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Arizona's Beautiful Canyon Lake

Updated on March 13, 2017
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Chuck enjoys traveling and over the years has had the opportunity to visit many places in the U.S. and the world.

A Lake in the Arizona Desert

Despite its location in the deserts of the American Southwest, Arizona has a surprising number of beautiful lakes.

The lakes are the result of the numerous dams found on many of the state’s rivers. Like dams elsewhere these dams were constructed for water management and or electricity generation. However the primary reason for the majority is water collection

Canyon Lake Arizona

View of Canyon Lake from AZ Hwy 88
View of Canyon Lake from AZ Hwy 88 | Source

In addition to collecting water for agriculture and human consumption these man-made lakes are also great recreation sites with people flocking to them for boating, fishing, swimming and other water sports.

One of these lakes, conveniently located about an hour’s drive east of Downtown Phoenix, is Canyon Lake. Sandwiched between the towering cliffs of the surrounding Superstition Mountains, this beautiful little lake was created in 1925 by the construction of the Mormon Flat Dam across the Salt River.

Canyon Lake is the the third and smallest of four lakes created by dams along the Salt River. Two of the other lakes, Apache Lake and Theodore Roosevelt Lake, are located up river east of Canyon Lake and the fourth, Saguaro Lake, is located downstream.

Overlooking First Water Creek as it Flows into Canyon Lake

My wife looking down on boats in First Water Creek with Canyon Lake at top.
My wife looking down on boats in First Water Creek with Canyon Lake at top. | Source

A Great Place to Visit

While Canyon Lake’s primary function is as a reservoir to store water for use in the Phoenix area, it is also a great recreation area for boating, swimming, fishing, hiking, camping and just relaxing and enjoying the views.

Canyon Lake in Superstition Mountains Near Phoenix, AZ

A markerCanyon Lake, Arizona -
Canyon Lake, Arizona, USA
get directions

Canyon Lake on the Salt River and AZ Highway 88 (Apache Lake is in upper right hand corner of map)

Canyon Lake and much of the surrounding Tonto National Forest offer great opportunities in winter for locals and visitors as the mild climate is conducive to boating, fishing, hiking and camping.

Prickly Pear Cactus in Bloom

Flower on Prickly Pear Cactus in bloom along Second Water Trail abovet Canyon Lake, Arizona
Flower on Prickly Pear Cactus in bloom along Second Water Trail abovet Canyon Lake, Arizona | Source

Campground Closed in Summer

Sign shows Campground by Canyon Lake closed May 1-Sep 30.  Winter, not Summer, is the tourist season here.
Sign shows Campground by Canyon Lake closed May 1-Sep 30. Winter, not Summer, is the tourist season here. | Source

Warm Winter Climate

Since Canyon Lake and Saguaro Lake, both near Phoenix, are located at elevations of 1,500 feet or less which gives them and the surrounding mountains a climate much the same as Phoenix. Snow and cold weather are very rare in Phoenix.

My wife and I took a boat trip on Saguaro Lake in January a couple of years ago. I was comfortable in a short sleeve shirt and slacks and observed people sunning themselves on sandy coves along the shore. Summer, of course will be quite warm very much like the weather in Phoenix during the hot summer months.

Other Attractions

In addition to simply enjoying and/or photographing the rugged natural beauty, the area offers the casual tourist who lacks the time or inclination for boating, fishing, swimming or hiking additional options as well.

The Canyon Lake Marina, located just past the bridge over the wide First Water Creek which flows into the lake also offers a restaurant overlooking the lake. The Canyon Lake Marina is also the place where visitors can board the Dolly Steamboat, a tour boat that looks like an old time Mississippi River boat and offers guided cruises around the lake including a sunset dinner cruise.

The Superstition Mountains are also the location of the legendary Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, a gold mine discovered in the 1890s by a German immigrant, Jacob Waltz, who claimed to have found this rich vein of gold but never disclosed its location.

While is gold in the mountains, the mine claimed to have been discovered by Waltz has never been found. As one enters the mountains on Highway 88 there is a Lost Dutchman museum as well as a Lost Dutchman State Park further down the road.

Kayaks in First Water Creek Heading Toward Canyon Lake

Kayaks  in First Water Creek being paddled toward Canyon Lake (at top of picture)
Kayaks in First Water Creek being paddled toward Canyon Lake (at top of picture) | Source

A little further down the road is the Goldfield Ghost Town, a late nineteenth century mining town next to a real mine. The gold mine has long since been depleted but the town has been preserved as a tourist attraction and is an interesting place to spend a couple of hours or so visiting.

The Lost Dutchman Museum, Lost Dutchman State Park and Goldfield are all located within a mile of each other along Highway 88 just as you leave Apache Junction and start to enter the Superstition Mountains.

As you pass Goldfield Ghost Town the highway becomes very winding and the elevation begins to increase. Canyon Lake is about ten miles from this point but the speed limit can be as low as 10 mph on many of the curves and you will also want to take advantage of the many turnoffs for viewing the surrounding scenery which is spectacular.

Two miles past Canyon Lake is the small, unincorporated village of Tortilla Flat which began life as a small stagecoach stop in the late 1890s or early 1900s. With the start of the construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam and the construction of the road from Tortilla Flat to the site of the then proposed dam, Tortilla Flat became an important stop for water and supplies being hauled to the dam construction site.

With the completion of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam traffic on the population, which apparently never exceeded 100 or so people, declined. Today Tortilla Flat has a population of 6 and has seen a rebirth of sorts as a tourist attraction.

The town itself sits mostly on one side of the highway and is about the size of one side of a modern city block. While Tortilla Flat doesn’t compare to the nearby Goldfield Ghost Town in terms of size and attractions, it does have its own unique charm as well as a couple of places to eat.

We did stop and have lunch at the Superstition Saloon and Restaurant. The food and service were very good. In addition to its food, the restaurant is also noted for its unique wallpaper. The walls of the restaurant are covered with real paper money. Most are U.S. one dollar bills but there are some larger denominations as well as some foreign paper currency.

Over the years many people have signed and or written a note on the a dollar or other bill and left it to be posted on the wall. Over the years thousands of diners have done this because not only is every square inch of wall space covered with real paper money but in places where some is starting to peel off one can see that there is one or more layers of paper money underneath.

Town of Tortilla Flat, Arizona

Tortilla Flat Ghost Town on AZ Hwy 88 east of Canyon Lake.  Picture encompasses the entire town.
Tortilla Flat Ghost Town on AZ Hwy 88 east of Canyon Lake. Picture encompasses the entire town. | Source

Getting to Canyon Lake

Canyon Lake can be reached from central Phoenix by taking the Arizona 202 Loop east to Arizona Route 88 in Apache Junction and then following Route 88 east to Canyon Lake and the restored ghost town of Tortilla Flat which is 2 miles east of Canyon Lake. Arizona 202 Loop is a modern freeway.

From the southern part of Phoenix, Canyon Lake can be reached by taking U.S. Route 60 east to Apache Junction and Arizona Route 88.

Highway 88 is the historic Apache Trail which is an old West stagecoach road through the Superstition Mountains. Prior to the stagecoach line Apache Trail was used Apache Indians (hence the name Apache Trail) and other earlier tribes as a route through the Superstition Mountains. Route 88 is a two lane paved highway (with a couple of one lane bridges that cross streams flowing into Canyon Lake) with numerous hairpin curves as it winds its way through the mountains.

Getting to Canyon Lake from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport

show route and directions
A markerPhoenix Sky Harbor Airport -
Sky Harbor Airport, 4121 S Central Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85040, USA
get directions

B markerCanyon Lake, Arizona -
Canyon Lake, Arizona, USA
get directions

Along Trail on Upper Portion of First Water Creek

Shallow waters of First Water Creek in Canyon above where it flows into Canyon Lake in Arizona
Shallow waters of First Water Creek in Canyon above where it flows into Canyon Lake in Arizona | Source

Goldfield Ghost Town

Goldfield Ghost Town and Mine Tour site in Superstition Mountains near Phoenix, AZ
Goldfield Ghost Town and Mine Tour site in Superstition Mountains near Phoenix, AZ | Source

© 2017 Chuck Nugent

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    • Chuck profile image
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      Chuck Nugent 9 days ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Peggy Woods - Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the Hub.

      There are actually 4 lakes along the Salt River which flows westward towards Phoenix from the mountains in northeast Arizona. All four plus a wide area of the river in Phoenix were all created by dams on the Salt River. The dams manage both the water supply for Phoenix as well as produce electricity. Canyon Lake and Saguaro Lake are both relatively close to Phoenix and easily accessible by care from Phoenix. The other two lakes are east of Canyon Lake. Both can be reached by continuing to drive east along State Highway 88 (also known as Apache Trail) from Canyon Lake. However, shortly after leaving Canyon Lake Hwy 88 becomes more of a trail than a highway. The road is winding, very narrow in most places (a little wider than 1 lane although traffic travels in both directions) and much of it consists of a rocky mountain wall on the inside and a steep drop off on the other side. We have driven it twice in my wife's Mazda CX5. The views and scenery are spectacular. However, I did the driving with my wife in the passenger seat with white knuckles most of the way. Apache Trail is the only way to reach Apache Lake while the large Roosevelt Lake at the east end is also accessible from the south via State Highway 188. Roosevelt Lake, located next to the town of Roosevelt (both named after President Theodore Roosevelt who was a supporter of the Salt River Project and similar projects in the western U.S.) is the largest of these lake and a great place to visit as well.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 10 days ago from Houston, Texas

      I remember years ago traveling up into the Superstition Mountains after a manager's meeting in Phoenix. We were with another couple and did see a beautiful lake. I no longer remember which lake it was.

      Your photos are beautiful. After reading your article I would love to be able to spend more time in that area hiking and getting to see more of the natural beauty.

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