Desert Belle a new way to experience Saguaro Lake - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Desert Belle a new way to experience Saguaro Lake

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Mandy Zajac writes and edits arts, entertainment and lifestyle content for the Get Out section of the East Valley Tribune. Contact her at (480) 898-6818 or

Posted: Friday, April 6, 2012 10:00 am | Updated: 9:36 am, Wed Aug 29, 2012.

I’m no stranger to Saguaro Lake, the reservoir popular with boaters and jet-skiers about 20 miles northeast of Mesa. I’ve hiked its shoreline, fished from its piers, picnicked at the water’s edge and kayaked its shimmery surface. I saw Saguaro in a new way last week, when I rode the Desert Belle.

The double-decker tour boat offers year-round cruises on the lake, the nearest of four in the Salt River chain of lakes. The 90-minute voyage is a magnet for tourists and snowbirds, but it’s an excellent way for locals without a boat to access the sinuous and scenic lake, too.

I boarded the Desert Belle at Saguaro Lake Marina, after being greeted by Capt. Richard Bonney and a host of eager ducks. The ducks have learned that the boat’s on-board snack bar churns out buckets of hot buttered popcorn.

“They’ll follow us out and come out to meet us on the way back,” says Bonney, who is retired from the U.S. Coast Guard. He’s one of three captains who operate the Desert Belle on the 1,280-acre lake.

With a full boat, I opted to ride upstairs, where rows of folding chairs give passengers a place to sit under a shade canopy. The boat is open on all sides, allowing for good views and a breeze. More seating is available downstairs in the enclosed, air-conditioned snack bar, where tables supply a spot to balance your coffee, pop, wine, beer, potato chips or cookies. Large windows open wide, so you can still feel a bit of the outdoors on temperate days.

For those prepared for full sun exposure, plastic chairs on the open bow offer prime views of rippling water and rock cliffs.

During the 12-mile roundtrip, Bonney shares facts about the area’s ecosystem and geology, pointing out a rock formation that looks like a teddy bear’s head and a rare crested saguaro. The narration is thoughtfully paced, giving you time to enjoy the scenery and chat with companions. Instrumental music plays unobtrusively in the background.

Bonney also calls attention to wildlife along the way, from white-billed American coots bobbing in water near reeds to a great blue heron perched on a rock.

“The diversity of the landscape is amazing up here. You’ve got desert, canyons, marsh lands. And the diversity of the wildlife is great here, too,” Bonney says.

He says bobcats, mule deer, coatis, javelina and mountain lions all roam the mountainous area.

“Usually we see (American bald) eagles out there, where they nest (in Willow Springs Canyon). I’ve seen a bighorn sheep, too,” says George Krabbe, of Scottsdale, on the tour for the seventh time with his wife, Jackie, and visitor Laurie Arndt of Chicago.

The Krabbes, of Scottsdale, say they make a day of the cruise with out-of-towners, eating at Saguaro Lake Marina’s Lakeshore Restaurant before or after the trip.

“The mountains have a personality all their own. It’s always something different. It’s a relaxing trip,” says Jackie.

First-timer Auleene Maurer, of Mesa, brought her daughters, sons-in-law, granddaughter and great-grandchildren on the cruise.

“I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. That saguaro (the captain) took us by — I’ve seen a lot of saguaro in 30 years in Arizona, and I’ve never seen one like it,” she says.

Maurer’s great-granddaughters, ages 9, 6 and 4, especially liked visiting the boat’s stern. A small landing there lets kids watch water churn out from behind the boat and gives grown-ups another good spot to snap a photo.

Another tip, if you have kids along: Save a bit of your popcorn; once you disembark, tossing some to the ducks from the marina’s floating docks is a fun way to end the trip.

Desert Belle cruises are available year-round at Saguaro Lake Marina, 14011 N. Bush Highway, Mesa. Friday and Saturday sunset cruises feature a live band upstairs and condensed narration downstairs. Tickets are $20 for adults, $19 for seniors and $10 for kids ages 5-12. Snacks and drinks are $1-$6.

For information, call (480) 984-2425 or visit

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6818 or

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