The Complete Guide to Arizona's Theodore Roosevelt Lake

Roosevelt Lake

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Theodore Roosevelt Lake

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Theodore Roosevelt Lake, Arizona, USA

Central Arizona may be desert, but that doesn’t mean the land is barren. In fact, thanks to a system of dams built to control the Salt River, Central Arizona has several recreational lakes just a short drive from Phoenix. The largest, Theodore Roosevelt Lake, spans nearly 21,500 acres when full and is popular with locals who like fishing, boating, and water sports.

From how to get there to things to do in the area, here's our complete guide to Theodore Roosevelt Lake so you can plan your next trip.

History

From the beginning, water was an issue for Arizona. Settlers often couldn’t get enough water to irrigate crops, and when it did rain, they were subjected to catastrophic floods. To better regulate the water flow, territory officials proposed a system of dams, including a dam below the confluence of the Salt River and Tonto Creek, as early as 1889.

While they didn't have the funds or resources to build the dam at the time, that changed in 1902 when Congress passed the Federal Reclamation Act, and the newly formed U.S. Reclamation Service approved its construction a year later. When it was finished in 1911, President Theodore Roosevelt was on hand to dedicate the dam, which was named after him.

Back then, Roosevelt Dam stood 280 feet high and had a 723-foot crest length, making it the world’s largest masonry dam. Today the original, rough-hewn stones are encased in cement, making it 357 feet high with a 1,210-foot crest length (however, it no longer ranks among the world’s largest).

When Roosevelt Lake formed behind the dam, it became the world’s largest man-made lake. It’s been surpassed globally but is still the largest lake—man-made or otherwise—located entirely within Arizona's borders, and its 128 miles of shoreline exceeds the 116 miles you’d drive going from Phoenix to Tucson. 

How to Get There

Roosevelt Lake sits approximately 60 miles northeast of Phoenix and 30 miles northwest of Globe. It is part of the Tonto National Forest.

Until recently, you could take the Apache Trail (AZ 88) to Roosevelt Lake, but not anymore. The stretch from the Fish Creek Hill Overlook to Apache Lake, 4 miles south of Roosevelt Lake, is closed indefinitely following a fire and flooding in 2019.

Instead, take US 60 East past Apache Junction. Continue to Miami, and just before entering Globe, turn left at AZ 188. Roosevelt Lake will be on the right; after turning onto AZ 188, it's a 28-mile drive to the Roosevelt Lake Marina.

If you are driving to Roosevelt Lake from Scottsdale or North Phoenix, it may be quicker to take AZ 87 (the Beeline Highway) toward Payson and turn right at AZ 188, driving approximately 33 miles to the Roosevelt Lake Marina.

Note that it's best to check for the best route from your starting point, the current status of traffic, and any construction along the way ahead of your trip.

What to Know Before You Go

To visit Roosevelt Lake, you will need to purchase a Tonto National Forest Pass, more commonly known as a Tonto Pass. (America the Beautiful passes only access the lake’s picnicking sites.) You can purchase either a daily Tonto Pass for $8 or annual Tonto Discovery Pass for $80 online, at a select number of retail outlets, or at ranger district offices.

A Tonto Pass is required to camp, hike, boat, fish, or even walk along the shoreline at Roosevelt Lake. If you plan to fish, you will need to purchase a fishing license in addition to a Tonto Pass. Similarly, a daily watercraft sticker ($4) is required in addition to the Tonto Pass for motorized or non-motorized watercraft.

Most of Roosevelt Lake is open year-round, including its six boat ramps and multiple campgrounds. However, do keep in mind that the Tonto Creek arm closes November 5 through February 15 to protect wildlife, while other areas close December 1 through June 30 to shelter bald eagles nesting near the lake’s shore. 

Roosevelt Lake Marina, the hub for day use, is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. In addition to a launch ramp, the marina has a campground, restaurant and bar, boat rental, and storage services. There’s also an on-water fueling station open 24 hours a day.

Things to Do

Here are some of the most popular activities at the lake and in the surrounding area.

Fishing

Anglers flock to Roosevelt Lake to hook impressive-sized crappie, carp, sunfish, flathead and channel catfish, smallmouth bass, and largemouth bass. (It’s not unheard of to catch catfish exceeding 60 pounds or crappies weighing over a pound here.) Check the fishing report for more detailed information, and purchase a fishing license online from the Arizona Game and Fish Department before you go.

Boating

Because Roosevelt Lake is the largest lake in Central Arizona and only two hours from Phoenix, it’s popular with city dwellers who come here to launch fishing boats, houseboats, sailboats, and just about any craft you can think of. Don’t have a boat? You can rent ski boats and pontoon boats—along with water sports equipment—from the Roosevelt Lake Marina daily, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Water Sports

From April through October, watch for boats towing tubes, wakeboards, kneeboards, and skiers on the lake as well as personal watercraft such as Jet Skis and Wave Runners. (You may even be able to stretch water sport season if you wear a wetsuit.)

But you don’t have to have a motor to have fun on Roosevelt Lake—you can canoe, kayak, or standup paddleboard. Don’t forget you’ll need a watercraft sticker even without a motor.

Hiking

Several rough trails crisscross the area, but the Vineyard Trail is well maintained and worth the drive from Phoenix. Part of the Arizona Trail, which runs from the Arizona-Mexico border to Utah, the Vineyard Trail begins just north of Roosevelt Dam off AZ 188 and offers views of Roosevelt Dam, Apache Lake, and beyond.

Tonto National Monument

Just a five-minute drive from the marina, Tonto National Monument features Salado cliff dwellings. Hike to the 20-room Lower Cliff Dwellings for sweeping views of the valley below and Roosevelt Lake in the distance.

Where to Stay

Most visitors who plan to stay overnight reserve a sport in one of several campgrounds under the jurisdiction of Tonto National Forest. Cholla, Windy Hill, and Schoolhouse campgrounds all offer a mix of RV and tent-only sites available on a first-come, first served basis, as well as reservable sites November 1 through April 30. Sites cost $25 per night in addition to a Tonto Pass. Other lake campgrounds, such as Indian Point, require only a Tonto Pass.

Roosevelt Lake Marina also has campsites available for tents and RVs with full hookups on a first-come, first-served basis. The cost is $8 per vehicle ($12 if towing a trailer). Want to sleep on the water? The marina has a “floating hotel” (a pontoon boat without a motor) that can accommodate a group of up to eight for $350 per night.

Just a few miles from the lake, Roosevelt Resort Park offers rooms, cabins, and RV sites. The nearest hotels can be found in Globe, roughly 30 miles away.

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The Complete Guide to Arizona's Theodore Roosevelt Lake