The desert is parched and grows little but cactus. Except for roadrunners outwitting coyotes, the desert supports no wildlife. Arizona residents and seasoned snowbirds have heard it all before from first-time visitors. Sometimes they just smile and head for Lake Pleasant.
Tucked away amid rolling hills just 30 miles north of Phoenix, Lake Pleasant Regional Park is a sudden and dramatic escape. This expansive playground combines all the things we love about the desert—endless sunshine, rising mountains, saguaro-clad slopes, and waves of spring wildflowers—with the addition of unexpected water. For outdoor enthusiasts, this 23,000-acre park is a dream destination.
Lake Pleasant History
In the mid-1920s, the Waddell Dam confined the waters of the Agua Fria River as a private irrigation project. The dam originally was named after Carl Pleasant, the engineer who designed it. The completion of the New Waddell Dam in 1994 turned Lake Pleasant into a major storage facility for Colorado River water delivered by the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The new dam tripled the size of the lake and submerged the old dam. Pleasant is the second-largest reservoir in central Arizona, behind only Theodore Roosevelt Lake. Water is pumped into the lake via the CAP canal during winter and is released during spring and summer to meet higher demands.
Lake Pleasant Fishing
A dozen fish species swim in Lake Pleasant. Those fishing from shore generally goes after catfish, sunfish, and carp. From a boat, anglers can explore coves, channels, and deep holes. The lake is a popular spot for largemouth bass, striped bass, and Arizona’s only population of white bass. Others that might end up on a line include tilapia, bluegill, bigmouth buffalo fish, and white and black crappie.
Boat Ramps and Marinas
A 10-lane boat ramp helps keep the traffic flowing onto the water even during busy times. There also is a four-lane ramp at the north end of the lake.
Never fear if you don’t have a boat. You can rent just about anything that floats at Scorpion Bay Marina. Hourly and daily rentals include pontoons, fishing boats, ski boats, kayaks, and other water toys. The marina has a general store and the Scorpion Bay Grill with indoor and patio dining.
Located on the southeastern shore outside the regional park Pleasant Harbor Marina has two four-lane boat ramps, boat rentals, a waterside restaurant, and daily cruises. Look for the world’s largest floating water slide to reopen for the season in late spring. The RV resort has more than 300 full and partial hook-up sites as well as dry camping. There is a $6 entry fee per vehicle for everyone visiting Pleasant Harbor Marina.
Lake Pleasant Hiking Trails
Landlubbers will have plenty to keep them busy. A network of hiking trails spreads across the park some tracing the shore while others explore surrounding desert hills. It’s always fascinating to witness this contrast—groves of saguaros standing guard over a large body of water. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.
Here are some hiking options. All mileages are one way.
Beardsley Trail (4.1 miles): This is the longest Lake Pleasant trail as it traverses open desert parallel to South Park Road before it junctions with the epic, county-circling Maricopa Trail
Pipeline Canyon Trail (2 miles): This trail highlights the best display of spring wildflowers with the heaviest concentration stretching from the southern trailhead to the floating bridge a half-mile away
Roadrunner Trail (0.8 miles): It follows the water’s edge connecting the Discovery Center with the 10-lane boat ramp
Wild Burro Trail (2 miles): It’s so named because it provides the best chance to see some of the park’s long-eared residents
Yavapai Point (1.5 miles): The trail makes a moderate climb to the crest of a hill at the edge of the water that offers some impressive views
Picnickers will find numerous covered ramadas and tables dotting the landscape. Day-use areas include tables, grills, drinking water, and restrooms. The Sunset Ridge Area sits atop a hill with commanding views of the lake. It has 21 picnic sites with tables, grills, and a porta-john.
Discovery Center and Playground
In 2016, the original dam observation/visitor center building was expanded and given a stylish update. The Discovery Center now offers visitors a good introduction to the lake with exhibits on history, wildlife, plant communities, and information on upcoming events. Spotting scopes and signs on the balcony help you identify points of interest that range from features of the dam to the distant ridge of Four Peaks. Children will love the adjacent playground filled with animal-themed slides and swings. The Discovery Center is now open daily from 10 am to 4 pm, until further notice.
Camping at Lake Pleasant
Imagine starry nights or the light of a full moon shimmering on the water. Snag a campsite to enjoy that show. Lake Pleasant offers 148 sites for RV and tent camping spread across the Desert Tortoise and Roadrunner campgrounds. Campsites cost $15-$40 per night, depending on amenities.
Developed sites have water, electricity, a dump station, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a fire ring. Sites can be reserved up to six months in advance at maricopacountyparks.org or by calling 602-506-2930.
Primitive camping is allowed along much of the shoreline in such areas as Two Cow and Fireman’s coves. Locations change with fluctuating water levels. Park staff can provide more details.
Location: From central Phoenix, take Interstate 17 north to the Carefree Highway (SR-74) exit. Drive 15 miles west, then turn north on Castle Hot Springs Road.
Park Elevation: 1,700 feet
Surface Water: 10,000 acres
Park Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle.
Campsite Rates: $22-$32
This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.
—Dorothy B. Hughes