7 Serene Arizona Lakes for Water-related Activities

These Arizona lakes boast outdoor activities for the boater, fisherman, hiker, camper, and nature lover

When it’s been this hot for this long, the one thing you need is water. Not the stuff that comes in bottles or out of the tap. Nor the water that’s been slowly heating in concrete enclosures since May. You need an expanse of naturally occurring water, the kind that runs freely or accumulates in quantities so vast it can support all sorts of users.

It’s true that Arizona is best known for its dramatic desert landscapes but these arid regions also have hundreds of miles of lakeshore where you can sun yourself on sandy beaches or water ski past stately saguaros. 

Here are my seven favorite lakes in Arizona for water-related activities.

Granite Dells © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Granite Dells

For water with a view, it’s hard to beat the rocky sentinels standing guard along Watson Lake. A little over 4 miles north of Historic Prescott, the Dells offer unique granite rock formations, two small lakes, and miles upon miles of trails. From easy mountain bike rides, leisurely hikes, to tough and technical terrain, the Dells offer something truly unique when it comes to outdoor recreation.

Granite Dells © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Granite Dells, worn smooth by the elements, provide a scenic backdrop as you kayak or canoe along the placid surface of the lake. And when the light is right and the surface is glassy, photos of the reflection will light up your Instagram and Facebook feeds.

The two main areas to visit are the city parks located in the Granite Dells—Watson Lake Park and Willow Lake Park. Both parks are open year-round allowing visitors to see the changing scenery through the four mild seasons. The summers are cooler than Southern Arizona. And the winters are mild too, offering occasional snow that melts off pretty quickly.

Lynx Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lynx Lake

If you’re looking for a cool, calm, and relaxing day, Lynx Lake offers some of the best fishing in the area. At 55-acres, Lynx Lake is the largest and busiest lake in the Prescott National Forest. Nestled amid ponderosa pines and claiming temperatures 10 to 15 degrees below those in the desert, Lynx Lake holds rainbow trout, largemouth bass, crappie, and more. Even better, its waters are limited to electronic- or people-powered watercraft, perfect for fishing or napping. The only thing separating the two is luck.

Lynx Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A popular lakeside picnic and fishing area, South Shore has ample parking for cars and vehicles towing trailers or boats on all but the busiest days of the year when it fills up. Lynx Lake North Shore’s day-use area provides lake-side recreation, fishing, picnic tables and grills, a wildlife viewing scope, and interpretive signs. Lynx Lake Marina provides restaurant dining, fishing/camping supplies, bait, boat rentals, and firewood. Located atop a bluff on the north shore of Lynx Lake, Lynx Lake Café is a full-service restaurant.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro Lake

Giant cactuses with arms outstretched toward shimmering water might seem to be out of sync but Arizona is all about emerging scenic landscapes. Like the aptly named Saguaro Lake located about 45 miles from Phoenix in Tonto National Forest which emerges from the Sonoran Desert that sprawls across most of the southern half of Arizona. One of the Salt River’s four reservoirs, Saguaro Lake was shaped after the Stewart Mountain Dam was completed in 1930.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Launch your boat from one of the two marinas to water ski the 10-mile-long lake or stake out swimming spots at Captain’s Cove, Sadie Beach, or at Pebble Beach on the Lower Salt River. Tour-boat trips are available on the Desert Belle. Try the upper reaches of the lake (east-end) for more seclusion. An idyllic way to see the stars among the saguaros is to camp overnight at Bagley Flat with grills and tables provided. It’s free for up to 14 days but the site’s 10 spots are only accessible by boat.

Over 2,200 fish-habitat structures were installed to enhance fishing on the lake. According to Bass Master Magazine, the best time for trophy bass is October to December and February to mid-April. There is large bass in the lake; fish census shows that 12+ pound bass and 30-pound Carp exist in the depths. Bluegill comes in a variety of sizes. Occasional species caught include Walleye, Black Crappie, Small-mouth Bass, Bigmouth Buffalo, and Yellow Bass.

Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon Lake

The most scenic of the Salt River-fed lakes, Canyon abounds with the steep walls and cliffs its name suggests. Canyon Lake is known for its wonderful shorelines along the red rock cliffs. Tuck into a secluded cove and fish for bass, trout, and many other kinds of fish, or take a leisurely cruise and marvel at the scenery. Boaters wanting scenery and seclusion should try the east end of the lake where it winds through steep canyon walls. There are occasional sightings of Big Horn sheep as well as other wildlife.

Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boat-access camping is at The Point. November-March, Arizona Game and Fish stock the lake monthly with rainbow trout. Largemouth Bass are caught in Canyon Lake every year. A 15-pound state record Largemouth Bass was taken from the shoreline of Canyon Lake. A world record 1 pound 11 ounce Yellow Bass was caught in 1985.

Idyllic year-round weather makes Canyon Lake a great destination for all watersports and camping enthusiasts. When ready for a break, pick a spot along the 28 miles of shoreline and enjoy a picnic or stop at the Lakeside Restaurant and Cantina for a casual meal.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bartlett Lake

Located in the mountains northeast of Phoenix, Bartlett Lake was formed by the damming of the Verde (Spanish for “green”) River. The pristine waters of the Verde were spoken of descriptively in legends of the Indians of the valley who called the water “sweet waters”. The lake is framed by Sonoran desert scenery with gently sloping beaches on the west side and the rugged Mazatzal Mountains on the east side, studded with saguaro, cholla cacti, mesquite, and ocotillo.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A fair portion of the west side of the reservoir is devoted to camping and picnicking. Bartlett has been a favorite with anglers since Bartlett Dam was constructed in 1939. Several state-record fish have been caught there. The 1977 Small-mouth Bass state record tipped the scales at seven pounds. The carp state record still stands at 37 pounds 5 ounces. Flathead Catfish lurk in the depths. “Fish City” near Bartlett Flat is a fish-habitat improvement project.

Patagonia Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia Lake

Patagonia Lake is one of those high-desert sanctuaries that seem to pop up out of nowhere. Situated 75 miles south of Tucson (and 16 miles northeast of Nogales, the entry point into Mexico), the park is framed by 3,750-foot hills.

With boat ramps, camping sites, and a nearby Lakeside Market, Patagonia State Park is a great base to while away the day waterskiing, picnicking, fishing for bluegill, and watching for wildlife. The park offers a campground, beach, picnic area with ramadas, tables and grills, a creek trail, boat ramps, and a marina. The campground overlooks the lake where anglers catch crappie, bass, bluegill, catfish, and trout.

Patagonia Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is popular for water skiing, fishing, camping, picnicking, and hiking. And the train tracks from the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad which served the mines and military forts lie beneath the water. Remnants of the old historic line may be found at the Patagonia-Sonoita Nature Conservancy in Patagonia. Hikers can stroll along the creek trail and see birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, black vulture, and several species of hummingbirds. 

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parker Canyon Lake

This medium-sized 132-acre lake is nestled in the gentle Canelo Hills east of the Huachuca Mountains. Just seven miles north of Mexico, Parker Canyon Lake was created in 1966 by the Coronado National Forest and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Ringed with cottonwoods, juniper, piñon pine, scrub oak, and manzanita, Parker Canyon Lake offers a number of recreational possibilities for those willing to drive the dirt roads that lead to it. The temperature in the area which lies about 5,400 feet above sea level generally runs about 10 degrees cooler than Tucson.

For those who like to fish, Parker Canyon Lake offers both cold and warm water species including stocked rainbow trout and resident bass, sunfish, and catfish. There is a fishing pier and a paved boat ramp at the lake as well as a lakeside paved area and a graveled path along some of the best catfishing shorelines.

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is also a concessionaire-operated country store at the lakeshore where you can pick up some last-minute supplies, buy a fishing license, camping gear, tackle, and worms, or rent a boat.

From just about any point along the shore, Parker Canyon Lake doesn’t look very big. Take off on the trail around the lake, though, and you’ll find it’s a heck of a lot bigger than you thought.

Worth Pondering…

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.

—John Muir

Wildflower Season Has Arrived in Arizona! Where to See the Best Blooms?

Weather brings spring wildflowers to add desert color

Spring-like weather has arrived in the desert a little later than normal this year but it comes bearing gifts. After a rainy and snowy winter, warmer temperatures are triggering a profusion of wildflowers.

The flowers of the Sonoran Desert are a splash of color and passion. While almost entirely absent last year, they are out in force this season. This is a time to revel in satiny sun and balmy breezes and go looking for them. It’s a show you don’t want to miss. Here are some places to admire those soft, ground-level fireworks.

Usery Mountain Regional Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

First, let’s establish a few rules so everyone can enjoy this season’s bounty.

1. Don’t pick wildflowers. They won’t last long enough to see a vase. They’ll die very soon after being plucked and then all their hard work of sprouting, growing, and blooming was for naught. Leave them for others to enjoy.

Usery Mountain Regional Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

2. Stay on trails and watch where you step. There could be small seedlings all around. And for goodness’ sake, do not wade out into a field and trample the flowers, thus ruining them for everyone, just so you can snag a selfie. Take all photos from the pathways.

3. Don’t dawdle. Peak colors at any one location may last from a few days to two weeks. If you hear about a wildflower bonanza, track it down. The beauty may be ephemeral but your memories will last for years.

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Usery Mountain Regional Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The wildflower population appeared spotty at Usery Mountain Regional Park until moisture-laden storms in February changed the equation. Suddenly hillsides were streaked with color. Poppies, primrose, lupines, rock daisies, fairy dusters, and the flame-orange tips of ocotillo added drama to mountains that already exhibit plenty on their own.

The Userys gain enough elevation to afford stunning views back toward Phoenix and farther east to the rolling waves of mountains like the Goldfields and Superstitions. Hike the slopes to Wind Cave and Pass Mountain to admire the best panoramas while wading through bands of flowers.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park

Lake Pleasant Regional Park, March 2010 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

There’s always a bit of magic where desert and water meet. Add flowers to the mix and that’s a great way to spend a day. At Lake Pleasant, the heaviest concentration of poppies can be found on Pipeline Canyon Trail especially from the southern trailhead to the floating bridge a half-mile away.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park, March 2010 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The bridge is guarded by some extremely robust globemallows the size of landscape shrubs. A nice assortment of blooms also lines the Beardsley, Wild Burro, and Cottonwood trails.

Bartlett Lake

Near Bartlett Lake, March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The road to Bartlett Lake quickly leaves suburbs behind and winds past rolling hills to the sparkling reservoir cradled by mountains. Be sure to keep an eye peeled for white poppies—this is a good spot for them.

Bartlett Lake, March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Some of the best flower sightings are along the road to Rattlesnake Cove. The Palo Verde Trail parallels the shoreline, pinning hikers between flowers and the lake, a wonderful place to be on a warm March day.

Picacho Peak State Park

Picacho Peak State Park, March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Wildflowers are on a blooming binge at Picacho Peak State Park. Carpets of dazzling golden Mexican poppies play a starring role in the colorful show—but other wildflowers add their own hues to the landscape. Among them: blue lupines, orange globemallow, white desert chicory, and bright yellow brittlebush.

Picacho Peak State Park, March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Nearly any spot along the park’s main road will include wildflower scenery. One of the best side routes for colorful views from a vehicle—and even more grand vistas from trails—is the Barrett Loop.

Catalina State Park

Catalina State Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

“We had poppies blooming in January and that’s unheard of in my time here,” park manager Steve Haas says. Two large washes keep the park cooler than the lower desert and generally prompt a later seasonal bloom. Traditionally, colors peak from late March into early April but things are happening a little earlier this year.

The Sutherland Trail offers the best assortment of flowers with cream cups, poppies, lupines, penstemon, and desert chicory. Best color can be found near the junction with Canyon Loop and continuing for about 2 miles on the Sutherland across the desert.

Catalina State Park, March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Guided hikes and bird walks are offered several days each week.

Worth Pondering…

Wildflowers are the stuff of my heart!

—Lady Bird Johnson