Kayaking in and Around Tucson: The 10 Best Places to Paddle and Canoe

By James @ Sea Kayak Explorer

When you think of water sports like kayaking, you probably don’t picture the middle of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona as an ideal place for it. Indeed, Tucson, Arizona, is hot and dry for six months out of the year—and warm and dry for the rest of the year. It gets very little rain compared to the rest of the country as well.

Where, then, do you go kayaking out there? We found ten excellent gems for kayaking near Tucson that you’re sure to enjoy.

For more kayaking destinations nearby, check out our post on the best places to kayak in Arizona for more inspiration.

1. Rose Canyon Lake, AZ

Rose Canyon Lake, AZ by Bill Morrow (CC BY 2.0)

Just an hour north of midtown Tucson in the Catalina Mountains, Rose Canyon Lake is an excellent summer escape whether you’re looking to get away from the heat in the valley or enjoy camping and kayaking among the relaxing sounds of whispering pines. 

At just six acres, it’s small, and people primarily use it for swimming and to go fishing. Arizona Game and Fish regularly stocks Rose Canyon Lake with trout, but you’ll find other fish species, too. Motorized watercraft aren’t allowed, but small boats like canoes and kayaks are. 

Since it’s such a small lake nestled in the mountains, the water is remarkably calm and perfect for people who want to paddle around and relax among the fresh air and scenery. 

The lake and surrounding campgrounds are open from April to October. 

2. Peña Blanca Canyon, AZ

For year-round adventures in the water, you can visit Peña Blanca Canyon near Nogales, a little over an hour’s drive away from Tucson. The 49-acre lake that fills the canyon has clear blue waters and lies snug inside beautiful rolling hills.

Unlike other kayaking destinations near Tucson, Peña Blanca Canyon’s surrounding hills are covered in grass and scrub brush, giving it unique scenery you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the Sonoran Desert. 

You can take a daytime trip or reserve a campsite at White Rock for a longer trip. Enjoy floating around the lake or fishing, although if you choose to fish, you should be careful and avoid eating the fish you catch because of elevated mercury levels.

If you want to avoid crowds, you can visit in the winter. Overnight temps will be much cooler, and the water will be cold, but you’ll find more tranquility in cooler weather. 

3. Parker Canyon Lake, AZ

Parker Canyon Lake, AZ by Alan Stark (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Follow State Route 83 south out of Tucson and past Sonoita, and you’ll find yourself at Parker Canyon Lake. Situated an hour and a half out of Tucson, quite close to the Mexican border, you might expect to find little more than a pond, but Parker Canyon Lake is a sprawling, 130-acre body of water a mile above sea level.

You can find boat rentals, fishing gear and licenses, food, and more. Parker Canyon Lake rents Ocean Kayak sit-on-top kayaks, which are multi-purpose kayaks and take into account the wide variety of people who use them. 

You can also bring your own kayak if you prefer not to rent, and you can camp overnight and enjoy peace among beautiful junipers and oaks. 

4. Patagonia Lake State Park, AZ

We could make a joke about the dunes near Yuma standing in for summer beaches because where in the Sonoran Desert could there possibly be a beach? You often just find yourself amidst seemingly bare, dry hills with little vegetation that, at first glance, could not possibly support a lake.  

However, there’s a hidden gem if you follow the signs and back roads for an hour and a half southeast of Tucson. There you’ll discover Patagonia Lake State Park, which serves as Tucson’s summer beach destination. 

Patagonia Lake is 2.5 miles long, and people find all kinds of fun on its beaches and campgrounds year-round. Paddle along the smooth, calm waters in the summer on the far side of the lake from the motorboats or hike along the 25 miles’ worth of trails to find the peace and solace you so desire.

5. Tempe Town Lake, AZ

A man-made lake near Arizona State University in (technically near Phoenix) and an hour and a half north-northwest of Tucson, Tempe Town Lake gives you the perfect combination of outdoor water sports and a bustling urban environment.

You can rent single and double kayaks, as well as other kinds of non-motorized boats, so if you want to go with a friend or as a group, you can. You also have the option of going anytime between 5:00 am and 10:00 pm, so if long days in the sun and on the water are your jam, you can go for it here.

6. Roper Lake State Park, AZ

High lakes make excellent vacation getaways, and when they’re away from the larger tourist locations, they’re even better. Roper Lake State Park, two hours east of Tucson near Safford and Mt. Graham, makes a picture-perfect idea of a family-friendly vacation destination.

You can rent a cabin or a campsite, or if you’re just there for a day, use the picnic area when you’re taking breaks from kayaking around in the water. 

Roper Lake requires you to follow all state laws and regulations regarding watercraft, including having enough life preservers for everyone in your boat. Other than that and a ban on gas engines, you can float around on whatever you like while enjoying Roper Lake.

7. Cluff’s Ranch Wildlife Area, AZ

A little over two hours east of Tucson near Willcox, Cluff’s Ranch Wildlife Area is a former working ranch with a total area of 788 acres and has a lake situated at the base of the Pinaleños Mountains. Enjoy the splendor of a high desert setting with small riparian areas and wetlands nearby.

Cluff’s Ranch has a boat launch from which you can launch your kayak. And since this is one of southern Arizona’s best-kept secrets, you’ll get the quiet you might have trouble finding elsewhere.

The area contains a series of ponds, one of which Arizona Fish and Wildlife stocks with rainbow trout every winter. You can fish for bass, bluegill, catfish, and more in Pond #3 as long as you have a license. Understandably, you must have a license for your boat, too. 

8. Saguaro Lake, AZ

Just over two hours north-northeast of Tucson, in the Salt River Canyon, you’ll find one of several lakes that lie along the Salt River. Saguaro Lake is at the top of the Lower Salt River, and you can paddle in and out of secluded coves and around magnificent shores with towering cliffs behind them.

You don’t need experience, but you do need to go through a short safety orientation. You also need reservations, and double kayaks aren’t allowed. 

However, the Salt River Canyon is one of the jewels of the Sonoran Desert. You can see wildlife, including wild horses, osprey, deer, great blue herons, and even bald eagles out there, all without needing the experience necessary to safely navigate the rapids upriver.

9. Canyon Lake, AZ

Canyon Lake, AZ by Kevin Stuart (CC BY 2.0)

Not much farther northeast along the Salt River sits Canyon Lake, one of the most popular lakes in southern Arizona. Besides paddling around Canyon Lake itself, you can also kayak your way into side canyons and coves that are too shallow for pretty much any other watercraft besides canoes. 

In those coves, you can see wildlife and interesting plants, and the water is so clear you can easily see the bottom along with reflections of the sky, cliffs, and gorgeous rock formations.

You don’t need a permit to visit Canyon Lake, but you do need a special pass to use the nearby parking lots and to venture onto its waters. You can park at picnic and boating sites and have an amazing adventure few others get to experience.

If you want to rent a kayak, Precision Marine services both Canyon Lake and Saguaro Lake.

10. Upper Salt River, AZ

Are there really rivers in Arizona that have rapids and aren’t in the Grand Canyon? Yes. The Upper Salt River, with its series of lakes, is situated in its own canyon a little under three hours from Tucson. This river has it all when it comes to river kayaking.

When to go depends on the Stewart Dam, which tends to allow more water through during the summer months. You have your choice of put-in points, too, but you have to have a permit and an experienced leader to ride the Class I, II, and III rapids. 

If you’ve never done it before, your best bet is booking a kayak trip with a tour company so you can experience rapids along with the slower, lazier parts of any kayaking trip without having any prior experience.

Summing up the Best Places to Kayak Near Tucson

As you can see, there aren’t any places within the Tucson city limits that are suitable for kayaking. The rivers and streams that run through the city are dry beds most of the time. When they do run, it’s due to a heavy rain event, and their currents are fast, dangerous, and full of obstacles. There’s also nowhere to safely put in and pull out. 

That doesn’t mean there’s nowhere to enjoy kayaking, though. That part of southern Arizona has tons of hidden gems that are excellent for people who love water sports and want to experience them in the desert Southwest.