Phoenix may be one of the USA’s hottest cities – but there are plenty of places in and around this Southwestern city to cool down with a refreshing dip.

When you’re exploring the desert, after all, any body of water feels like an oasis – including the 20ft Arizona Falls, a gathering place for locals in the Acadia neighborhood since the 1800s. Despite the sandy desert, sandy beaches are harder to come by in Greater Phoenix – though lakes and rivers in the region offer alluring places to swim surrounded by cactuses, catch carp in the depths and even spot wild horses while on the water. 

Here are our favorite Greater Phoenix beaches, many just a short trip from downtown. 

Kayakers paddle their boats on the Salt River against rocky mountains in shadow
On the Upper Salt River, 2000ft granite canyon walls, wildflowers and colossal cactuses add to the otherworldly atmosphere © Kyle George / Getty Images / Aurora Open

Salt River

Although Great Phoenix’s Salt River (in the Tonto National Forest) twists through the desert for more than 200 miles, its various segments are decidedly different, depending on whether you’re looking for chill time or an adrenaline rush. Head to the Lower Salt River (in Mesa, about 40 minutes from Phoenix) for a lazy afternoon of kayaking or tubing, propelled by the gentle current. The Lower Salt is a beloved spot, where wild horses are frequently seen frolicking along the shore. Also called mustangs, these animals are believed to be descendants of horses introduced to Arizona by a Spanish missionary in the 17th century.

To ride Class II to III white water rapids, head for the Upper Salt River (a bit farther out), where surrounding 2000ft granite canyon walls, wildflowers and colossal cactuses add to the otherworldly atmosphere. Unless you’re an experienced rafter, join a guided tour. Outfitters offer half-day (or longer) excursions, leading you five to 10 miles downriver.

Canyon Lake

It’s no surprise that Greater Phoenix’s beaches get busy in the (very) hot summer months – yet a secluded spot can still be yours at Canyon Lake, 50 miles from the city in Tonto National Forest. Steep red-rock canyon walls characterize the east end of the 950-acre lake, where you can cruise your boat in solitude and cast your line for rainbow trout and large-mouth bass. While you’re waiting for the big one to bite, watch for bighorn sheep wandering by and bald eagles drifting overhead. 

If you’re short on time or don’t want to venture out on a boat, check out the lake’s dedicated recreational areas, which offer swimming spots and picnic sites. 

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Tempe Town Lake

If you haven’t tested your balance on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), Tempe Town Lake is an excellent place to get acquainted with the sport (or take it to the next level with a guided SUP yoga class). Located in 25-acre Tempe Beach Park, a historic gathering place for Valley residents since it opened in the 1930s, the lake itself was formed in 1999 by damming a two-mile span of the Salt River. This expansive recreational playground situated in downtown Tempe lures boaters, kayakers and stand-up paddlers to its calm waters. Rent equipment on site and expect an afternoon of easy adventure.

Boats docked at the marina of Saguaro Lake with desert cliffs in the distance
Water sports come with dramatic desert views at Saguaro Lake © iStock / Getty Images Plus

Saguaro Lake

If hooking a 30-pound carp while surrounded by Arizona’s iconic saguaro cactus framing a lake sparkling in the desert sun sounds like your thing, head to the 10-mile-long Saguaro Lake, located about 45 miles from Phoenix in Tonto National Forest. There are two boat launches at this Salt River reservoir, which was created in 1930 when the Steward Mountain Dam was completed. You can even go for a swim at Sadie Beach and Pebble Beach. 

Want to avoid the buzz of boats? Seek out the bay in front of the Butcher Jones Recreation Site (watch for wild horses), which features a bona fide sandy beach and is closed to motorized watercraft.

A wild horse drinks next to kayakers and swimmers in the Salt River
Wild horses find the Butcher Jones Recreation Site as popular as people do © iStock / Getty Images Plus

Lake Pleasant 

A mere 40 minutes north of Phoenix is a seemingly boundless expanse of blue water that debunks cliches about barren desert landscapes. Lake Pleasant Regional Park encompasses an impressive 10,000 acres of water, with marinas equipped for boating activities (and rentals), including wakeboarding, water-skiing, fishing for bass and even inland scuba diving. One of Lake Pleasant’s unexpected attractions is a biggie: H2 Whoa! has earned Guinness’s endorsement as the World's Largest Floating Waterslide. Want to expand your beach-bound day trip? Plan ahead to snag a campsite on the shoreline.

The park itself has a long and fascinating history: between 700 and 1450 CE, the area was occupied by Indigenous peoples, with five archeological sites having been discovered so far, including two villages, a farmhouse, a stone workshop and a defensive site.

Bartlett Lake

Shoreline camping under the stars? Or cruising on a party yacht with your nineteen closest friends? You can indulge in both at Bartlett Lake, 48 miles from downtown Phoenix. The diversity of this recreational spot is part of its allure. The west side is a haven for picnicking, camping, swimming, and communing (from a distance) with wildlife like coyotes and javelina. Some areas like Rattlesnake Cove are closed to motorized watercraft, but if you have a need for speed, Jet Skis can be rented at the marina, along with a two-level 45ft pontoon boat.

You might also like:
The 5 best neighborhoods to explore on your trip to Greater Phoenix
15 free things to do in Phoenix
The ultimate guide to a weekend in Phoenix, Arizona

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