Scottsdale is renowned for its stunning desert landscapes, luxurious resorts, foodie culture and vibrant nightlife. But bodies of water? Not exactly. However, just a short drive from the city center, adventure seekers will find an unexpectedly different type of tranquility, gliding across the area’s serene lakes and rivers.
Paddling, whether seated in a kayak or atop a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), is a fantastic way to both unwind and exercise, connect with nature, and savor the beauty surrounding Scottsdale. Whether you’re an avid paddler or a novice, these five destinations offer something for everyone.
Just 30 minutes northeast of Scottsdale, Saguaro Lake offers year-round paddling amidst the rugged Tonto National Forest. Colorful desert cliffs and towering saguaro cacti surround the lake, creating a picturesque backdrop for your adventure (especially at sunrise and sunset!).
Saguaro Lake is especially popular for paddle camping and fishing. Exactly what it sounds like, you can fish from your kayak or SUP, or load your gear up and camp along the lake! Riverbound Sports and other local outfitters provide rentals with onsite delivery, and REI’s two Phoenix-area stores offer guided adventures for all experience levels.
Bartlett Lake is a hidden gem for paddlers seeking a quieter, less crowded experience. With minimal boat traffic and being less frequented in general, it’s a tranquil spot for kayaking or paddleboarding near Scottsdale.
About an hour north of Scottsdale and surrounded by the Tonto National Forest, the lake is clear and pristine, complemented by gorgeous desert scenery. Another bonus that comes with fewer crowds is frequent wildlife sightings. Keep your eyes open for javelinas, wild burros, eagles, and coyotes! Bring your own kayaks or SUPs, or rent onsite at the Bartlett Lake Marina. There are also a variety of classes, including Full Moon Night Paddles and SUP Yoga. Dogs are also welcome!
For a quick, convenient place to go kayaking or paddleboarding near Scottsdale—whether after work, for spur of the moment date nights, or days when you just don’t feel much like driving—head to Tempe Town Lake. Sure, you’ll trade unobstructed views for an urban landscape, but you truly can’t beat the convenience.
The 2-mile-long inlet was created specifically as a training facility for local rowing and sailing teams (that’s right—sailing in southern Arizona!), so the conditions are ideal for paddling. Several local outfitters organize paddling meetups, offer lessons, and rent kayaks and SUPs, and some even deliver to the lake.
If a river is more your speed (literally!), head east for paddleboarding the Salt River. A few miles downriver from Saguaro Lake in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, there are several sections ideal for paddling. You’ll find both calm sections for leisurely floating and thrilling rapids for more experienced adventurers.
In particular, many people put in at the Phon D. Sutton Recreation Area or Coon Bluff, then paddle down to the Granite Reef Dam. It’s important to note that if you’re not going out with a guide, you’ll need to set up a vehicle shuttle to have cars at each end. Also, while you can technically paddle the Salt year-round, it’s heavily dependent on streamflow. You can monitor this yourself on SRP’s website. 500-1,500 cfs (cubic feet per second) is ideal.
One last thing: summer on the Salt River means tubing season. Get an early start to avoid the crowds. You have a better chance of seeing the iconic wild horses then, too!
About 45 minutes east, Canyon Lake is one of the most popular places to go paddleboarding near Scottsdale. As its name suggests, steep canyon walls mesmerize paddlers, while turquoise waters provide a natural oasis in the desert.
With its calm waters and several coves where motorboats are prohibited, Canyon Lake seems to cater specifically to paddlers. The eastern side of the lake is generally even calmer, with no waves to contend with. Vendors also rent kayaks and SUPs at the Canyon Lake Marina, so you can just show up and explore the lake.
In addition to these five places to enjoy kayaking and paddleboarding in Scottsdale, you’ll find many others if you venture a bit farther out. Lake Pleasant is just 45 minutes northwest, while Watson Lake in Prescott and the stretch of the Verde River near Clarkdale are considered some of the best places to paddle in the entire state.