Adventure, biking, canoeing and kayaking, Destinations, exploring towns and cities, festivals, hiking, Southwestern United States, United States, Western United States

Arizona’s Outdoor Playground: Lake Havasu City

The best of the outdoors in Lake Havasu City, Arizona
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Nestled deep in the Mojave desert is a land of big shining waters, never ending sunshine, and incredible beauty. Lake Havasu City is a sprawling waterfront town of more than 52,000 people. While it’s only celebrating 54 years young, it boasts an eclectic history, a thriving Main Street, and a busy waterfront. It makes an awesome weekend getaway from Las Vegas, or if you’re like me, you can book a cheap flight from New England to Vegas, rent a car, and soak up some rays while your friends back home are shivering by the woodstove.

Of course, I have an even bigger reason for visiting Lake Havasu City —  my dad lives here (hi, Dad!). Many years ago he started traveling to Lake Havasu as a Snowbird — a term for retired folk who flee the cold weather in their northern climates for somewhere more hospitable. Lake Havasu City is a very popular place for snowbirds! A few years ago, Dad decided to settle here for good, which means I’ve done a fair share of visiting, along with hiking, swimming,  and sunset watching.  Come along with me, and discover the magic of Lake Havasu City.

A Brief History of Lake Havasu City

Lake Havasu was created long before the city — way back in the 1930s, when the Parker Dam was built on the Colorado River. Thirty years later, in 1963, chainsaw tycoon and millionaire, Robert McCulloch is rumored to have flown over the lake searching for a suitable location to test out his line of outboard motors. He went on to buy 3,500 acres of desolate desert for under $75 an acre, and even though there were no major highways connecting Lake Havasu to the rest of the country, a beautiful city began to emerge out of the desert. McCulloch began flying in prospective buyers from all over the country, hoping to sell them on the turquoise waters, rugged mountains, and never-ending sunshine. His plan was moderately successful, but his next idea sealed the deal!

The London Bridge

The famous London Bridge in Lake Havasu City

The famous London Bridge

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It holds the record for the World’s Largest Antique, and its purchase and journey from London to Arizona certainly created some excitement! The London Bridge was built in 1831 to span the River Thames in London. In the early 1960s it began sinking into the river and was put up for auction. McCulloch won the bridge for Lake Havasu City with his bid of $2,460,000.

The London Bridge was dismantled brick by brick over the course of three years and slowly reconstructed in Lake Havasu City. Pittsburg Point, which was once a peninsula jutting into the lake, was turned into an island (now called “the island” by locals) by dredging a narrow channel under the bridge. The London Bridge officially opened in 1971, with much celebrating and fanfare. Today, tourists flock to Lake Havasu City to visit this amazing London Landmark rising out of the desert.

Get Outside in Lake Havasu City

Lake Havasu Sunrise

Sunrise from the London Bridge Beach

Yes, the London Bridge is a must-see when you’re visiting Lake Havasu City, but what else should you put on your bucket list? Let’s take a look at all the fun in the sun you can have in Lake Havasu City. Here’s the truth — unless it’s high summer, you want to be outdoors!

Boating on Lake Havasu

Boating on the lake is a favorite pastime for locals and visitors. That super clear turquoise water, along with towering cliffs, rugged mountains, and incredible wildlife make Lake Havasu an exciting destination for boats of all shapes and sizes. And, it’s incredibly easy to get out on the water!

Resources for Boaters on Lake Havasu

  • Ramps – There are eight launch ramps around the lake for getting in and out of the water with ease. Go Lake Havasu has a complete list of marinas and boat ramps to help you plan your trip.
  • Rentals – If you don’t have a boat of your own, consider renting one. This handy watercraft rental guide will help you get out on the water in no time.
  • Camping – You can score your very own boat-in campsite courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management for just $10 a night. There are 87 sites on the Arizona side of Lake Havasu, none of which can be reserved ahead of time, so if you know you’re going to camp, be sure to claim your site early in the day.

Paddling on Lake Havasu

Paddling Lake Havasu

Paddlers catching the sunrise on Lake Havasu

Along with incredible opportunities for boaters, Lake Havasu also boasts quiet coves and wild shores that are perfect for paddlers. During the spring, summer, and fall, you can rent kayaks, canoes, and stand up paddle boards at London Bridge Beach. You can also find rental companies in the watercraft rental guide above.

The area just north of Lake Havasu City is a beautiful spot for paddling, with lots of little coves and secret spots to swim and picnic. The 4.25 water trail takes along the shores of the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, where you chance sightings of hundreds of different species of birds, coyotes, fox, and bobcats.

If you have time, head north to the incredible Topack Gorge — a mountainous, wild canyon north of Lake Havasu City that will take your breath away! Read more about paddling this incredible section of the Colorado River in Scouting Magazine. You can also take an amazing guided full-moon tour of the gorge — it includes your rental and an expert guide.

Playing and Swimming in Lake Havasu City

Sunset Rotary Park Lake Havasu City

Enjoying the sunset at Rotary Park

Just want to chill on the beach, swim in the crystal clear water, and watch your kids play in the sand? Our favorite spot for relaxing is definitely Rotary Park. It’s such a beautiful spot, with playground equipment, barbecue grills, swimming, a walking path, and a skateboard park that is to die for! Picnic tables are covered for shade, and even though it gets pretty busy, there’s lots of room to spread out. I love hanging out here right around sunset. From Rotary Park you can meander along the channel, visit the restaurants and bars along the shore, and walk across the London Bridge. It really is the perfect way to spend a sunny day.

skate park Lake Havasu City

Skating with a view!

The Lake Havasu Lighthouses

Like the famous London Bridge, the Lake Havasu lighthouses are not typical attractions for a landlocked state in the desert, but they’re fun to visit anyway! There are 25 lighthouses dotting the shores of Lake Havasu, on both the Arizona and California sides of the lake. The lighthouses are fully-functional 1/3 scale replicas of historic US lighthouses still found on the east and west coasts, as well as the Great Lakes region. You’ll find the Fire Island Lighthouse from Long Island, New York, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from Buxton, North Carolina, and even a Lake Havasu original. Most of the lighthouses can be found right in Lake Havasu City and are easy to visit on foot.  Some are hiding in more remote locations, and a couple can only be reached by boat.

Lighthouse Lake Havasu City

The Fire Island Lighthouse replica

Want to embark on your very own lighthouse tour? Check out this map and guide, complete with GPS coordinates for each lighthouse. A narrated lighthouse boat tour is available from October through May.

Havasu Balloon Festival and Fair

Lake Havasu Balloon Festival

Morning ascension at the Havasu Balloon Festival

This year we were in town for what the locals told me was the big event of the year – the Havasu Balloon Festival and Fair, which takes place in mid-January. While I’ve been to my share of balloon  festivals on the east coast, none with such an enchanting back drop! This weekend festival includes six mass ascensions of more than 80 hot air balloons. They rise over the lake and the city each morning as the sun rises and the wind dies down.  The morning ascensions kick off the festival each day, which is filled with music, activities, demonstrations, carnival rides, and food vendors.  My favorite (of course) was the dog agility demonstrations. Such talent!

dog agility balloon festival lake havasu city

The dog agility demonstration at the balloon festival

The evening ascension take place as the sun is setting, but when we were there, they were cancelled due to high winds. The night ends with the Field of Fire – where all the balloons are inflated and lit up for everyone to enjoy. If you’re thinking of planning your Lake Havasu City vacation for January, consider timing it to coincide with this amazing festival.

Hiking in Lake Havasu City

SARA Park Lake Havasu City

Hiking the Crack in the Wall

Who says all the fun in Lake Havasu is out on the water? The Lake Havasu region has some fantastic hiking trails, whether you’re looking for a simple nature walk or an all-day excursion. We often visit Lake Havasu City in the winter, which is perfect for hiking the desert trails.

Lake Havasu City

The Crack in the Wall trail leads to the lake

Our all-time favorite hike is the Crack in the Wall hike in SARA park. This is five-mile loop that takes you along a sandy wash, through a beautiful slot canyon, and down to the lake for gorgeous views of cliffs, rock formations, and wading birds. From there you can return the way you came, or climb to the yellow (upper trail), which provides more stunning views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. If you can only take one hike on your visit, let it be this one! After that, we recommend these:

  • Dead Burro Canyon Trail – Does the name alone make you want to head out adventuring in the desert? This 7.5-mile hike is strenuous, but so much fun, heading into Havasu Wildlife Refuge, climbing a canyon, and summiting a saddle with nice views of the valley. Plan on 4 to 5 hours to finish the whole loop, and expect to see bighorn sheep, birds, and other critters. The trail is not well marked, but you can find detailed directions here.
  • Mallard Cove Trail – This 5.3-mile loop takes you down to some primitive BLM campsites on the lake. The trail offers up some nice views, and their are lots of wildflowers here in the spring. For detailed directions, visit Go Lake Havasu.
  • Water Tank Trail – It’s 6.2 miles, but pretty easy. This hike takes you up into the hills with nice views of the lake. There’s not a whole lot of elevation gain — instead you kind of skirt big rock formations and Shiprock Mountain. Want more detailed directions? You can find them here.

I should mention that none of the trails mentioned offer much for shade, so I don’t recommend hiking them in the summer, unless you just like that kind of torture. The trails are dog friendly, and only require a car to get to the trailhead. If you’ve got on ORV, there are lots more trails you can explore in Lake Havasu City.

Mountain Biking in SARA Park

Mountain Biking at SARA Park

Mountain Biking at SARA Park

SARA park has lots of cool hiking trails, along with rodeo grounds, a BMX track, a shooting range, and a dog park. It pretty much takes care of all of your off-the-water recreational needs, and according to my son, the mountain biking trails are fabulous!

We rented a mountain bike and helmet from Cycle Therapy right downtown. The prices were decent and the staff were extremely knowledgeable about the area, giving us lots of advice and recommending that we download the Trailforks app for easier navigation. The trails in SARA park are well marked, but many are quite challenging. Be prepared to get hot and sweaty! We also heard rumor of area within the park that had been designed and built-up by a local homeless man with all kinds of features and jumps, We never found it, but we’re going to try again next time.

Just as Robert McCulloch promised, Lake Havasu City is truly an enchanted desert oasis. Whether you’re planning your own lakeside retreat from the snowy north or are looking for a weekend escape from Las Vegas, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to fulfill your outdoor adventure dreams along the rugged shores and in the cold, clear waters of Lake Havasu.

Want to read more about traveling through Arizona? Try these:

Magic in the Grand Canyon

Route 66 and Oatman, Arizona

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The best way to enjoy Lake Havasu City is to get outside! Here's the best of hiking, swimming, boating, and paddling.

17 Comments

  1. This place looks so beautiful!

  2. Some super dramatic skies served as a backdrop to all your fun antics! It’s giving me a very different view of the Mojave (compared to what I had in my head)

    • I think the desert sky is my favorite thing to photograph, Revati. Of course, it’s very often clear blue for days and days, but occasionally things take a turn.

  3. So many great outdoor activities – these could keep you busy for a while! The balloon fair looks amazing. I also heard that when they bought London Bridge they thought it was Tower Bridge and had a surprise when it arrived… 😉
    Emily recently posted…Christians and Crusaders: Along the King’s Highway, JordanMy Profile

    • Hi Emily –
      I had not heard that McCulloch was expecting the Tower Bridge – that would have been quite a surprise. Most of the residents didn’t believe that the bridge was coming at all until it was there. The balloon festival was really fabulous in case you’re ever in the area mid January.

  4. A Snowbird! Never heard of this term, but this makes so much sense!

  5. Cute town! The lake looks gorgeous, and I bet it never gets cold! I live by a lot of lakes, but since I’m in Michigan, you can only swim in them like 3-4 months out of the year!

  6. I was totally fascinated by this! I’ve never heard of it, but to think there is such a beautiful water area inside a well known desert is just amazing. I’m starting to keep tabs on cool paces in the desert in the states as I am planning a trip through parts of Arizona, Nevada, Colorado etc that I’ve never been to. Lots of national parks etc…..definitely keeping a note of this place.

  7. I’m a huge fan of small towns and this one sounds like it has a lot of great things – hot air balloons, lighthouses, hikes, the London Bridge and water activities! Making a mental note.

  8. Oh wow, I love the outdoors and it seems like there’s so much to do here! Hikes and aquatic activities make it sounds like a great adventurer and family destination. And I can’t believe they shipped a whole bridge over…
    Anastasia recently posted…Three Weeks in JapanMy Profile

  9. This is my first time hearing about Lake Havasu City. Looks very interesting and I love all of the outdoor adventure offerings. Definitely a big change from Phoenix and Sedona, the only places I am familiar with. The London Bridge is so photogenic.
    melody pittman recently posted…How to Book a Brilliant Last Minute HolidayMy Profile

  10. Wow! Lake Havasu City seems like a really cool place to be in! I’ve never been there but now I would really love to go. The camping option sounds like the best for me! And hot air balloon festivals? That sounds amazing!

  11. Wow! this is really awesome! I should add this to my list! Thanks for sharing!

  12. Lake Havasu looks amazing, I can’t believe the area has so much to offer and I had not heard of half of them. This will keep my whole family entertained, thanks for sharing!

    • It’s a really fun place to visit, Bianca, especially if you enjoy spending time outdoors.

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