Woods Canyon Lake: Not just for fishing

Arizona has arrived at the ‘dog days of summer.’ Most Arizona metro streets are almost desolate on weekends. Every Arizona city-dweller with an RV, trailer, tent, cabin or hotel reservation escapes the heat, and heads out of town for cooler temps in northern and east-central Arizona (or any elevation over 6000 feet). Many campers will likely be on their way to Woods Canyon Lake.

Woods Canyon Lake is so popular during the summer for many obvious reasons. It has a beautiful location. It’s an easy two-hour drive from the Valley. You don’t need a monster mud truck to get to the site. It has great fishing, camping, hiking — and yes — it’s at least 15 degrees cooler. But there’s much more to Woods Canyon Lake than most people realize.

For instance, not everyone knows that Woods Canyon Lake has day-use facilities for lakeside picnicking. Don’t let the “campground full” sign deter you. You can still get in a day of fishing and picnicking. Rocky Point Picnic Area is located immediately adjacent to the lake, just northwest of the marina and store area. For a $5 day use fee, picnickers can enjoy a meal while watching trout fisherman float around the coves and inlets or gazing overhead for a chance sighting of one of Woods Canyon Lake’s large bird species, such as osprey or bald eagle. Just beyond the picnic area, you may spot one of the eagle nests high in the treetops.

Another popular attraction for visitors to Woods Canyon Lake are several hiking trails and nature paths in the vicinity. The main Woods Canyon Lake Trail makes a 5.5-mile circumference of the lake. It’s an easy walk of 2-3 hours. During summer months, you’ll see a variety of lush ferns and grasses growing from the forest floor under a canopy of Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and oak. Watch for green meadows speckled with bright yellow wildflowers and steep, rocky ravines. If you start your hike southeast (to the right) of the lake’s marina, you’ll walk past people fishing offshore and over the earthen spillway. Soon you’ll be in a dense woods. Careful, now: Arizonans from mid-western and eastern states could get sentimental.  An easier walking option is the Meadow Trail, a paved path that short cuts through the campgrounds to a string of three Mogollon Rim overlooks along FR 300. Check the HikeArizona.com site and Woods Canyon Lake facility map for other nearby hikes.

Don’t forget to bring your bikes with you to Woods Canyon Lake. Many of the hiking trails nearby are also rated for mountain biking. These include the Rim Vista Trail 622 and FR 235. Just be alert for lightning as well as fast moving trucks zipping around the curves. Some people may think they’re still on the four-lane sections of State Route 260. Log on to everytrail.com to see more bike trails.

On summer Saturday evenings, families will have the opportunity to sit around the Woods Canyon Lake amphitheater and listen to one of Ranger Bob’s nature programs. This season the focus is wildfires – how they start, prevention and tools firefighters use to extinguish the fires. It’s both education and entertainment for the entire family. Programs start at 7:30 p.m. Don’t forget the snacks, hot chocolate and a blanket – for those chilly Rim country evenings.

Only non-motorized boats are permitted on Woods Canyon Lake and as you would guess, most are fishing boats. But that doesn’t stop other outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy the lake for kayaking, canoeing or floating in an inflatable raft. You may even seen a small pontoon boat floating around the lake perimeter and coves, fishing, watching for wildlife — just enjoying those cool, mountain breezes and blue skies. Take a look at the Desert Mountain Paddlers meetup site to watch a fascinating slide show from the group’s adventures at Woods Canyon Lake last October.

If you’re going to Woods Canyon Lake to camp during summer months, know that these sites are scooped up quickly. Sites can be reserved online, and also, there are a few that are available on a “first-come, first served” basis.  Obviously on non-holiday weekends after the school year starts, sites become more available.

Handy links:

Woods Canyon Lake camping

WoodsCanyonLake.com

Woods Canyon Lake facility map

Apache – Sitgreaves National Forest

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Six reasons to visit Tonto Natural Bridge State Park

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For several years now, we’ve been extending our Arizona getaways to farther corners of the state and we often had sidestepped the communities closer to the Phoenix. We would stop only for refueling or quick restroom and snack breaks. But on recent visits to Pine, Strawberry and Payson, we rediscovered Rim Country. And Tonto Natural Bridge is the area’s best attraction! Here are six reasons to add it to your itinerary:

 

lodge

Now a visitor center, park office and gift shop, the main building was once a pioneer home and guest lodge

1. Easy access

It’s approximately two hours from the Phoenix area, just 14 miles north of Payson, Arizona, off state route 87. Paved roads all the way make for an easy drive, although the last few miles are on a steep driveway down to the park’s main parking lot and visitor center. Plan to spend at least four to six hours at the state park. There are trails to hike, boulders to scramble upon, cool breezes to inhale. Pack a picnic lunch and make a day of it. The park currently is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the visitor center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. And easy access doesn’t mean it’s pricey. For a $5 adult entrance fee, the park is really the best deal for an Arizona day trip getaway!

 

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Be prepared to take a natural springs "shower" under the bridge

2. Hiking trails

These hikes aren’t long, but they are steep and some many have uneven steps. Others are very slippery and narrow and require boulder hopping or ledge hugging along Pine Creek. Prepare to get wet: if not from an accidental dip in the creek, you’ll feel the constant spray from the natural springs showering down from atop the bridge. You may want to bring some head gear or you can simply enjoy the drops. Sturdy hiking boots are recommended. Also, allow plenty time to climb up and down these trails. On weekends, the trails will be busy. When we visited in May, there was a constant stream of visitors. Bring along patience and common courtesy on the trail. If you’re not up to hiking down to under the bridge or along the creek, you can still enjoy the bridge sights from one of several lookout points.

 

garden

The garden setting near the main lodge building makes a great location for a picnic lunch

3. Picnicking

After a couple of these hikes, you’ll probably want a bite to eat and a cold drink. Remember: even in Payson, summer days are warm. It’s best to hike in the cool of the mornings and reward yourself with a picnic lunch. Some picnic areas have ramadas, but there are plenty of uncovered tables under the shade trees for your family picnic. Use this handy map to plan your visit. Restrooms and drinking water stations are located nearby. Please visit the park website for updates about fire restrictions before you light up one of the grills.

 

lodge

Main lodge building contains many historical items and a gift shop

4. Pine Creek

Of course, during early spring after rains or snow melt, or during late summer after monsoon rains, the Pine Creek’s flows are much higher. And conversely, during late spring and early summer the creek flows will be less. But natural springs surrounding all points of the bridge keep the creek fed. This constant spring water flow produces an array of graduated shades of green from layers of moss, mint, watercress and ferns at the creek bed. We spotted one of two designated swimming areas, but they look a bit on the stagnant side for my liking. Unless you want to step out of the water looking like Hollywood’s “Swamp Thing,” you may want to refrain from creek wading.

 

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Pine Creek flows under the Tonto Natural Bridge

5. Wildlife

It’s possible to spot many varieties of birds and small mammals around Tonto Natural Bridge and Pine Creek. Bats, swallows, owls, woodpeckers, vultures, squirrels, javelina and gray fox are among the common species making their home in the area. Take a look at the park website to learn more about the wildlife in the area as well as the geological facts and figures about the bridge.

 

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Watch for wildlife along the trails. You may see this photogenic Arizona gray squirrel

6. To support the park

Arizonans’ visits will help keep state parks like Tonto Natural Bridge remain open and operating. Private groups also have been successful in meeting the financial needs of the parks through fundraising efforts. For more information, see the website of the “Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.” The group has an event planned for this summer. Save the date of Saturday Aug. 4 on your calendar for “Taste at the Bridge,” a fundraising event put on by the Friends and the Arizona State Parks Foundation.

Readers: What’s your favorite Arizona State Park and why? How many of you have been to all of them? Some have closed; others are moving to 5-day schedules. What are your thoughts?