When you see the word “dam”—and you’re visiting a site that focuses on Arizona—your mind probably jumps immediately to Hoover Dam. At 726 feet tall and 1,244 feet in length, the massive 80-year-old concrete barricade on the Colorado River holds the title of one of the largest public works projects in U.S. history.
According to the Bureau of Reclamation, if the concrete in the dam were turned into a highway 16 feet wide, the road would stretch from San Francisco to New York. Suffice it to say, if you take a road trip up to Northwestern Arizona—say on your way to Las Vegas—definitely check out this wonder of engineering.
For those who want to stick around the Valley, however, several smaller dams merit your attention, whether you want to swim, boat, Jet Ski, fish or just enjoy a pleasant drive.
1. Stewart Mountain Dam
Built: 1928-1930 | Height: 207 ft. | Length: 1,260 ft. | Type: Arch | Electrical generation: 13 MW
For a day of boating fun, take the Red Mountain Freeway (Loop 202) to Power Road and head north. About 20 minutes later, you’ll find yourself at Stewart Mountain Dam, which turns the Salt River into Saguaro Lake. Despite the lake’s modest size, you can travel a ways up the winding Salt River, which makes for a fun adventure. You’ll even find strips of sandy beaches along the way.
Saguaro Lake boasts the Saguaro Lake Marina and several boat ramps, along with docks spaced around the north side of the lake to alleviate crowding at the ramps. Boat rentals are available from Precision Marine, although there are no Jet Skis available. However, you can bring your own.
Precision Marine also carries fishing supplies, and Saguaro Lake (and the rest of the lakes on the Salt River) holds rainbow trout, several types of bass, crappies, sunfish, catfish and walleye. Check out Arizona Game & Fish’s fishing chart for more information.
For those feeling peckish, the Lakeshore Restaurant offers a nice menu with all-you-can-eat fish and chips on Wednesdays and Fridays. Sightseers should look at a cruise on the Desert Belle, a 90-minute ride through the Salt River canyons with a professional tour guide.
2. Mormon Flat Dam
Built: 1923-1925 | Height: 224 ft. | Length: 380 ft. | Electrical generation: 60 MW
For a fun adventure a bit further afield, head out to Apache Junction in the East Valley and then head up Route 88, also known as Apache Trail. After 30 minutes of winding through the Superstition Mountains, you’ll arrive at Mormon Flat Dam, which turns the Salt River into Canyon Lake. As with Saguaro Lake, Canyon Lake won’t impress you with its size, although you can boat up the Salt River for several miles.
Regardless of size, Canyon Lake offers something for everyone. Explorers can stay at one of the campgrounds or RV sites before tackling one of the many trails, including the popular Boulder Canyon trail. Swimmers and boaters can take advantage of Canyon Lake via a beach, boat ramps, or rental boats through Precision Marine. Fisherman can get their fill of rainbow trout, several types of bass, and the other types we mentioned above.
Those in the mood for a bite to eat can grab lunch or dinner at the Lakeside Restaurant & Cantina, which literally sits at the lake side. For an even more novel experience, check out The Dolly Steamboat—an actual steamboat from 1925 that offers dinner service as you cruise the canyons and waterways.
3. Horse Mesa Dam
Built: 1924-1927 | Height: 305 ft. | Length: 660 ft. | Type: Concrete thin arch | Electrical generation: 129 MW
If you’re already at Mormon Flat Dam, travel about 50 minutes up Route 88 and you’ll arrive at Horse Mesa Dam, which forms Apache Lake. The lake looks more like an extra-wide spot in the river, but its substantial length allows for some high-speed fun.
Pontoon and fishing boats are available for rent thought the Apache Lake Boat Dock, which also sells fishing and general boating supplies. The lake offers the same fishing fare as Canyon and Saguaro Lakes.
Campers can take advantage of the Apache Lake Campground, and there are RV hookups for people who prefer a different definition of “roughing it.” The site also boasts the Apache Lake Motel if you don’t like camping and don’t own an RV. You can eat lunch and dinner at the Apache Lake Restaurant and Bar.
4. Theodore Roosevelt Dam
Built: 1903-1911 | Height: 357 ft. | Length: 1,210 ft. | Type: Arch-gravity dam | Electrical generation: 36 MW
About 50 minute past Apache Lake up Route 88 lives the largest lake in Central Arizona. The Theodore Roosevelt Dam creates Theodore Roosevelt Lake, which bills itself as “Arizona’s Boating Paradise,” and claims to be nearly 10 times larger than Saguaro Lake and Canyon Lake. We will say that it certainly boasts one of the nicest websites out of any other dams/lakes on the list.
Like the other lakes, it features a full marina with rentals of pontoon boats and sport ski boats for skiing and wakeboarding. For boat owners, the marina offers concierge services for everything from basic boat maintenance to launch and recovery to full salvage operations.
For fishermen, Roosevelt Lake holds the same types of fish as the previous lakes, minus rainbow trout. Camping and RV spots are available, and the campsite features its own boat ramp. You can eat and drink at the outdoor lakeside Marina Bar, which offers a range of grilled items. A modest general store will help you out with items you forgot to bring.
5. New Waddell Dam
Built: 1985-1994 | Height: 440 ft. | Length: 4,700 ft. | Type: Embankment | Electrical generation: 54 MW
The dams and lakes mentioned so far are easily accessible for East Valley residents, but they’re a substantial trek for those in the West Valley. Fortunately, the West Valley boasts its own spot for some dam fun. Off of North I-17, head west on Route 74 (Carefree Highway) for about 20 minutes and you’ll encounter New Waddell Dam, which turns the Agua Fria River into the large Lake Pleasant.
Lake Pleasant offers plenty of opportunities for fun, with two marinas, several campgrounds and an RV spot. The marina you’re most likely to visit is Pleasant Harbor on the southeastern shore. It offers rentals on sport boats, pontoon boats, Jet Skis, kayaks, paddleboards and sail boats. There’s also a cruise boat—named “The Phoenix”—for sightseeing, sunset music cruises, dinner cruises and more.
For a comfortable overnight stay, Pleasant Harbor boasts a 5-star RV resort. Visitors can eat at the water-side Dillion’s KC BBQ. Plus, there are dock-side tables if you bring your own food.
Around the lake, to the west, you’ll find the Scorpion Bay Marina and Yacht Club. It offers rentals of pontoon boats, sport boats, kayaks, paddleboards and accessories like water skis and wakeboards. Once you’re done with the water, enjoy Scorpion Bay Grill (and bar).
On the south side of the lake, you’ll find the Roadrunner Campground, Bobcat Day Use Area with another boat ramp, and the Lake Pleasant Visitor Center. For those who want to fish, Lake Pleasant holds largemouth bass, white bass, striped bass, crappie, sunfish and catfish.
6. Bartlett Dam
Built: 1936-1939 | Height: 308.5 ft. | Length: 823 ft. | Type: Concrete, multiple-arch buttress | Electrical generation: None
If you’re into extreme water sports, Bartlett Lake should be where you look. Starting at Carefree, take a 40-minute drive out North Cave Creek Road to Service Road 205, then follow it until it becomes Bartlett Dam Road. You’ll soon arrive at Bartlett Lake Marina.
Despite being out of the way, Bartlett Lake offers some nice amenities. You can rent pontoon boats, ski boats, Jet Skis, party yachts, kayaks and paddle boards. Wakes Surf and Wake School calls Bartlett Lake home, which makes it a great place to learn how to shred on the water. After you work up an appetite, you can hit the Bartlett Lake Grill.
7. Horseshoe Dam
Built: 1944-1946 | Height: 202 ft. | Length: 1,500 ft. | Type: Embankment | Electrical generation: None
If you’re in the mood to fish rather than water ski, follow the directions to get to Barlett Lake. However, where Service Road 205 meets Bartlett Dam Road, turn north to continue on Service Road 205 for 11 miles (note that the last 9 miles are not paved) and you’ll arrive at Horseshoe Reservoir.
The Horseshoe Reservoir functions as a fish nursery with large and smallmouth bass, crappie, sunfish, channel and flathead catfish, carp and bluegill. While boats are allowed on the reservoir, there’s a 25 horsepower limit and a 20 mph speed limit. No personal watercraft, water skiing or other water events are allowed. In other words, it should be quiet with not a lot of people around.
The Verde River below the dam also feature some great fishing spots, and you can take a boat up the Verde River to reach them.
Note that the Horseshoe Lake water level can range from full to practically dry depending on water supply and demand, so check the Arizona Game & Fish weekly fishing report before driving up there.
Bonus: Tempe Town Lake Dam
Built: 2015-2016 | Height: 17 ft. | Length: ~800 ft. | Type: Hydraulically operated steel gate | Electrical generation: None
Situated at the border of Scottsdale and Tempe along Loop 202, and meant mainly for flood control, Tempe Town Lake exists thanks to a brand new hydraulically operated steel gate dam that holds back the Salt River. In fact, it happens to be the largest hydraulically operated steel gate dam in the U.S., and replaces the old inflatable rubber dam from 1999 that would occasionally burst.
The lake allows paddle boats, kayaks, rowboats, motorboats and occasionally hosts a sailboat. You can bring your own boat, but it does require a permit. Rentals and launches are from the Town Lake Marina.
The lake does contain fish, including bass, sunfish, catfish and rainbow trout in the winter months. Again, you will need a fishing license before casting your bait.
Nearby you will find the pleasant Papago Park and Mill Ave., which holds dozens of restaurants, bars and shops.
– Justin Ferris, Phoenix.org