Splash Down in Arizona’s Forest Lakes

by Blake Herzog

We have few recreational lakes to choose from in Pinal County, and the ones we may frequent in Maricopa County or on the Colorado River are also in the desert, providing little relief during our season of sizzle.

But if you have time for a scenery-strewn road trip, these five forested Northern Arizona lakes offer some well-deserved respite. Check ahead for any wildfire or COVID-related closures of roads or facilities that could affect your plans.


LAKE MARY

The Lake Mary Recreation Corridor stretches across two skinny lakes east of Flagstaff and 3 hours away from Casa Grande. Upper Lake Mary has no limits on boat motor size, so it’s a favorite of power boaters and water and jet skiers. Kayakers, canoers, and paddleboarders are welcomed, too, and it’s stocked with walleye, trout, and channel catfish for anglers.

It’s a great stop for bird and other wildlife watchers, hikers, and mountain bikers. There are three campgrounds, all scheduled to close for the season on Oct. 11 along with the day-use areas, but the lakes themselves are open year-round.

  • www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/coconino/recreation/fishing/recarea/?recid=82341&actid=42

WOODS CANYON AND WILLOW SPRINGS LAKES

These lakes are located 7 miles apart along state Highway 260, about halfway between Payson and Heber and 2.5 hours from Casa Grande. Both are regularly stocked with trout, with bass and catfish also found in Woods Canyon, the smaller of the two. Both are surrounded by ponderosas, fir, and spruce, and Woods Canyon has a scenic canyon-bound setting.

Both are part of the Rim Lakes Recreation Area and have stunning vistas of the 200-mile Mogollon Rim above. Woods Canyon Lake has several campgrounds, while Willow Springs Lake is within walking distance of one.

  • Woods Canyon Lake: www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/asnf/recarea/?recid=80835
  • Willow Springs Lake: www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/asnf/recarea/?recid=45185

HAWLEY LAKE

If your ideal escape to the woods involves a cabin, check out Hawley Lake, southeast of McNary on White Mountain Apache tribal lands. It’s about 4 hours away from Casa Grande and offers 68 cabins owned and operated by the tribe’s Community Development Corporation to provide jobs and fund housing opportunities. There’s also a campground for RVs, trailers, and tents.

The quality of the fishing in the 260-acre lake is excellent year-round, with ice fishing a great winter ritual for the truly dedicated. The surrounding White Mountain peaks and their reflections in the water draw boatloads of photographers, too.

  • www.wmat.nsn.us/hawleycabins.html

BIG LAKE

This 575-acre lake south of Greer has spectacular views, fine fishing, and endless trails for hikers and mountain bikers. Boat and kayak rentals are available. There are nine campgrounds in the area, two of which can accommodate RVs and two dedicated entirely to tent camping, all 4.5 hours away from Casa Grande.

Located in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in the White Mountains, it’s at 9,000 feet and one of the best fishing lakes in the state; with rainbow, cutthroat, Apache, and brook trout the most prized catches. It’s near several other lakes and both forks of the Black River.

  • www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/asnf/recarea/?recid=80836