Saguaro Lake Tour Aboard the Desert Belle

This a representation of the 90 minute tour on Saguaro Lake, Arizona, aboard the Desert Belle (www.desertbelle.com). In the summer of 2009 the paddleboat that plied Saguaro Lake since 1964 was replace by a 143 passenger, twin-engine, double-deck cruise boat, the new Desert Belle.

Most of these photos here were taken by me (Captain Brent O. Forsberg) and some contributed by passengers. The narration below is close to that given during the cruise about the geology and natural history of the lake with representative photos. So basically you are taking the tour without the live interaction.


When you came up to the lake today, you entered the Tonto National Forest, about 3 million acres in size, and for perspective, that’s 2 1/2 times the size of the Grand Canyon. The forest has a wide variety of habitat from middle desert to high alpine mountains. And Saguaro Lake also has a wide variety of habitat including the canyon, marshes, and the Sonoran Desert habitat.

The Salt River, that you are on, has four lakes on it. They can be remembered by the acronym SCAR for Saguaro, Canyon, Apache, and Roosevelt Lakes. The dam for Roosevelt Lake was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1911, predating Arizona’s statehood by almost a year. And that is the largest Masonry Dam in the world.

These lakes were created between 1907 and 1930 by the Bureau of Reclamation and a coalition of farmers called the Salt River Project, now a local utility. They were created for the purpose of flood control and agricultural water storage.


Saguaro Lake was the last lake of the chain to be formed in 1930 with the completion of the Stewart Mountain Dam, the concrete structure you see ahead of us and slightly to your right (starboard). The dam is 1260’ long, 207’ high, the current water depth at the dam is about 95’, and there is a small 13,000 kw water turbine in the dam for power generation.

Saguaro Lake is 10 miles long, with a shoreline of 22.5 miles and a surface area of about 1200 acres. The maximum depth is 120’ deep, and you are at an elevation of 1525’.

Salt River , as well as over 90% of the land in AZ, slopes off in a SW direction towards Yuma and so this river as well as all those on the 90% drain into the Colorado River.


The first feature I want to call to your attention is the mountain range off to your left (port) that you see in the distance. This is the Mazatzal Mountain range and the four major peaks you see are called the “Four Peaks” and this is the same four peaks you see on the Arizona license plate.

Those peaks are about 20 miles away and are at an elevation of 7700’. This is one of the older mountain ranges in the area at 1700 million years. The peaks are made of quartzite and are resting upon granite.

The 2nd largest amethyst mine in the US is locate on the mountain between the third and fourth peaks (from the left) and was once owned by the Tiffany Co. of New York City.

There is also a large black pear population in the 60,000 acre Four Peaks Wilderness Area.


Speaking of bears, if you’ll look ahead and slightly to your right, you’ll see a rock outcropping on the ridgeline. To some people, it looks a little like the head of a teddy bear. You can see its left ear sticking up, its nose is pointing at us, and there are two slits for eyes. This is called Teddy Bear Ridge. So if we don’t see any other wildlife...that’s probably going to be it!


The cliffs to our right (starboard) are called “The Lava Cliffs”; however, this isn’t lava in the truest form, but a kind of fine grained granite. The predominate geology of the area is volcanic; consisting of lava, volcanic ash, and granite. And granite is intruded Magma, or does not get exposed to air. It slowly cools, partially crystallizes, and then turns quite hard.

The black streaks you see on the face of the cliffs are evidence of past water flows. When it rains, which is a relatively rare event here, since we only average 7.5” per year,(but then it is a “dry” rain) much of the water is runoff, but some percolates into the ground to leach out minerals such as manganese and iron oxide, which are then deposited as the black streaks. Geologists call this “desert varnish”

The green patches you see on the rocks (also yellow or reddish) are a plant called lichen, a combination of algae and fungi living in close association. The organic acids produced by the lichen break down the rock, eventually to soil, so other plants can gain a foothold. This is normally a good thing unless you operate a National Park that depends on the rock formations….like Mt. Rushmore. There, they have to periodically clean the lichen from the rock faces or they will deteriorate faster than normal.


There is considerable wildlife associated with Saguaro Lake. The canyon to our right, Willow Springs Canyon, is a known nesting area for the American Bald Eagle. That’s probably why we see so many on the lake. There are 50 nesting pairs in Arizona, and we have two nesting pairs here on Saguaro.

Other birds we have seen on previous trips include Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, Belted Kingfishers, Osprey, Turkey Vultures, several Grebes, and of course that black bird with a white bill, the American Coot. By the way, the black birds with a brownish head and breast you saw in the ticket area, asking for handouts, were Great-tailed Grackles. I will try to identify the birds we see today, and to help you, I have put a pictorial checklist together of the more common birds we see, and they are available here in the cabin if you are interested. If you see something you want identified, you can just ask me and I’ll take a guess at it! That guess, though, comes with a little experience since I spent 30 years with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Now as we come around this corner, one of the best pictures that you can take (in my humble opinion) is looking up the canyon at the Four Peaks.


This light colored rock pinnacle coming up on our right, is all volcanic ash. As we get up to it, you will see a cave up behind it, and then off to the left of the cave you will see some small pock marks in the face of the rock cliff. Well, that cave and those pock marks were all formed by air pockets in the volcanic ash as it was deposited. If those air pockets are big enough, we call them caves, but if they are small, like those pock marks, they are just referred to as interstitial spaces.


Just coming into view on our left, up in those rocks, you’ll see a couple of arches. Well if you look at that rock just right, it’ll look like the head of an elephant looking at you with it’s ears out on each side. So, of course, we call that “Elephant Rock”.


On our left, you can see a rock in the middle of the channel. It is called Ship Rock. To some, this has the appearance of an old sailing ship with all the sails up. But it’s actually the core of an extinct volcano. When it stopped erupting, the lava inside cooled and plugged the opening. Over many years, the softer material surrounding the vent has been slowly eroding away.

Today, it’s used as a navigation aid for the boaters. There is a battery powered flashing beacon on top and 2 reflectors down near the water line. When one of those fast, high powered boats come around the corner pulling a skier and not paying attention, they sometimes hit this rock. And at that time we have to temporarily rename the rock “ShipWRECK Rock”.


On the hillside in this cove is a good stand of saguaro cactus, the lake namesake. This is the largest cactus in the US, found only within the Sonoran Desert of the American SW and parts of Mexico. And they are only found below the 3500’ elevation because they are susceptible to freezing. With all that water inside, they will burst open like a frozen pop can and eventually die.

It is a very slow growing cactus…only 1 inch per year. And to get started, they need the protection of a “nurse plant” for shade and moisture.

They can live more than 250 years and can get as tall as 60’ although the average is 30-40’.

After a very wet winter, some of them may weigh as much as 10 tons, soaking up as much as 200 gallons during a storm. They have a shallow root system, but maintain their balance by wrapping their roots around subsurface rocks. They also use their branches, or arms, for balance.

They start to form those branches between 65 and 75 years of age and are at least 40 years old before they start producing flowers. The white, waxy flower, which opens between mid April through the end of May, is the state flower of Arizona. The flowers open only at night, remain open through the following afternoon and then close for good. They are pollinated by birds during the day, and by Longnose Bats at night.

Sometimes you may see holes in some of the larger saguaros. They were created by woodpeckers and flickers, and then may be used by other birds when abandoned. The temperature inside one of these cavities is normally 15 degrees cooler than the outside temperature. That is quite an advantage on a hot Arizona summer day.


As we go around this corner, look off to your right and you’ll see that black bird with a white bill, the American Coot. Now that is the only bird with a white bill. There are several birds with light colored bills, ivory bills, straw bills, but this is the only one with a white bill. It is related to the Rails and Gallinules. It is not a duck. It doesn’t have web feet like a duck, it has, well, fleshy toes if you will.


Again, Saguaro Lake has a wide variety of habitat. We've gone through the canyon, and now we are entering the marsh habitat. This type of habitat will have a larger variety of waterfowl associated with it. The cove off to our right is a good fishing area protected from fast boat wakes.

There are many sport fish in Saguaro lake that include: Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Yellow Bass, Channel Catfish, Walleye Pike, Crappie, Bluegill, Sunfish, Shad, and the Arizona Game & Fish Department stocks Rainbow Trout during the winter months. I know the fishing is pretty good since I see lots of boats up there, I just don't know how the "catching" is!


As we go up along this marsh, we normally see several Great Blue Heron. And that is the largest Heron in North America with a wing span of 6 feet. If you look out in the marsh in some of those taller snags, you’ll see a bunch of sticks in those snags and those are the nests of the Great Blue Heron. They will be a little hard to see with that hill behind them, but if you watch them as they go behind the boat slightly, they will be silhouetted up against the sky and a lot easier to see. The Great Blue Heron start gathering up there in late January and lay 2 to 4 eggs. It takes a month for those eggs to hatch and another two months for the young to get big enough to fly away.


The boat dock on the right marks the location of Bagley Flats Campground, a facility built and maintained by the US Forest Service for the pleasure of the boating public on Saguaro Lake.

The campground includes picnic benches, barbecue pits, rock lined fire pits, a natural com-post-ing restroom, and an emergency telephone system.

Camping is permitted along the shores of Saguaro Lake, however, at this campground you have the advantage of boat only campers. There are no roads to this campground. And the dock allows you to tie your boat for the night and have it floating the next morning rather than finding it high and dry at other shoreline locations after they lower the lake level.

However, the disadvantages of camping on the lake, even here, include the Diamond-back Rattlesnake and the Bark Scorpion. Two critters you don't want crawling in bed with you! And AZ has more species of Rattlesnakes (18) than any other state.

Bagley Flats marks the halfway point of our cruise today. We have gone 5 miles and the lake continues another 5 miles to the Mormon Flats Dam that holds back Canyon Lake. However, due to the narrowness of the canyon and the limited maneuverability of the Desert Belle, the Forest Service requests that we turn around here.


However, I will go another couple hundred yards, up to that buoy, to show you a very unusual feature here on Saguaro Lake, the Crested, or Crestate, Saguaro. Look to your right, about 2:00 when we get up there and you will see a Saguaro with a fan shaped top. It is caused by a damaged growing tip, and rather than forming branches, it forms that crested shape. And that only happens in one out of 200,000 saguaro.


As we make our slow turn-around, please keep an eye on the rocks across the lake. On previous tours, we have seen Desert Bighorn Sheep on those rocks.

Other wildlife we’ve seen at one point or another during our tours include: Mule deer, Javelina, Coyote, Coati, Bobcat, Fox, and Mountain Lions


You may have wondered how the Salt River got its name since it is fresh water. Well, back in the 16th century, some Spanish explorers were...I guess, exploring...and found salt deposits along the banks. So they called the river Rio Salado, which means “river of salt”.

The Salt River has its origin up in the White Mountains on Arizona’s eastern border with New Mexico, and is formed by the joining of the White River and the Black River. Now, call me crazy, but if the White River & Black River came together, I’d call this the “Grey River”! Or at least the “Salt & Pepper River”.


Now we'll head down the Sonoran Desert side of the lake and point out some representative vegetation. Between these large Saguaro cacti, we see a smaller cactus with large flat fleshy pads and large spines. These are Prickly Pear Cacti. There are a dozen varieties of Prickly Pear, and the ones without those large spines are the Beavertail Cactus variety. These varieties are available commercially as jams and jellies, and in restraurant salads.

On the open hillside just beyond them you can see another small cactus that is fuzzy-looking. Well, they are anything but fuzzy, although they are called Teddy Bear Cholla. There are 20 species of Cholla and they can be identified their segmented stems and branches, and they all have sheaths over their needles. So if you're carefull, which apparently I wasn't, you can grab one of those needles and pull that sheath off. However, you may get stuck by the adjacent spines and when those sheaths break off in your finger, the resulting pain is a lot worse and lasts a lot longer than a normal cactus spine prick.....trust me on that!


The rock on the right is known as Spider Rock. If you look on the face of the rock, you’ll see a lacy pattern that looks like cobwebs to some people. It’s actually an example of another type of volcanic formation called “tuff”, which is solidified volcanic ash. This is brecciated ash tuff, meaning the original tuff was broken into angular fragments in a process of folding. Then over time those fragments were glued back together again, as water percolated through the fragments. But you can call them "cobwebs"!

The mountains surrounding the lake are called the Gold Mountains. They were the result of volcanic activity from the Superstition Mountains just to the Southwest of here, and are about 15 to 35 million years old. Geologically, that’s a very young formation, since the Four Peaks behind us are 1700 million years old.


I hope you've all been enjoying the trip so far, but would you like to have a little Arizona history and trivia to take home with you? Ok, well all of the land you see here belonged to Mexico, and after the end of the Mexican-American War (1848), all land north of the Gila River, which is south of here, became the Territory of New Mexico [Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago].

Six years later the land south of the Gila, to the present border, was added with the Gadsden Purchase.

Then eleven years later (1863) the Territory of Arizona was created from the western portion of the New Mexico territory.

Then nothing happened until 1912 when AZ was admitted to the Union as the last of the lower 48 states on Valentines Day. So one of our nicknames is the “Valentine State” (the other Valentine State is Oregon). Other nicknames include the “Copper State” because it leads the nation in copper production, and I don’t know why we aren’t called the Turquoise State because we also lead the nation in Turquoise production, and we are called the “Grand Canyon State” for obvious reasons.

AZ is the 6th largest state, and is the 2nd fastest growing state, second to Nevada.

AZ ranks 16th in population of the 50 states with only about 45 people per square mile. And ½ of AZ’s population is here in Maricopa County.

AZ has more parks and National Monuments (22) than any other state.

AZ has more mountains than Switzerland, and more golf courses than Scotland. It has 338 throughout the state at the last count and is recognized as one of the world’s premier golf destinations. A $3.5 billion industry here in AZ.

AZ is home to 27 tribal nations and, of all the states, has the largest percentage of its land set aside and designated as Indian lands (28%). Only 15% is in private ownership.

AZ is a land of contrasts. We have a river named Colorado that has most of its length in Arizona; we have a retirement community called “Youngtown”; you’re in Maricopa County but the town of Maricopa is in Pinal County; the town of Fort Apache is in Navajo County; but the town of Navajo is in Apache County; and the film Oklahoma was filmed here in Arizona. So go figure, truly a state of contrasts.

We have several World Records here in Arizona. We have the worlds:
- deepest dam (Parker Dam on the Colorado),
- largest natural bridge (Rainbow Bridge, located on Lake Powell),
- largest travertine natural bridge (Tonto Natural Bridge near Payson),
- largest solar telescope (Kitts Peak National Observatory, SW of Tucson),
- largest Ponderosa Pine Forest in the world,
- highest fountain (in the U.S. at 560’) in Fountain Hills
- largest Wurlitzer pipe organ (at Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, at Southern & Stapley)

Several other records for Arizona include:
The hottest recorded temp. in AZ was 128 deg. in 1994 at Lake Havasu City.
The lowest recorded temp. was –40 deg., 1971 at Hawley Lake.
Longest period without measurable precipitation was 352 days, between Feb. 1901 and Jan. 1902, and I think that’s the year that cows started giving evaporated milk.

The sun shines in southern Arizona 85% of the time, which is considerably more than Hawaii or the sunshine state of Florida.

The Arizona Highways magazine has 85% of its circulation outside of the state.

AZ does not rank #1 in boat registration in the U.S. as commonly thought, it’s only ranks 31st.

AZ once had a navy consisting of two boats on the Colorado River. They were used to prevent California from encroaching on AZ territory

Interstate 19 from Tucson to Nogales is the only interstate in the U.S. to be signed in metric measurements.

It’s illegal in AZ to refuse a person a glass of water.

Phoenix is the nation’s 5th largest city and the largest capital city in the U.S.

Phoenix area has more top resorts than any other metro area in North America.


I’ve been asked if there are any Petroglyphs on Saquaro Lake. Well, the only one I’ve found is the one on this rock on the corner…..the white arrow. I think it means “this way out”!


On the hillside here, you can see a few saguaros and a smaller cactus that looks like a young saguaro. These are actually Barrel Cacti. They can be identified by their cylinder-shaped body, and their reddish hue due to their needles. At a closer look their needles are curved like fish hooks and flat in profile, whereas saguaro needles are straight and round.

They are also one of the largest cacti in the Southwest, growing from 5’ to 11’ tall and live up to 130 years. You may see them leaning over and think they are getting heavy or are damaged. But like other plants they grow toward the sun. These cacti, however, always grow toward the south to avoid exposure to the sun, or sunburn. And because of this trait, they are also known as the “compass cactus”.


As we work our way back down the canyon, the lower slope along here, and growing on the rock ahead, you can see a light green shrub with green stems and branches. This is the Palo Verde, or “green stick” in Spanish, and is the Arizona State tree. Yeah, they call those “trees” around here! Since they are drought deciduous, or shed their leaves during extended dry spells, they rely on their green stems and branches to carry on the energy-producing process of photosynthesis. And this tree is also used quite extensively for landscaping and highway beautification projects.

There are two other trees I would like to point out along this shoreline. The large tree near the waterline here, is a Mesquite tree. It’s upper branches, or newer growth, are reddish brown in color and have a zigzag pattern. It belongs to the Pea Family, producing long pods, and has a root system that is wide-spreading and deep-reaching, sometimes reaching 150' to 200’ below the surface.

The larger tree behind this tree with gray stems & branches, and whose leaves are a darker green with denser foliage, is the Ironwood Tree. This is also a member of the Pea Family. The wood of this tree is very popular for those decorative carvings you see at every wide spot in the road, and is so dense and heavy that if a branch is thrown into the lake, it will sink. These trees are also one the longest lived species in the Sonoran Desert, living up to 1500 years.

Now nearly home, we head out of the canyon into the main part of the lake again.


Off to the right, up at the end of the cove is the Butcher Jones Beach Recreation Area, a popular day-use-only site built and maintained by the US Forest Service.

It has a nice sandy beach for swimming that is protected from boats and a fishing dock that is handicapped accessible. There are also picnic sites with barbecues, about 10 miles of hiking trails, some of which follow the banks of the lake, and 4WD roads which can take suitable vehicles back to beach areas we passed earlier.

You can get to this site by taking the road outside our parking area (the Bush Highway), go north about 1 mile, and turn right at the sign.

The Butcher Jones Recreation Area was named after Dr. William J. Jones who was a surgeon in the area. Now how he acquired the nickname “Butcher”, we don't know, and we aren't asking!


The cliffs ahead of us are the Sunset Cliffs, another example of the volcanic formation of tuff. This is called “welded tuff” formed by volcanic ash from the Superstition Mountains that was so hot when it was deposited that it fused together. This example is about 300 feet thick. If you want to know why they call them the Sunset Cliffs, just come down to the Lakeshore Restaurant for dinner, along about sun down, and watch the sun set on those cliffs. With the right atmospheric conditions, the sight is just awesome.

The mountain ahead of us and above the restaurant is Stewart Mountain, that the dam was named after. Stewart was a rancher in the area, and as far as we know, he didn't have a nickname.

The view of the lake from up on top is fantastic, and that billboard looking item on top is actually a radio beacon relay reflecter I was told and had to climb up there to take a picture and make sure.


To our right is the Saguaro Del Norte Recreation Site, another site developed by the US Forest Service for public use. This site has 2 boat launching ramps, picnic areas, fishing docks which are handicap accessible, and swimming areas. This area is all open 24 hours a days, 7 days a week.

However, if you want to park here, or the Butcher Jones site, you need a parking permit. They used to sell them at the booth outside our parking area, but now you have to go back into Mesa to a Circle K, Diamond Shamrock or Big 5 Sporting Good store, or down the Bee-Line Highway across from the Casino, to purchase your permit. You can tune to the Forest Service information station, 1610 AM, for details, and there is also a small sign by the Forest Service booth with the purchase locations. Just thought I would give you a heads-up before you got here and wanted to park and have a picnic or do some hiking, and then realized you would have to make a long round trip for a parking permit.

The buildling with the brown roof in front of the boat is the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office and First Aid Station.

On the left is the Saguaro Lake Marina that we passed on the way out. It has slips for 400 boats ranging in length from 24 to 50 feet. And they have a full service machine shop, and ship’s stores for fuel, fishing supplies, and boat rentals.

And of course above our dock is the Lakeshore Restaurant, consistently voted one of the best places in the Phoenix area for outside dinning . It’s open 7 days a week for breakfast & lunch, and 5 nights a week (Wed – Sun) for dinner.


Well, on behalf of the management of the Desert Belle, I want to thank you all for sailing with us today. We hope you enjoyed the tour. If you did we want you to tell your friends, and we encourage you to bring them the next time.

Remember, the Desert Belle is available for charters, and the Lakeshore Restaurant is available for catering those charters. Just pick up a brochure and visit our web site or give us a call for more information. We also have special events on occasion, so if you want to be notified of those upcoming events, just fill out one of the flyers across from the bar and put it in the comment box.

Make sure you pick all your valuables. Anything you leave, I get to keep!

I would appreciate it if everybody would remain seated as we dock the Desert Belle, attach the lines, and put the ramp back to the boat. On occasion, we make a hard landing and we don't want to through anybody overboard.

As a tradition on the Desert Belle, while we make our approach, the last musical selection we'll play is "Arizona" by Rex Allen Jr. which is the Arizona State song.

Thank you again for coming! And please come again.

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