Explore Arizona

Jun 05 2017

Go Jump in a Lake: Here are 5 in Southern Arizona

The Arizona Republic

For a desert dweller, there is no better feeling than to discover water where water shouldn’t be. A little unexpected H20 is always a delight. It’s like witnessing a mirage coming to life.

That may explain the charm of southern Arizona lakes. Arizona has many impressive lakes created from the Colorado, Salt and other rivers of substance. The lakes down south lack such an impressive pedigree. They’re mostly creek water and snowmelt tucked away in grassy hills, farm valleys and on sky-island mountain slopes. What they lack in size they more than make up for in beauty.

Consider doing something crazy this summer. Instead of driving north for a little watery recreation, turn south. You might be surprised at what you find.

Roper Lake State Park

Driving U.S. 70 through the communities of Pima, Thatcher and Safford feels like a return to a Norman Rockwell version of America. Tidy homes and neatly trimmed yards abut fertile farm fields spreading across the valley in the shadow of the Pinaleño Mountains. The Pinaleños are Arizona’s mightiest mountains with over 7,000 feet of vertical relief, anchored by Mount Graham, at 10,720 feet.

The communities even have fishing and swimming holes at Roper Lake State Park and its sub-unit, Dankworth Pond. Roper Lake is as family friendly as it gets. Cabins, campgrounds and picnic areas surround the 30-acre lake. The island (actually a peninsula) juts into the lake and offers a beautiful day-use area of soft grass, shade trees, picnic tables and a small slope of beach.

Roper Lake is stocked with rainbow trout and largemouth bass. Boats are limited to small electric motors. Nearby Dankworth Pond contains 15 acres of water that once served as a fish hatchery. It also has picnic ramadas, a playground and hiking trails leading to a re-created Indian village. Popular with bird watchers, the pond is also home to bass, crappie, bluegill, catfish and trout.

Where: To reach Pima, Thatcher and Safford from Phoenix, take U.S. 60 east to Globe, then U.S. 70 east to the communities. To reach Roper Lake, drive 6 miles south of Safford on U.S 191 to the park entrance. For Dankworth Pond, continue south on 191 for an additional 3 miles.

Details: Admission is $10 per vehicle and covers both parks. 928-428-6760, azstateparks.com/roper-lake.

Riggs Flat Lake

This is the experience you expect to find in the White Mountains, a pristine high-country lake ringed by pine and fir trees. Riggs Flat Lake sits in a bowl at 8,600 feet on the shoulder of Mount Graham. The 11-acre lake and adjacent campground are near the top of the Swift Trail, a steep and winding scenic drive that climbs 6,000 feet.

The dam that forms the lake was built in 1957. Stocked with rainbow, brown and brook trout, Riggs Flat Lake has become a popular fishing and camping spot. Small boats are permitted but most visitors fish from the shoreline. The campground contains 31 campsites, tables, grills and vault toilets. An easy trail circles the lake and additional trails and campgrounds are nearby.

Where: From Safford, drive south 8 miles on U.S. 191 to State Route 366. Turn right and drive 35 miles, following the signs. The road climbs steeply up the southern flank of Mount Graham. The last 12 miles are a narrow, winding gravel road passable to sedans.

Details: $10 daily fee for camping or day use. 928-428-4150, www.fs.usda.gov/coronado.

Cuff Ranch Wildlife Area

The state-owned 788-acre former ranch is a local secret tucked down a dirt road about 6 miles outside of Pima. Lying at the base of the Pinaleños, the wildlife area contains desert upland and riparian habitats along with wetlands and ponds. Pond #3 is the only water with catchable fish including largemouth bass, black crappie, black bullhead, bluegill and catfish. It is stocked with rainbow trout during winter months.

Ringed by cattails and framed by the rising bulk of the Pinaleño Mountains, Pond #3 is a lovely spot. It has a boat ramp, fishing dock and an inviting rope swing dangling from a cottonwood limb. There are restrooms, picnic tables and a few primitive campsites.

Where: From Pima, turn west on Main Street and follow it to Cluff Ranch Road. Turn left and proceed to the ranch. The last 2 miles are well-maintained gravel.

Details: Admission is free. 928-485-9430, www.azgfd.com.

Rose Canyon Lake

Mount Lemmon is where Tucson goes to escape the desert heat. Temperatures go down as you leave the saguaro-clad slopes behind and climb through grasslands, oak forests and finally into the tall pines and firs up top. Amid the picnic areas, viewpoints and hiking trails, Rose Canyon Lake nestles in a stand of ponderosa pines at 7,000 feet. The 7-acre lake is stocked with rainbow trout from April through August.

A concessionaire-operated campground has a store, vault toilets, picnic shelters and campsites with picnic tables and fire rings. Sites cost $22 and can be reserved by calling 877-444-6777 or going to www.recreation.gov.

Where: From Tucson, take the Catalina Highway up Mount Lemmon for 17 miles to the turnoff for Rose Canyon Lake.

Details: Day-use fee is $10. 520-749-8700, www.fs.usda.gov/coronado.

Patagonia Lake State Park

During the summer, Patagonia Lake becomes Tucson’s unofficial beach. Tucked away amid rolling hills, the 265-acre lake makes a shimmering oasis in the high desert. The campground sits at water’s edge.

The state park also offers a beach, picnic areas, fishing and a marina with boat rentals. Campground reservations can be made online. When you’ve had enough watery fun, the adjacent Sonoita Creek Natural Area offers 20 miles of hiking trails.

Where: From Tucson, travel east on Interstate 10 to State Route 83 (Exit 281) and go south to Sonoita. Turn right on SR 82 and continue to the park turnoff. The park is 11 miles south of Patagonia.

Details: Admission is $15 per vehicle on weekdays, $20 on weekends. Campsites cost $20-$30. 520-287-6965, azstateparks.com/patagonia-lake.

Parker Canyon Lake

Even if there wasn’t a lovely body of water waiting at the end of the road, this is a drive worth making. Southeast of Tucson, State Route 83 cuts through rolling grasslands past sprawling ranches into the wine country of Sonoita and Elgin.

Continue south on SR 83 for another 30 miles as the road dips and curves through the Canelo Hills dotted with oak and mesquite. The road narrows but is paved all the way as it reaches the shore of Parker Canyon Lake.

This close to the Mexican border, you might be expecting little more than a sun-baked puddle. But the beautiful 130-acre lake sits at 5,400 feet elevation. That’s higher than Payson. Nestled in rolling hills and framed by mountains, Parker Canyon Lake contains stocked rainbow trout and resident bass, sunfish and catfish.

A gentle 5-mile trail loops around the shoreline, never venturing more than a few steps from the water. A store offers supplies and boat rentals (520-455-5847, www.parkercanyonlake.com). A 65-space campground sits on a hillside overlooking the lake. And on weekends through Labor Day, a local woman operates a hot-dog stand at the store. An unexpected dog is almost as nice as unexpected water.

Where: From Tucson, travel east on I-10 to SR 83 (Exit 281), turn south and go 50 miles to the lake.

Details: 520-378-0311, www.fs.usda.gov/coronado.

Peña Blanca Lake

As scenic as Peña Blanca is, exercise caution if consuming its fish. The lake was drained and dredged in 2008 in an effort to rid it of mercury that was accumulating in year-round species like bass, crappie and catfish. In recent years, elevated mercury levels have again been detected. Catch and release is the way to go

Where: From Tucson, drive south on Interstate 19 to the Peña Blanca-Ruby Road exit, about 8 miles north of Nogales. Turn west and go about 9 miles to Peña Blanca Recreation Area.

Details: Admission is free. Camping and day-use fee at White Rock is $10. 520-281-2296, www.fs.usda.gov/coronado.

This article was originally published in The Arizona Republic