Cruising Saguaro Lake in Mesa, Arizona

Saguaro Lake Marina

First Desert Belle Paddleboat in Red Docked Near Stewart Mountain Dam (Chris Eirschele, c 2013)

We are waiting for our boat’s captain to signal time to board the Desert Belle. I watched from above where we stood on the stone walkway, below baby ducks and their mother was swimming among the pilings supporting the maze of wooden docks. The little ducks rode the waves, which eventually lapped the rocky shoreline.

The Desert Belle was docked at its own pier, though cruisers, pontoons and sailboats were parked at the Saguaro Lake Marina, too. A cruise on the simmering blue water is tempting enough, but what brought me here is my interest in the plants and the animals living among the rock formations that call the Saguaro Lake home.

In Your Bucket Because . . .

  • You want to experience the largest national forests in the United States.
  • You want to see the plants, animals and rocky Sonora Desert landscape without hiking.
  • You want a refreshing day trip while visiting the region around Phoenix, Arizona.
  • Good for families with young children and for persons with physical limitations.
Marshes at Saguaro Lake

Saguaro Lake Surrounded by Rocky Walls and Boggy Marshes Dotted with Cactus (Chuck Eirschele, c 2013)

Plants and Wildlife Edging the Freshwater Lake

Saguaro Lake is a freshwater body created when the Stewart Mountain Dam was built across the Salt River running through the Sonora Desert. We are riding a new version of the original Desert Belle paddleboat built in 1964, and have double-decker seating to accommodate up to 150 passengers. Today, a cool breeze is blowing and the big blue canvas canopy stretched over the top deck, where we decided to sit, is big enough to shield us from the burning rays of the Arizona sun.

Once under way, we saw a grand view of Four Peaks from approximately 20 miles away. The mountain vista is seen from a variety of local perspectives, including from behind vehicles while driving around the state: Four Peaks is outlined on the Arizona license plate. Part of the Mazatzal Mountain Range, Four Peaks has an elevation of 7,657 feet, contains the second largest amethyst mine in the United States and the Four Peaks Wilderness Area, home to a large black bear population.

The rock overhanging the lake is made up of lava, volcanic ash and granite. Captain Tom, our Desert Belle skipper, is also our tour guide and entertains us throughout the cruise with facts about the lake. The green, yellow and reddish patches are lichen. Made of algae and fungi, the lichen breaks down creating a base of soil, which affords plants with a short root system a foothold. These plants, in turn, provide food and shelter for the wildlife.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron Nest Around Razorback Point (Chuck Eirschele, c 2013)

We saw black streaks on rock created from the ash repeatedly washed by cascading rain storms. We passed Willow Springs Canyon, a nesting area for the American bald eagle, and Razorback Point and the boggy marshes, where colonies of Great Blue Heron come to hatch their eggs in summer.

A variety of native trees are living among the cactus around Saguaro Lake. A stand of Mesquite trees (Prosopis velutina) lining the upper shoreline comes into view. The desert ironwood (Oyneya tesota) paints itself with its purple and lavender flowers in spring.

Saguaro Cacti Namesake of Saguaro Lake

The Saguaro cacti (Carnegiea gigantea) are everywhere: In the cracks and crevices of rock, above the Mesquite trees, off the shore-line and in every frame of picture we are snapping. The plant’s tenacious hold is impressive given its 20-inch tap root, which grows deep but is relatively short for such a large species, and the spidery roots that can extend out the height of the plant, but remain only 4” – 5” below the soil’s surface.

Hummingbird and Cactus Flowers

Hummingbird Flies in to Pollinate Saguaro Cactus (Chuck Eirschele, c 2013)

The arms of the Saguaro begin growing when the plant is approximately 60 years old. But the cactus does have one big threat, frost. We saw evidence of the local frost that the desert experienced this past winter. Saguaro with blackened arms, which would eventually lower and fall off, had permanent disfigurement.

It seemed comically out of balance, the immense Saguaro capped off with small white flowers, like little top hats. The hummingbirds, insects and the long-nosed bat, who is a specific nighttime pollinator of Saguaro, pollinate desert plants around the lake.

Desert Belle on Saguaro Lake in Tonto National Forest

Saguaro Cactus with Mesquite Trees

A Saguaro Cactus Waves Good-bye (Chuck Eirschele, c 2013)

Captain Tom is a lively guy who varies his extensive commentary about Saguaro Lake by entertaining us with play-lists of country-western music. The crowd of passengers is a mix from the very young to the very senior: Captain Tom is a success as his passengers are all smiling and laughing.

Tonto National Forest has almost three million acres of rugged urban forests making it the fifth largest national forest in the United States. The variety of altitudes, ranging from 1,300 to 7,900 feet, is made up of deserts and mountains landscapes bordered by the city of Phoenix and Fort Apache Indian Reservations. The Stewart Mountain Dam was built 1928 – 1930, and has a crested elevation of 1529 feet above sea level. During summer months, the dam generates hydroelectric power for the area.

Salt River was named by Spanish explorers in the 1600s for the salt deposits they saw on the banks of the river. Despite its name, the river and the man-made lake supports wildlife like bighorn sheep and birds with fresh water. The Saguaro Lake is a prime fishing spot, especially with the 220 fish structures the Arizona Fish and Wildlife has built to mimic reefs for fish to live in the lake.

More than 200 edible plants in the Sonora Desert help feed the wildlife around the lake. When the lake is busy with too much noise from boaters, wildlife may stay away from the shoreline; they have plenty of rocky washes in which to hide.

With ducks on the dock andr birds flying above, cruising Saguaro Lake was a memorable experience, topped off with a farewell from a Saguaro cactus with an unusual appendage waving good-bye.


  • Paying for admission with debit or charge cards can only be done online: In-person, guests should expect to pay with US dollars, and for refreshments on board the boat.
  • A pass or permit is not needed to access the Saguaro Lake Marina for a cruise on the Desert Belle. However, passes and permits are required for recreation in Tonto National Forest.
  • Smoking is not allowed outside or inside on the boat during the tour.
  • The Desert Belle operator gives each child a life-preserver to wear during the cruise.

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