It comes out of nowhere. As I navigate a bend along State Route 95 in western Arizona, a stretch of water appears, its brilliant blue a stunning contrast to the Mojave Desert’s ochre, black and grey rocks. It’s a surprise—even though I know I’m driving to a place called Lake Havasu.
The lake was formed after the Parker Dam was completed on the Colorado River in 1938, blocking the natural flow of the water and filling the canyon behind the barrier. Lake Havasu, and its namesake city, is now one of the top water-sport destinations in the United States; home to sailing regattas, boat shows and Desert Storm—a race attracting some of the fastest high-performance speedboats in the U.S.
“We have [one of] the most expensive main streets in the world that week,” says Jackie Leatherman, Go Lake Havasu tourism bureau’s director of travel-trade industry, who explains some of the largest manufacturers in the U.S. will display their newest speed boats along the roadway during the April event. While there is a go-slow zone in the channel that flows through the city, there is no speed limit on the 19,300-acre lake, making it the perfect place for boaters to show off their horsepower.
If you want to call Lake Havasu City an amusement park for water sports, go ahead. The city was created in 1963 by chainsaw manufacturer Robert Paxton McCulloch, who came to Havasu to test his company’s outboard motors. Acquiring more than 16,000 acres of land on the eastern side of the lake, he worked with C. V. Wood—one of the developers of Disneyland—to create a planned community.
McCulloch flew in investors from the U.S. and Canada to entice them to purchase a plot of land. Today, Lake Havasu City’s population is around 55,000, but inflates seasonally. “It’s a mini Cancun in the middle of the desert,” Leatherman says over the sound of a sputtering speed boat docking nearby. It’s not uncommon, she adds, for one of the hottest topics at city council meetings to be whether to buy pink or white sand for the beaches.
As a child, Kenny Samp vacationed on the lake each summer with his family. They liked the place so much his dad bought the local bowling alley in Lake Havasu City in 1976. The captain of Serenity Now, a boat he designed and built, Samp leads tours of the lake with the Sunset Charter & Tour Co.
Steering through the channel, he points to a tree-filled waterfront park. This spot becomes fierce each March with “breakers,” he says. Lake Havasu City is a hot destination for college students, with four waves of spring breakers each spending a week in the community. Samp jokes the park turns into a “whole other kind of jungle” that month, with students sunning on inflatables, straddling jet skis and partying on boats next to shore.
Samp’s three-hour Sunset Experience tour—one of five the company provides—is refined, yet fun, as he wisecracks with his guests. It’s a B.Y.O.B. affair. “You drink, I drive,” he tells his six passengers. Samp navigates as he digs into the geology of the region and shares information on the history of the Colorado River Valley.
He also steers into Copper Canyon—on the California side of the lake. Once full of miners prospecting for gold, silver and copper in the 1850s, it is known today as a “party cove.” On a good summer day, hundreds of boats will fill the canyon, mooring to each other so their passengers can party. “Once inside, you can get stuck,” says Samp. “You can walk across the canyon on the boats. Just find the one whose music you like best and hang out there.”
Must-See in Lake Havasu City: London Bridge
Robert Paxton McCulloch’s crowning achievement was his purchase of London Bridge from the City of London Corporation in 1968 for US$2.46 million. The dismantled stones were then numbered and shipped to his desert city. To have a place for the bridge to span, McCulloch carved a channel, transforming a peninsula into an island. The bridge reopened in 1971.