Water recreation in the desert? You might be surprised. You’ll find a robust selection of rivers and lakes near some of the most arid places on the planet. Ditch all those preconceptions of waterless landscapes and check out some of the most enjoyable water recreation opportunities in the desert Southwest along with nearby Good Sam Parks.
If you want to learn more about river adventure, you can learn about fun Colorado River destinations here.
Horseshoe Bend, Arizona
This dramatic curve on the Colorado River in northern Arizona is one of the most photographed places in the Southwest. Get an up-close look at this scenic spot by taking a rafting trip here. Outfitter Wilderness River Adventures launches tours from the Glen Canyon Dam down to the attraction with a stop to look at a petroglyph panel and even take a quick dip in the cool river along the way.
Stay: Page Lake Powell Campground, Page. A boat parking area, fitness room and stunning views of desert scenery make this a must-visit park.
Watson Lake, Arizona
What Watson Lake lacks in size, it makes up for in off-the-charts scenery. Located just four miles from Prescott, the 70-acre lake is surrounded by gorgeous granite dells that attract as many rock climbers as the lake does kayakers. Anglers can catch largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish, channel catfish and carp. Rock climbers will find a challenging array of domes that could keep them busy for days. Scenery seekers can take a leisurely paddle on the water and enjoy the views of the stones rising out of the water. Nearby, Prescott is an Old West throwback with Victorian homes and old-time saloons along Whiskey Row.
Stay: Fairgrounds RV Park, Prescott Valley. This comfortable park is the perfect home base for water fun and explorations of the famous town of Prescott.
Theodore Roosevelt Lake, Arizona
Beat the crowds to a killer body of water. Located northeast of the Superstition Mountains, Theodore Lake requires a fairly long drive into the Tonto Basin, but it’s worth the trip. The 21,000-acre lake is Arizona’s largest human-made reservoir located entirely in the state, and the lack of crowds makes this a prized destination for boaters and anglers. Enjoy unencumbered water-skiing, jet-skiing, sailing and swimming. Explore the long coast for unspoiled beaches and get supplies from the marina. The only paved route to the lake is State Route 188, known as the Beeline Highway. Along this highway, you’ll find plenty of restaurants and stores to replenish hungry campers.
Stay: Payson Campground and RV Resort, Payson. Beautiful ponderosa pine trees and high desert scenery make this mountain camping at its best.
Lake Havasu, Arizona and California
There’s always something fun happening on Lake Havasu. The nearly 20,000-acre expanse of the Colorado River — formed by the Parker Dam — attracts legions of collegiate spring breakers during March and April, but during the rest of the year, this body of water in western Arizona has something for every member of the family. Architecture buffs will enjoy the London Bridge, transplanted from its home country in 1968. Anglers will relish the chance to drop a line in a “Top 10 Best Bass Lake in the Western U.S.,” according to Bassmaster magazine. Adrenaline junkies will love hitting the throttle on jet skis, while party animals can enjoy an array of year-round festivals with live music. Kids will get a kick out of counting the 20 lighthouses that ring the lake. Not a fan of the wet stuff? Go hiking in the surrounding Sonoran Desert.
Stay: Campbell Cove RV Resort, Lake Havasu City. Located close to Lake Havasu’s shore, this park offers a heated pool, hot tub and exercise room.
Lake Mead, Arizona and Nevada
Lake Mead’s awesome size puts it high on the bucket lists of travelers. The lake was formed on the Colorado River when the Hoover Dam impeded the current, resulting in the largest reservoir in the U.S. by volume. Mead straddles the border of Arizona and Nevada, stretching a whopping 112 miles long and covering 247,000 acres with 550 miles of shoreline. For visitors, this means discovering beautiful, out-of-the-way coves and enjoying lazy houseboat trips without a care. The robust populations of striped bass, rainbow trout, catfish, sunfish, largemouth bass, striped bass, smallmouth bass and crappie make it a top spot for anglers. Feeling lucky? Vegas is only 24 miles away.
Stay: Lake Mead RV Village at Boulder Beach, Boulder City. Centrally located near Hoover Dam and close to Las Vegas, this is the largest big rig park on Lake Mead and also boasts scenic lake views.
Lake Powell, Arizona and Utah
Ready to meet Mead’s cool twin sister? Upriver on the Colorado River, Lake Powell boasts a lot of similarities to Lake Mead. Eight side canyons radiate from the lake’s 200-mile length, giving explorers plenty of opportunities to find gorgeous getaways far from the crowds. Intriguing spots include Antelope Creek and Slot Canyon, located near the confluence of Antelope Creek and the Colorado River. Follow the creek to its end, and you’ll discover a postcard-worthy, pastel-colored slot canyon. It’s worth the journey. Thrill-seekers will find plenty of cliffs for jumping. Several marinas and restaurants along the shore provide opportunities to refuel and refresh.
Stay: Page Lake Powell Campground, Page. (see above).
Pyramid Lake, Nevada
Northeast of Reno, Pyramid Lake is one of Nevada’s largest bodies of water, covering 125,000 acres. Located on Paiute Tribal Land, the lake is known for the stark rock formations along its shores, including the namesake pyramid-shaped volcanic island that rises hundreds of feet above the water. For anglers, this body of water is prized for its hefty Lahontan cutthroat trout. Trails around the rugged lake lead hikers to stunning views of the lake and surrounding desert. Drop into the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitors Center to learn about the cultural and natural history of this amazing expanse of water.
Stay: Grand Sierra Resort and Casino RV Park, Reno. Enjoy award-winning dining and gaming or relax at the pool. The whole family will love the bowling alley, cinema, arcade and go-karts.
Elephant Butte, New Mexico
Named after the pachyderm-shaped monolith that looms over the water, Elephant Butte is a top destination for boaters and anglers. Elephant Butte Lake was formed by a dam built in 1916 that impeded the flow of the Rio Grande 150 miles south of Albuquerque. The result: 35,000 surface acres of water available for public use with three marinas. Visitors can rent houseboats, jet skis and ski-boats for exploring the surface. The nearby town of Truth or Consequences boasts historic hot springs for comfort at the end of a fun-filled day. Slow things down and cast a line for stripers and other types of bass, walleye, blue catfish, sunfish, bluegill, crappie and trout. Follow the Rio Grande a few miles south to Caballo Lake, with one marina along with catfish and walleye.
Stay: Elephant Butte Lake RV Resort, Elephant Butte. Participate in planned activities or rent a bike at this highly rated RV park.
Navajo Lake State Park, New Mexico
If you’re not afraid of getting wet, check out Navajo Lake in the northwest corner of the Land of Enchantment. Fed by the San Juan River, the lake has grown in popularity for folks who like riding the wind or surfing on the wake of a boat. Paddleboarding and kayaking also attract water lovers to the lake, and anglers will discover some of the best fly-fishing in the region along the banks of the San Juan. With moderate temperatures, the lake attracts swimmers as well. Camping with a group? Rent a party barge, a double-decker craft with room for 16 along with a waterslide, restroom and grill.
Stay: Moore’s RV Park and Campground, Bloomfield. When you’re not playing in the water, check out the hoodoos at Ah-Shi-Pah Wilderness Study Area.
The Green River’s Desolation Canyon, Utah
The Green River gives the Colorado River a run for its money. Flowing southward down the western half of the Beehive State, the Green River boasts some stretches that rival the Colorado River in sheer beauty and spectacle. Along Desolation Canyon, rafters will paddle past towering red rock walls that exceed the Grand Canyon in height in some places. Several Class II and III rapids keep things interesting without getting too gnarly. Beach your raft and take a side hike to see Native American petroglyphs and Old West outlaw hideouts. To the south, the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers has more whitewater rafting.
Stay: Shady Acres RV Park, Green River. Guests can enjoy spectacular mountain views from their campsites and watch local wildlife amble by.