It’s true that Arizona is best known for its dramatic desert landscapes, but these arid regions also have hundreds of miles of riverbanks and lakeshore beaches, where you can sun yourself on pristine white sand or water ski past stately saguaro cactuses.
And if you’re a little more adventurous, you can find unspoiled swimming holes cloaked by forests and hot springs bubbling up amid box canyons. Here are our seven favorite beaches in Arizona for water-bound activities.
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Best beach for rafting
As iconic Arizona photo ops go, this 270-degree bend carved 1000ft deep into the Colorado River near Page gets tons of attention. Although most people simply admire Horseshoe Bend at the overlook in Glen Canyon Recreation Area, the ultimate way to experience its outsize allure is by rafting the river through the canyon with its sandstone walls rising 700ft all around.
A number of outfitters in the area offer half-day excursions traveling roughly 15 miles on the Colorado River. Tours often stop at a swimming beach that also has a trail leading to Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs before continuing to Horseshoe Bend.
Best beach for cliff jumping
When you want to take the plunge by jumping off a cliff into clear water, head to the Bull Pen day-use area on West Clear Creek in Camp Verde. The secluded swimming hole just 27 miles south of Sedona situated between Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle national monuments is also a superb spot for simply lounging on the pebbly shore or wading in the water. To get to this unspoiled swath of nature, drive to the end of Bull Pen Road, then walk about a mile. It’s also a jumping-off point for hiking Blodgett Basin and West Clear Creek trails through pinyon-juniper forests slickrock waterslides and shady spots for fishing.
Along with its year-round mild weather, Camp Verde celebrates what it calls “curiosities:” it’s the designated geographical center of Arizona, the site where a 135-pound iron meteorite was dug up in an abandoned pueblo (a stegomastodon was also unearthed in nearby Clarkdale) and it's home to Tee Pee Rocks, conical volcanic formations called fumaroles, which geologists believe were formed 700 million years ago.
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Slide Rock State Park
Best beach for swimming
Sedona is celebrated for its ancient monoliths, but there’s an ultra-cool oasis carved out of the rusty-red sandstone – namely a natural slide. At Slide Rock State Park, you can launch yourself down an 80ft chute that will spit you out into Oak Creek’s cool water. Even if skimming your butt along a stone slide isn’t your idea of fun, you can still snag a shady spot on the shore at this family-friendly park.
Set on the site of a historic homestead and apple orchard, the park’s landscape and nature trails are home to 140 species of birds, plus bigger animals such as black bears and javelina, Arizona’s loved and loathed collared peccary.
Best beach for boating
Giant cactuses with arms outstretched toward shimmering water might seem to be out of sync, but Arizona is all about cool convergences. Like the aptly named Saguaro Lake located about 45 miles from Phoenix in Tonto National Forest, which is part of the Sonoran Desert that sprawls across most of the southern half of Arizona. One of the Salt River’s four reservoirs, Saguaro Lake was shaped after the Stewart Mountain Dam was completed in 1930.
Launch your boat from one of the two marinas (arrive early; the parking lots fill up fast) to waterski the 10-mile-long lake in summer or stake out swimming spots at Captain’s Cove, Sadie Beach or at Pebble Beach on the Lower Salt River. An idyllic way to see the stars among the saguaros is to camp overnight at Bagley Flat. It’s free for up to 14 days, but the site’s 10 spots are only accessible by boat.
From October through to April, Saguaro Lake also lures anglers hoping to hook 10-plus-pound bass or massive 30-pound carp in its depths. Many make their base in one of the 20 rustic cottages at the historic Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, which was originally built as a camp for the crew constructing the dam. The ranch also offers kayaking and tubing trips.
Arizona Hot Springs
Best beach for adventurers
Finding these steaming pools on the Arizona Hot Spring Trail takes some effort, but the payoff is incredible: 111° F hot pools for soothing your muscles post-hike, plus a 20ft waterfall, an otherworldly slot canyon studded with sagebrush, desert fir and bright-orange globe mallow. Starting off at the trailhead located in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, just over four miles east of the Hoover Dam, you’ll soon feel the burn on this trek, not because of the summer heat – the trails and springs are closed from May 15 to September 30 – but from the 750ft gain in elevation. (The National Park Service rates the trail as “very strenuous.”)
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Patagonia Lake State Park
Best beach in the desert
Pretty Patagonia Lake State Park is one of those high-desert sanctuaries that seems to pop up out of nowhere. Situated 75 miles south of Tucson (and 16 miles from Nogales, the entry point into Mexico), the park is framed by 3750ft hills and Arizona’s largest concentration of vineyards and wineries in the Sonoita American Viticultural Area.
With boat ramps, camping sites and a nearby market, Patagonia State Park is a great base to while away the day waterskiing, picnicking, fishing for bluegill and watching for wildlife, whether white-tailed deer or great blue herons. Not surprisingly, a number of Westerns were filmed in the area, including Tombstone; the historic city is 63 miles south, but the movie wasn’t made there.
The artificial lake’s namesake town was also once a supply hub for the mining industry and military. Oddly enough, train tracks from the 1882 New Mexico and Arizona Railroad – which served the mines and military forts – sit beneath the water. If you can rip yourself away from the lake for long enough, learn more about the area’s hardscrabble history in the Patagonia Museum or at the Fort Huachuca Museum (on the site of the active 1887 military base that was home to the Buffalo Soldiers).
London Bridge Beach
Best beach for families
One of Arizona’s most idiosyncratic swimming spots is undoubtedly London Bridge Beach in Lake Havasu City. Situated on Havasu Lake’s 400 miles of shoreline, this party zone has alluring white-sand beaches, blue-green water, and its namesake bridge, dubbed “the world’s largest antique.”
The 30,000-ton stone bridge was shipped over from England in 1968 and reassembly was completed in 1971. (Those vintage lamps decking the structure? The metal was reclaimed from cannons used by Napoleon’s army.) Now it sits on this beachside reservoir formed by the Parker Dam, which also divides the Arizona and California sides of the Colorado River.
Along with those sandy shores for suntanning and clear water for swimming, the beach park is fully equipped with basketball and sand volleyball courts, covered playgrounds and a dozen covered shelters with barbecues. Activity amps up even more during the summer months when Arizona and California residents beeline to this beach to cool off. But if you’re seeking a little solitude, rent a stand-up paddleboard or kayak to cruise the calm waters of Bridgewater Channel.
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