Watson Lake, Arizona

Just four miles outside of Prescott, Arizona sits Watson Lake, a reservoir created in the early 1900s when Granite Creek was dammed for irrigation. Today, the scenic lake offers opportunities for boating, fishing, picnicking and camping. A five-mile trail also wraps around the lake, and is a surprisingly pretty spot for a morning or afternoon walk.

Before we found Sanchez’s prized lizard trail virtually in our backyard in Williams, we had been scouting the area for scenic afternoon outings within an hour’s drive – somewhere not too far for a little post-work exploring. During one of my random online searches, I stumbled upon Watson Lake and saw that it was just over an hour from Williams. We were intrigued by the lake’s rocky shoreline – quite different from your typical lacustrine landscape – so we thought we’d give it a go and check out the lakeshore trail.


Starting from the Watson Lake Vista Parking Lot, just south of Watson Lake Park, we opted to hike the loop clockwise. We started along the western side of the lake, where the trail navigates the top of a rocky bluff. From here, there are some really nice views looking out over the striking landscape. The area is known as the Granite Dells – a valley of enormous granite boulders that date back 1.4 billion years. The Precambrian rocks have been weathered into curious formations over the ages, and the sapphire waters of Watson Lake are encased by these massive mounds of stark granite. The geology here is really quite unique, and the views from the craggy western cliffs were arguably the most beautiful on the lake.

From the scenic lookout spot, the trail dips down closer to the shoreline as it makes its way toward the northern section of the lake. While the majority of the lakeside circuit is flat, the north shore is exceptionally rocky with some small hills to ascend. Sanchez particularly enjoyed clambering along this section, repeatedly bounding ahead of us on her long leash. As the trail then turns and parallels the eastern side of the lake, there are a number of quiet coves to explore.

The final section of trail along the southern half of the lake is the least scenic, pulling away from the rock-strewn lake and eventually rejoining the area along Highway 89. There’s not a lot to see through here, though there is the opportunity to do some bird watching along some forested marshlands and sequestered shallows. The lake is recognized as an IBA (Important Bird Area) by Arizona’s Audubon Society, so you may find some less common waterfowl and shore birds.

If you happen to find yourself in the Prescott area, Watson Lake is definitely worth a visit. If nothing else, stop along the western side of the lake for a short walk to check out the eye-catching view from atop the rocks. It’s a surprisingly pretty little gem just outside the city.

Total distance:  5.3 miles
Elevation gain:  518 feet


Know before you go:

  • Parking at Watson Lake Park costs $3 per vehicle. If you aren’t planning on using the facilities and just intend to walk the loop, you can park for free at the nearby Watson Lake Vista Parking Lot.
  • Pay attention as you walk the section of loop that runs through the park. There’s a disc golf course that’s pretty popular and you don’t want to get beaned with a frisbee.
  • The water here is not particularly clean, and there is no swimming allowed. In addition to pollutants from fertilizers, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, the lake is also prone to cyanobacterial blooms. Cyanotoxins are extremely deadly to dogs, so play it safe and don’t let your furry friend swim in or drink the water here.
  • If you’re interested in photographing the lake, consider visiting at the end of the day. The late afternoon sun provides some gorgeous lighting when it hits the rock formations along the eastern side of the lake.
  • While the trail is marked with regularly-interspersed white dots painted on the rocks, there are a bunch of small game trails and social paths branching out from the main path. Make sure you’re regularly looking out for the trail markers if you’re not interested in venturing too far off course.

2 Responses

  • Just don’t tell people about the sewer treatment plant a mile upstream or how it flooded into the lake. That is the truth why there is no swimming. Don’t mention the lake is only at %40 of water capacity. Have fun.

  • Prescott government is extremely stupid. I have done 100s of dives/SCUBA in Watson Lake with never a problem. NO SWIMMING…? Prescott puts up a pretty painted face, but if you scratch the surface you won’t believe the corruption…it’s horrible…! 😡 If your smart you’ll STAY AWAY…

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