Once temperatures reach triple digits in central Arizona, there is one resource Phoenicians can rely on to cool off — water.
Central air conditioning is nice too, but if you prefer the outdoors, Butcher Jones Recreation Site is a place to get your water fix, as well as hiking, picnicking and sunbathing.
Butcher Jones is located in the Tonto National Forest along the Beeline Highway, shortly after the Saguaro Lake Marina. While it’s not the ocean, there is a desert beach surrounded by cliffs and mountain tops that will surely offer respite.
The area also has picnic tables, a hiking trail along the lake, access to off-roading, and if you’re timing is right, some wild horse sightings. Butcher Jones is a convenient spot for launching your kayak or paddleboard as well.
To use any recreation area along the Lower Salt River section of the Tonto National Forest, you must purchase a recreation pass. You can snag one for $12 from the various gas stations or convenience stores that you’ll pass on your way out, or use the meter in the parking lot.
Butcher Jones Beach is one of the more popular areas to frequent in the summer. The combination of a white sand field, a cove, and desert mountain views are sure to attract the crowds. There is plenty of room at the beach for large groups to spread out as they please.
I tried visiting with a couple friends on a Saturday afternoon, and we struggled to find parking. While this area may not offer solitude on its busier days, there is enough beauty for everyone. But if your sights are set on a more peaceful experience, sunrise and weeknights will be your best bet.
Because this area sees a lot of traffic, it’s no surprise that trash gets left behind. Quite a bit, too. Unfortunately, once large amounts of trash sit for a while, bees and vultures come looking to claim their prize, which could be a disturbance for some folks.
While us outdoor enthusiasts hope that the Forest Service does their part in keeping these areas clean to promote a healthy ecosystem as well as visitation, it’s helpful to give them a hand. It can make your time spent here that much more enjoyable, too.
The Hiking Trail
Distance: 10 miles
Elevation Gain: 541 feet
If you want to get some miles under your belt and explore Saguaro Lake from a different point of view, the Butcher Jones Trail will give you just that. This trail could be considered easy for the avid hiker, and moderate for beginner trekkers. The trail is rocky, which is expected in the Sonoran Desert.
At the beach, the trail starts on the left, closer to the parking lot. You’ll walk parallel to the lake and through a grove of mesquite trees. On busier days, especially the weekend, this first section of the trek may have thicker crowds but should thin out the further along you go. The groups that come for the sake of swimming and sunbathing will sometimes opt for a side adventure, but they don’t stick around on the trail for long.
Continue along the east side of the lake where there are plenty of areas to step off-trail to observe your surroundings and even take a dip if you choose. This trail doesn’t offer heavy amounts of shade, so cooling off in the water is your next best bet. Or just be prepared for an intimate afternoon with the sun.
The expansive desert views hardly give way as you hike along this trail. The glistening waters, towering cliffs and desert plants will keep you company from start to finish.
Toward the end, you will get a great view of four peaks. The times I’ve done this hike, I haven’t necessarily found an “ending” marker, but rather the trails start to drift into different directions but all lead to dead ends, a sign that it was time to turn around.
Kayaking and Paddleboarding
Once you’ve launched, the lake is yours to explore. But here are some suggestions.
If you paddle your way to the right (west) and hug the cliffside, there is a popular area for cliff jumping. Bring a rope with you so you can anchor your yaks and boards. Side note: once again, because this area is well-trafficked, you may see graffiti and trash. If you’re able to take some trash out with you, nature will thank you.
Otherwise, you could paddle your way to the left and discover more confined and secluded areas. If you work your way into the canyon, you’ll eventually come up to a small shore that will be significantly less busy than the shore you just launched from. You will have worked hard for that solitude.
In case you don’t own a kayak, Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch offers rentals with delivery and pick-up.
The 4×4 Trail
Butcher Jones is also a hub to test your offroading skills. If you’re into this sort of thing and are well equipped, you’ll find Butcher Jones Offroad Trailhead on the north side of the parking lot.
After a bumpy ride, you’ll wind up at a secluded beach on the south side of the lake that you couldn’t access otherwise. Talk about a perfect spot for a bonfire. But if you do that, just ensure you have a proper fire ring built to keep it contained, and that you put it out entirely before heading out.
Whatever you decide to do to spend your day at Butcher Jones, just know it’s going to be well spent, and hopefully, you go home with a proper tan and an appreciation for the desert.
Directions and Deets
From Phoenix, take the 202 east and take exit 13 onto the AZ-87 N. Stay on the 87 for about 22 miles and take exit 199 and turn right. Continue for three miles until you see signs for Butcher Jones Recreation Area on the left. Follow the road until you reach the parking lot.
If you live east of 87, go north on Power Road until it turns into the B-line. Stay here for about 20 minutes until you see signs for Butcher Jones on your right. You may also opt for going north on Ellsworth Road which turns into Usery Pass Road. This will take you directly to the B-line. Turn right and continue for 10 minutes until you see signs for Butcher Jones on your right.