ridge) Reservoir
This beautiful reservoir rim reservoir resembles a large river through a heavily forested canyon. For years this lake was called “Blue Ridge Reservoir”. SRP controls the area and has renamed it after its founder C.C. Cragin Reservoir.
Outboard motors up to 10 horsepower are allowed here. C.C. Cragin provides a forest canyon setting in which to enjoy your canoe or other small boat.
Chevelon Canyon Lake
Because of the difficulty in accessing this remote lake small boats or kayaks are best.
Boat motors are limited to 8 hp, but because most anglers hike in a light boat is the best option.
Chevelon Lake provides a remote setting in which to enjoy your canoe or other small boat.
Green Valley Lakes
Green Valley is an urban lake located just off Main Street in the town of Payson. These lakes are set among 17.2 acres of grass, trees, and shrubs. Facilities here includes 2 boat docks, 2 public restrooms, 3.8 miles of walking paths, 3 picnic and outdoor cooking facilities, and paved parking lots. Boats with electric motors are allowed.
The Green Valley Lakes provide an setting in town where you can enjoy your canoe or other small boat.
This secluded 75-acre lake is surrounded by Ponderosa Pines with a small island in the middle that gives the lake its name. Knoll lake is located on top of the Mogollon Rim beyond Woods Canyon Lake of Forest Road 300.
The extra drive down the dirt road deters many offering an ideal opportunity for those who are looking for seclusion and solitude in a boating experience. Knoll Lake provides a scenic setting in which to enjoy your canoe or other small boat.
Willow Springs Lake
Willow Springs is the second most visited Rim Country Lake after Woods Canyon. This 150-acre lake is any easy drive from Payson.
Willow Springs has a boat ramp, but there is no boat rentals or store. Boat motors are limited to 10 hp.
White Water Rafting and Kayaking
Salt River Canyon
The most popular whitewater rafting trip through Salt River Canyon is a full-day rafting adventure starting near the Highway 60 bridge between Globe and Show Low. To fully explore the canyon, with its beaches, unique geology and huge variety of plants, animals and bird life, consider an overnight whitewater rafting adventure of two to five days. Come see why the Salt River Canyon is one of the Southwest’s hidden treasures.
Salt River Rafting rapids are rated class III and IV. The Salt River drops an average of 25 feet per mile for over 50 miles through rocky, secluded canyons. It flows through oak and juniper woodlands down into stunning Lower Sonoran Desert vegetation, with giant multi-armed saguaro cactus and a diversity of other vegetation. Several side canyons reveal oasis-like microhabitats that are a lush reprieve from the prickly cactus environment. Excellent scenic riverside campsites are abundant and accessible only by raft. Raft the Salt River today for a truly unique experience you are sure to never forget.
The East Verde River near Payson has waterfalls and does not offer guided kayaking. However, if you drive upriver a little way to the Verde Valley you can find a better stretch of river that offers guided kayaking. This stretch of the river is wild and scenic, with its incredible wilderness of spectacular canyons, verdant forests, brightly colored wildflowers, and a multitude of birds and wildlife.
This stretch of the Verde is much tamer than the rolling rapids of Salt River Canyon. Kayak down the Wild scenic Verde River as your guide educates and entertains you with their stories of the mighty Río Verde on your river trip!