by Phil Rowe
The title may seem oxymoronic, but it is real. Most folks don't realize that the desert southwest of the United States has many
bodies of water large enough for boating. Yes indeed it does, and some breathtakingly beautiful ones too.
I am an avid touring kayaker and delight in exploring different lakes and quiet rivers in my single-seat (K-1) sea kayak. I am
not a white-water, crash-against-the-rocks paddler. Not me. I am just a flat water sailor with a penchant for observing wildlife
or the scenery from my stable and fast little craft. It's also great exercise.
Some of the high desert lakes are truly magnificent. New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Arizona offer paddlers, like me, a
great variety of lakes and streams to explore. Up and down the Rio Grande there are several man-made lakes worthy of note.
Cochiti Lake, just south of Santa Fe, is about six miles long and over a mile wide in places. It's a popular fishing and water
sports area for folks in central New Mexico. I really enjoy paddling in the narrows at the north end, where it's most scenic
and varied wildlife shares the waters with quiet paddlers.
South of Albuquerque, about two hours via I-25, is a huge lake called Elephant Butte Reservoir, named for the hills just to the
east. It's western shore provide waterfront parks for the city of Truth or Consequences. The name of that town is a whole
separate story. But the lake is really nice, though at times a bit windy. Fishing is very popular and some good-sized trout and
bass are frequently taken. Down near the dam at the south end the waters are surprisingly clear.
There are campgrounds, several boat launching ramps and other amenities to meet sportsman's needs. This lake offers great
kayak touring during the less windy months of autumn. It's just too hot for me in summer though, with temperatures getting up
around 100 then. I much prefer the cooler and less busy periods after Labor Day.
Up in northern Arizona and along southern Utah's border is one of the very best, Lake Powell. I really enjoy the eastern end,
where the high cliffs and narrow coves and inlets are protected from the winds. It's also less crowded there because the big
boaters prefer the westerly portions.
Lake Powell has got to be one of America's most scenic lakes. It's a huge body of water that extends from the dam at Page,
Arizona over 100 miles to the east and north into Utah. The lake is very popular with house-boaters and those with cabin cruisers that provide overnight on-the-water accommodations. Once you leave the few widely separated shoreline communities there are no facilities at all. It's pretty much a wilderness area and that's part of the attraction. Be sure to bring your camera and
lots of film.
This lake is surrounded by mountains and high red-rock cliffs.It features dozens of interesting and inviting bays and coves
that offer quiet seclusion. Wildlife viewing, especially for a great variety of birds, is marvelous. And the fishing is fine
too, so don't forget your rod and reel.
In south central Colorado, just west of the Continental Divide on US-50 is Blue Mesa reservoir, a little west of Gunnison in
the high desert hills. This enormous lake is well worth the trip for fishing or just plain boating and sightseeing. Its east-west
orientation sometimes results in rough waters when the winds blow and they do blow at times, but several large north-south
coves provide quiet shelter.
A marina along the north shore provides supplies, fuel and some repair services for boats and motors. For kayakers, like me,
that's not a worry. Bring warm clothing, even in the summer, for the lake's 8000 foot elevation means cool evenings and early
mornings. There are several campgrounds at lakeside and tourist support facilities in the town of Gunnison to the east.
High country lakes along the Continental Divide may not be strictly classified as desert waters, several surrounded by
sagebrush hills rather than forest. These lakes are popular with trout fishermen. I enjoy them for their beauty and unique
wildlife too. They are frequented by waterfowl making their twice yearly stops on the great flyways, north in Spring and
south again in the Fall. When other folks get out their Fall hunting gear, that's when I head for the lakes and some great
At lower elevations, down below 2000 feet, Summer's blazing sun with temperatures over 100 discourages many boaters. Most of these lakes are man-made and serve primarily as reservoirs for cities and towns, as well irrigation resources for valley
agriculture. You'll see some folks seeking relief from the heat by water skiing or swimming, but these lakes are best paddled in
the cooler seasons. Several lakes just east of Phoenix, Arizona are popular and unique. Where else could you paddle your kayak surrounded by giant cactus on a shore populated with rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas?
Fortunately, those critters don't swim much and will not bother you while you paddle. But do it in the late Fall, Winter or
Those of you from back east or up north, don't discount great boating opportunities in
America's desert southwest. We really
do have some great places to paddle, cruise, sail or fish, even in the desert. Bring your boat, fishing gear and cameras for a
different water experience. RV-er's will find these great places to camp and enjoy too.
Learn a little about Phil Rowe
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