Lofty ponderosa pine trees crowd the shores of northern Arizona’s Lynx Lake, casting forest-green reflections onto the sapphire-blue surface. Just a few miles away, orange-hued granite boulders contrast strikingly with Watson Lake’s dappled blues.
Welcome to the colorful world of the Grand Canyon State’s multifaceted lakes.
For a state known mostly as the home of cacti and canyons, Arizona has a surprisingly robust repertoire of lovely lakes. And, owing to the diverse terrain and extreme altitude disparities, Arizona’s lakes tend to be distinctive, each one with a character of its own.
Of course, most of Arizona’s lakes are man-made, having been formed by the long-ago damming of creeks and rivers. But that means that you’ll find lakes in startlingly unlikely spots, like deep gorges, barren deserts, and in the middle of sprawling cities.
Over the years, I’ve visited many of the state’s major bodies of water, and I always marvel at their unique beauty. Here -- from vast reservoirs that annually draw tens of thousands of visitors to little ponds tucked away in the forest -- are nine of Arizona’s most gorgeous lakes.
1. Bartlett Lake
Boating and fishing are popular year-round at Bartlett Lake, but the Verde River reservoir attracts the most attention in the springtime, when it transitions into a wonderland of wildflowers.
After wet winters, the shores of Bartlett Lake are blanketed with yellow poppies and purple lupine, all clustered amidst the lake’s towering saguaro and prickly cholla cacti.
Bartlett Lake is located about 20 miles east of Carefree, a community at the northern edge of the Phoenix metro area, and about 45 miles northeast of Scottsdale. The lake is within the Tonto National Forest and features a marina, camping and picnic areas, and hiking trails. Bartlett Lake makes for a perfect day trip from any of the Phoenix-area communities.
2. Watson Lake
A photographer’s dream, Watson Lake lies in the scenic area known as the Granite Dells in the northern Arizona community of Prescott.
Depending on the time of day and the season, the granite boulders around the lake can glow reddish-orange or take on a pinkish-beige hue. Regardless, the rocks provide a dramatic backdrop for the blue waters of Watson Lake.
A reservoir of Granite Creek, Watson Lake is relatively small, but it packs a big recreational punch with boat docks, a campground, picnic areas, and miles of hiking trails. It is located on Highway 89 about 4 miles from historic downtown Prescott and about 100 miles northwest of Phoenix. The lake makes a convenient day trip from Phoenix, but you could easily spend a day or two in Prescott.
Pro Tip: For a close-up look at Watson Lake’s spectacular granite coves, consider renting a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard from Prescott Outdoors. Online reservations are available, and walk-up rentals are also welcome.
3. Lake Powell
As one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the United States, Lake Powell is a major tourist attraction, drawing about two million visitors a year. Many of the visitors come for the lake’s stellar boating through the dramatic coves of Glen Canyon. The landscape of vermilion buttes rising from the cobalt water of Lake Powell is among the state’s most iconic.
Located along the Colorado River near Page, the lake straddles the Arizona-Utah border. It offers nearly 2,000 miles of meandering shoreline and is one of the state’s best-known spots for fishing. It is also a popular destination for families and friends to gather for vacations on the houseboats that can be rented from numerous Page-area businesses. More information about the road trip from Flagstaff to Page is available in this article.
Pro Tip: While at Lake Powell, be sure to head about 5 miles south of Page to Horseshoe Bend, a dramatic 270-degree bend in the Colorado River that is another of Arizona’s most recognizable sights.
4. Lake Pleasant
Lake Pleasant stands out among the numerous reservoirs in the Phoenix area for its delightful convergence of water, desert, and sunshine. Saguaro and ocotillo cacti cover the hills surrounding the lake, and wildflowers line the shoreline in the spring.
Located about 45 minutes northwest of Phoenix, Lake Pleasant offers 114 miles of shoreline and prime opportunities for boating, fishing, sightseeing, and hiking. The lake features a 10-lane boat ramp and plenty of parking.
Pro Tip: Watch for wild burros along the backroads around Lake Pleasant. In fact, the Wild Burro Trail, which skirts the lakeshore, is known as a prime spot to see the animals.
5. Lynx Lake
A quintessential forest lake can be found in the dense ponderosa pines of the Prescott National Forest about 7 miles southeast of Prescott.
Lynx Lake, a blue jewel in a bed of green, is known as an idyllic spot for kayaking, canoeing, fishing, and picnicking. Bald eagles are known to nest in the high pines -- a favorite of birders and photographers alike.
The popular Lynx Recreation Trail circles the lake, featuring a paved wheelchair-accessible trail on the western side of the lake and a more rugged dirt trail on the eastern side. A comfortable lakeside campground offers sites for tents and RVs. Located at about 5,500 feet elevation, Lynx Lake is considerably cooler in the summer than the Phoenix area and is a popular spot for beating the desert heat.
Pro Tip: The quaint Lynx Lake Cafe specializes in German cuisine, such as apple strudel and grilled bratwurst for breakfast and schnitzel for dinner -- all in a lakeside setting.
6. Big Lake
For pure High Country enjoyment, Big Lake in the White Mountains of Arizona is heard to beat. At about 9,000 feet elevation, Big Lake, located in eastern Arizona, is cool and pine-scented in the spring, summer, and fall and often snowy in the winter.
Big Lake is located within the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and is known for its excellent fishing for rainbow, brown, and brook trout. It is also a prime spot for mountain camping, with its nine Forest Service campgrounds. Big Lake Tackle and Supply, a family-run log-cabin general store, offers tackle, licenses, boats, food, ice, and gas.
Information on other White Mountain attractions is available here.
7. White Horse Lake
About 19 miles southeast of the small Interstate 40 town of Williams, White Horse Lake offers a remote and tranquil setting deep in the Kaibab National Forest.
Surrounded by ponderosa pines and wildflowers, White Horse Lake is a popular spot for camping, fishing, and watersports. It also offers a hiking trail that follows the lakeshore and is near the Sycamore Canyon Vista. The lake features a campground with 94 campsites, 22 of which are wheelchair accessible.
8. Lake Havasu
Sizzling temperatures, desert terrain, and cool Colorado River water combine to create a lakeside oasis on Arizona’s “West Coast.”
With five state parks clustered along the Colorado River near the Arizona-California border, the Lake Havasu City area offers countless opportunities for camping and boating on the river. The clear aqua water of the river is set off by the rugged ridges of the Mohave Mountains.
The area is also famous for its white sand beaches, its recreated historic London Bridge, and its Bridgewater Channel that attracts hordes of college spring breakers each year. The route from Phoenix to Lake Havasu City is a classic Arizona road trip, and ideas for what to do along the way are available here.
9. Tempe Town Lake
Changing it up a bit from Arizona’s wilderness lakes is the Tempe Town Lake, a cool haven right in the middle of the Phoenix metro area. Surrounding the lake are shining cityscapes and skylines, alternating with the area’s rugged mountain ridges.
On the lake, it’s common to see sculling boats slicing through the water alongside slower-moving kayaks and canoes. Look upward, and you’ll catch a steady stream of passenger planes taking off and landing at the nearby Sky Harbor International Airport.
Kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and electric surreys are available for rent at Boat Rentals of America, and bike rentals are available at The Bicycle Cellar and the GRID Bikes station. Because of its location next to Tempe’s fun Mill Avenue scene, the lake area offers numerous hip restaurants, breweries, and coffee shops.
Pro Tip: Note that a train derailment occurred at Tempe Town Lake in July of 2020, and a cleanup has been underway, making some of the beach areas and trails temporarily inaccessible.