Prescott, Arizona’s three most popular lakes – Watson, Lynx, and Goldwater – could not be any more different from one another. Watson is a geographical wonder, with rocks that look like they were transported straight from Mars. Lynx and Goldwater are much more of a run-of-the-mill lakes, nice and relaxing, but nothing crazy. These are not the only three lakes in or near Prescott, but they are by far the most popular.
So, let’s go!!!
Routinely voted and chosen as Prescott’s most popular lake, it’s not hard to imagine why. It’s a very unique lake, with rock formations that are not “normal” by lake standards. While most lakes are surrounded by flat grasslands or trees (like Lynx and Goldwater Lakes), Watson is surrounded by enormous boulders, many stacked atop one another. The water line routinely dips so low that it causes a discoloration near the base of the rocks, turning them a different color and adding to the weirdness. They remind me very much of the Blue Mesas and Tepees inside the Petrified Forest National Park (check that out here! Another Cross-Country (Almost) Road Trip: Same road, different path.).
The rocks are part of the “Granite Dells”, which “consist of exposed bedrock and large boulders of granite that have eroded into an unusual lumpy, rippled appearance” (Wiki). Watson Lake, as well as nearby Willow Lake, is a manmade reservoir within these Granite Dells. Watson was formed in the early 1900s when a dam was built on Granite Creek by the Chino Valley Irrigation District. Only in 1997 did the City of Prescott purchase the land with plans to preserve it as a recreational location. This man-made lake covers about 70 acres, with an average depth of 50 feet (15m) and a surface level of 5,100 feet (1,600m).
People use Watson Lake for fishing, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, bird watching, boating, and picnicking. There are also BBQ grills, horseshoe pits, frisbee golf, access to Watson Woods, and showers available for overnight campers. You cannot swim in Watson Lake (nor in any Prescott city lake, actually). Allegedly, this is due to pollution, as both Watson and Willow Lake sit downwind from an old strip mine full of mercury. However, apparently the city of Prescott is in the process of writing grants to clean both lakes. We shall see if that really happens!
Also, super awesomely, there is a full playground for the kiddos, plus you can bring your 4-legged friends since dogs are allowed inside the 380-acre park. There are multiple trails to explore as well, like the Flume Trail, Fishing and Discovery Trails, and Watson Dam Loop, with the most popular being the Pea-vine Trail.
We arrived at Watson Lake around 3:30pm, on a Sunday, and it was not crowded. There are multiple benches strategically placed near the top, so one can soak up the scenery and serenity of the lake. Some benches were occupied, but others were open. There were a few people hiking, kayaking, and just hanging out on the rocks near the water. We saw no swimmers, because as mentioned, it is strictly prohibited. There are many places among the rocks to find a nice little hole or ledge, and just perch up to enjoy the view and nature. After doing a bit of exploring, this is exactly what we did.
Watson Lake is located at 3101 Watson Lake Road, Prescott Arizona 86301, right off Highway 89; hours vary based on the season. In the spring, it’s open from 7am to 8pm. During summer, the hours are 6am to 10pm. For winter, the hours are 7am to 6pm. There is a $3 parking fee that you must pay before entering the park.
Located a stone’s throw away from the core of Prescott, you would never know Lynx Lake is so close to town. It sits right off Highway 69, a major thoroughfare through Prescott, so this is not a lake you have to drive far out into the Arizona wilderness to enjoy.
Geographically, Lynx Lake and Watson Lake are total opposites. While Watson Lake looks like Mars on Earth, Lynx Lake is more of a typical mountain lake in the middle of the woods. It’s beautiful, serene, and relaxing, but is not on the level of “what the heck am I looking at?” like Watson Lake. This is a lake you come to just to fish, take a serene walk, or relax.
Like Watson Lake, it is a manmade reservoir. It was created in 1952 when a dam was put in at Lynx Creek. It’s also smaller and shallower, with Watson Lake being about 15 acres larger and 10 feet (12.2m) deeper. Just like Watson Lake, swimming is prohibited at Lynx Lake; however, there are other activities to enjoy. These include fishing, camping, boating, sailing, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, and recreational gold panning. The lake is open year-round for fishing and is periodically stocked with rainbow trout, among other types of fish. We met several people along the shoreline fishing for trout, with many catching 5 or 6. There are 77 different campsites along the lake, as well as a 2-mile lakeshore trail loop. The only boats allowed on the lake are non-motorized and electric-powered boats (you can rent boats there). So, time to break out that kayak!
Kayaking around Lynx Lake would be super doable, and a great day trip. It is not a large lake, by any standards, and we could see all the way around it from the shore. The shore is rather rocky and hilly on one side, nearest the parking lot, which is where we found the fishermen and women. On the other side, it was sandier and flatter, but without a sandy lakeside beach to set up a towel and umbrella.
Some key information about at Lynx Lake:
For fishing, you must have an Arizona fishing license (if you are 13 or older) and there are bag limits of 6 trout, 6 bass, and unlimited crappie and catfish.
For camping, 39 campsites are located at Lynx Campground, located at the west side of the lake and 38 campsites are located at Hilltop Campground, which is located a quarter mile south of the lake. All these campgrounds have drinking water and toilets, but no hookups available. The campgrounds are open from April to October, and there is a 7-day limit per stay every 60 days. So, basically, you’re allowed to stay one week every 2 months.
For gold panning, you head to the Salida Gultch Trailhead which is along Lynx Creek. It is open to the public, but you must bring your own pan, cannot use any motorized equipment, and all holes created must be backfilled.
Oddly enough, I could not find an exact address like for Watson Lake. The directions I found were for the Lynx Campground on the USDA Forest Service website. It reads, “From Hwy 69: South on Walker Road (by Costco; 5 miles east of Prescott), approximately 3 miles. Campground is on the left side of Walker Road. Campground road and spurs are paved.”
Another beautiful Prescott area lake is Goldwater Lake, which is located at 2900 S. Goldwater Lake Road, approximately 4 miles south and about a 15-minute drive outside of town. It was surprisingly much more crowded than Watson or Lynx when we went, which I was not expecting. We visited all 3 lakes on a weekend, so that wasn’t it. Perhaps Goldwater is just more popular than I thought… or it might have been a fluke.
Either way, just be prepared for the lake to perhaps be a tad more crowded than you expect. Parking was harder to find here than at the other two and the trail was more heavily trafficked. There were benches sprinkled throughout the trail, but 9 times out of 10, they were occupied. Some people even set up their whole picnic shindig around a certain bench, effectively ending its use for anybody else, which I found extremely rude and selfish.
As with its predecessors in this blog, swimming is strictly forbidden at Goldwater. The activities that may be enjoyed are hiking, canoeing, kayaking, a children’s playground, picnicking, fishing, a sand volleyball court, horseshoe pits, and boating, as electric motors (no gas) are permitted to use on the lake. If you don’t own your own kayak or canoe, they have a rental place called Prescott Outdoors that is open during “lake hours” (spring: 7am – 8pm, summer: 6am – 10pm, winter: 7am – 6pm). There is a $3 parking fee per car, and annual passes are available.
The trail around Goldwater Lake is very doable; I would rate it as easy. It’s 95% flat, with just a few semi-hairy places for those with mobility issues. One is a slight downhill that is sort of rocky, and another where you must cross a very small section of stream (no bridge) and climb some rickety, old, wooden steps. There is a much faster and easier bypass in the form of a small bridge, but it was completely out of commission and roped off when we went. My mother has bad knees that make it difficult to maneuver ground that isn’t totally flat, and she struggled a bit at these two points. So, please be advised.
Also, the trail is in and out. It’s not a loop. This is something we learned the hard way when we were about 75% through the trail. It deceptively appears to be a loop around the entire lake, and we made the very rookie mistake of not first checking the map. The lake is not that large, and the trail ends at a dead end on either side of the dam. We never made it to the dam because my daughter was reaching her limit, plus my mother’s bad knees, as mentioned.
I enjoyed Goldwater Lake, although I wasn’t a huge fan of the number of people. It was the first time I’ve experienced a “full house” situation at any outdoor area in Prescott. Why? I’m not sure, as Goldwater is typically ranked as the 3rd most popular Prescott lake, behind the above two. Either way, it’s a fun little lake that offers a lot of activities and shouldn’t be passed up for fear of being crowded. You never know, we may have just been unlucky and you’ll get the place basically to yourself! (It happened to my brother and me at Thumb Butte!! Woot, woot, in the butte (Thumb Butte, Arizona).)
There are other lakes near and around Prescott (Willow Lake, Granite Basin Lake, Lower Goldwater Lake, Willow Creek Reservoir, and Yavapai Lake), but Watson, Lynx, and Goldwater are by far the most popular. Watson Lake is certainly the more popular of them all, given its unique and captivating rock formations, but Lynx and Goldwater keep the pressure on it. It honestly just comes down to what kind of lake experience you want! If you want more hiking trails, more nooks and crannies to explore on a canoe or kayak, or to play some frisbee golf, head to Watson Lake. If you’re looking for more of a relaxing fishing experience or a slight stroll around a lake, then Lynx or Goldwater Lake are perfect for you. In fact, just visit them all!