The Dolly Steamboat / ┬ęDoug Ward
May/June 2016

Exploring by Steamboat

A closer look at Canyon Lake

BYKim Jakubowski
On an Arizona trip to tour the dam that carries his name, President Theodore Roosevelt called the views along the Apache Trail “awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful,” possessing “an indefinable something” even the Alps, the Rockies, and the Grand Canyon couldn’t match.
 
Today, the historic trail — now known as AZ-88 — remains one of the state’s most impressive drives, winding through the saguaro-dotted Superstition Mountains. About 13 miles into the route, drivers snaking upward and eastward from Apache Junction meet a dramatic scene as desert road gives way to Canyon Lake. At 10 miles long with 28 miles of shoreline, the reservoir is the smallest but perhaps most photogenic of the four lakes — Roosevelt, Saguaro, Apache, and Canyon — formed by the Salt River dams.
 
While the view is impressive from the road, some of the canyon’s most exceptional sights demand a deeper journey into the reservoir. Making that journey accessible to all was a challenge the founders of the Dolly Steamboat tackled almost 30 years ago, and Canyon Lake visitors continue to reap the rewards of that mission today.
 
Continuing a Cruising Tradition
Boating on Canyon Lake began in October 1925, with the launch of the S.S. Geronimo. Propelled by a 35-horsepower engine, the 35-foot long ship cruised at just 15 miles per hour and could transport up to 50 passengers.
 
Today, the Dolly brings a bit more muscle to the Canyon Lake cruising tradition. Powered by twin 225 HP John Deere marine diesel engines, the vessel is 103 feet long and extends 20 feet at its widest point. It carries a total of 142 passengers, with seating in upper and lower open-air observation areas as well as in a covered and air-conditioned lower cabin. (For the best views, owners suggest claiming a seat at the ship’s open-air bow.)
 
The steamboat’s original owners, Paul and Dolly Kennedy — from whom the steamboat gained its moniker — began tours in 1983 before Wisconsinite Roger Grimh purchased the boat in 1987. His son and daughter, Jeff Grimh and Cindi DeLoseur, now pilot the business as co-CEOs.
 
Both owners remain an integral part of today’s welcoming and knowledgeable crew. “It’s about the people,” says Jeff of his favorite aspect of the tours, and the entire crew’s service holds true to that philosophy. While acting as captain, Jeff bolsters his banter with historical anecdotes, and the crew vigilantly watches the cliffs to help steer passengers’ eyes to wildlife, including desert bighorn sheep, bald eagles, and javelinas.
 
Canyon Calm
The Dolly’s most popular tour is the Scenic Nature Cruise, a 90-minute, 6-mile journey that delves into the lake’s isolated inlets. In contrast with the twisting and at times turbulent Apache Trail drive, the steamboat expedition is tranquil, offering the opportunity to spy roving wildlife, rock formations resembling Bach’s profile, and petrified wood embedded in canyon walls.
 
On the Twilight Dinner Cruise, which journeys another 3 to 4 miles beyond the nature cruise route, sunset throws a ghostly light on welded tuff cliffs that stretch up to 1,200 feet. Views skyward are the highlight of the Astronomy Dinner Cruise, which gives passengers access to telescopes as astronomy expert Steve Kates shares his knowledge of the stars.
 
You won’t disembark from the Dolly without a renewed sense of reverence for the Sonoran Desert’s formidable beauty. In fact, charting the Superstition wilderness from the steamboat’s intimate, serene perspective might bring you closer to pinpointing the “indefinable something” Roosevelt couldn’t quite put his finger on.
KIM JAKUBOWSKI is the associate editor of Highroads.
If You Go
Dolly Steamboat
16802 AZ-88, Tortilla Flat
480-827-9144
dollysteamboat.com
 
Before you board: Nature cruises sell out quickly, so it’s best to book before heading to the lake. Reservations are required for the Twilight Dinner Cruise and the Astronomy Cruise. Visit dollysteamboat.com for cruise schedules and availability information. Arrive at the ticket booth at least half an hour prior to departure to improve your odds of claiming the best seats. Seating is first come, first choice, and cruises board by ticket number. Also make a trip to the ATM before boarding, as the ship’s bar — which stocks water, soda, snacks, and alcohol — is cash only.
 
Zoom in: To boost your views of the cliffs’ wildlife and flora, bring binoculars or a camera with a long-focus lens.
 
Up the trail: Continue your Apache Trail drive about 2 miles east of Dolly’s dock to reach Tortilla Flat. The town — a vestige of the Old West with a current population of six — started as a stagecoach stop in 1904. Taste the town’s signature Prickly Pear Gelato at the country store or hop on a saddle barstool at the Superstition Restaurant and Saloon, where you can add a dollar bill to walls papered with currency from more than 80 countries.
 

Dolly Discounts
AAA members can save $3 on nature cruises and twilight dinner tours by calling 480-827-9144 for reservations and mentioning the AAA discount. Learn more at AAA.com.
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