If you love the Great Outdoors, the historic town of Prescott, Arizona has a lot to offer. It’s nestled against the cool, piney hills of the Prescott National Forest and is home to several sparkling mountain lakes.
Sitting at an elevation of 5200 feet, Prescott boasts an average temperature of 70 degrees – making it a perfect getaway from the scorching heat of the Sonoran Desert or the urban heat island of the Phoenix Metro Area.
Getting There Can be Half The Fun
By Air: Prescott Regional Airport (PRC) offers direct flights to Los Angeles International and Denver International Airports. In addition, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) is about 100 miles south of Prescott and offers flights worldwide.
By Car: From Phoenix or Flagstaff, the most direct route is via Interstate 17 to Rt. 169 (exit 278) or Rt. 69 (exit 262) west to Dewey-Humboldt, then follow Rt. 69 to Prescott. If approaching from the west on Interstate 40, use exit 146 and follow Rt. 89 south to Prescott. If you prefer a more leisurely, scenic route, consider taking US93 south from Interstate 40, or US60 north out of Phoenix, to Wickenburg; then follow Rt. 89 north and climb the “Yarnell Grade” (scenic view) to Yarnell and through Peeples Valley and the Prescott National Forest into Prescott. Or, travel the spectacular scenic route south from Flagstaff/I-40 via Rt. 89A through rugged Oak Creek Canyon, the red rocks of Sedona, and historic hillside Jerome, then over the mountains (“Mingus Mountain Scenic Byway”) into Prescott.
What to Explore
Lynx Lake Recreation Area in the Prescott National Forest is home to a 55-acre lake surrounded by ponderosa pine forest that is popular for watching birds and wildlife. Reach it by taking Rt. 69 east from Prescott and then Walker Rd. south for about 3 miles. There is a small day-use fee or use NPS Access Pass. The 2 day-use areas on the north and south shores of the lake have accessible parking, picnic areas and restrooms.
A network of trails surrounds the lake. Trail #311 on the west lake shore is paved with asphalt and stone and connects the north and south day-use areas and two campgrounds (about 1 mile each way, some rough patches and grades). Accessible fishing spots are available at the south shore and also in a few locations along trail #311 (license required). There is a small store with fishing and camping supplies on the north shore that also has a seasonal cafe’ and a marina with boat rentals. Swimming is not allowed.
Just north of Lynx Lake on Walker Rd. is the Highlands Center for Natural History. This 80-acre “classroom without walls” offers 3 miles of nature trails, including the ADA-accessible “Stretch Pebble Nature Trail.” A brochure is available that highlights points of interest on this ¾ mile loop. The surface is hard-packed dirt and rock, and there are some grades. Other accessible features include parking, restrooms both at the entrance and on the trail, drinking fountain, and nature store. Construction is currently underway on 8 acres of Discovery Gardens. There is no entrance fee but donations are encouraged to support this non-profit organization.
Four miles north of town on Rt. 89, the landscape begins to change rapidly as one enters the “Granite Dells.” This fantastical area of massive granite boulders feels like another world! Turn into Watson Lake Park, where the ancient rock formations arise out of Watson Lake and are reflected in its serene waters. There is a very small parking fee, but the astounding views are well worth it. This city park offers camping (summer), picnic shelters, restrooms, playground, sports (horseshoes, bocce, disc golf, basketball), fishing (license required), canoe and kayak rentals, and hiking trails. Parking, restrooms, ramadas and some picnic areas are accessible.
Vehicles displaying appropriate tags can drive right down to the lake edge and park at the north boat ramp, where there is a picnic table. Parts of the Fishing Trail and Discovery Trail on the lake shore may be accessible (hard-packed dirt). Swimming is not allowed. There is a vista point on Rt. 89 (just south of the park entrance) that overlooks the lake.
In addition, the 4.5 mile Peavine National Recreation Trail skirts the east side of Watson Lake and passes through the Granite Dells. As a “rail-trail”, this former railroad bed is wide and well-graded, with a hard-packed dirt surface. It may be suitable for wheelchairs depending on recent weather. Access the Peavine at 1626 Sundog Ranch Rd., off Prescott Lakes Pkwy. just east of Rt. 89.
Willow Lake Park is located at 1497 Heritage Park Rd., about 3.5 miles west of Watson Lake via Willow Lake Rd. and Willow Creek Rd. There is a very small parking fee. The unique Granite Dells are visible on the east end of Willow Lake and the park has also been designated an “Important Bird Area” by the Audubon Society. Amenities here include parking, picnic ramadas, restrooms, and a dock and boat ramp. There is a multi-use trail around the lake that may be partially accessible. Fishing is allowed (license required) but swimming is not. Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary (fee) is adjacent to Willow Lake Park.
Goldwater Lake is a small, 15-acre lake in the pine forest at Goldwater Park, a city park located 4 miles south of downtown Prescott. (From Rt. 89, go south on Mount Vernon St. which becomes Senator Highway.) There is a small parking fee. Accessible features at Goldwater include parking, picnic area, restrooms, and fishing pier (license required). Canoe, kayaks and boats with electric motors are allowed. No swimming. There are 2 short, multi-use trails that are rated as “easy” ringing the lake. The hard-packed dirt surface may be at least partially accessible.
Another attraction in the area that may be of interest is the Groom Creek Nature Trail at Groom Creek Schoolhouse in the Prescott National Forest, about 6 miles south of downtown on Senator Highway. This 1500′ paved trail was built by the Sunrise Lions Club to assist persons who are blind to experience the ponderosa pine forest (Day-use fee, accepts NPS Access Pass). Before visiting, contact the Bradshaw Ranger District Office at (928) 443-8000 to confirm that gates to the facility are open.
Where to Sleep and Eat
Prescott is a large enough city to offer a good selection of lodging choices, including many national chain hotels. When I visited, I stayed at the Hampton Inn at 3453 Ranch Drive, off Rt. 69 near its intersection with Walker Rd. This was a convenient location for visiting the lakes, and was also adjacent to the Gateway Mall where there are several restaurants. The accessibility of the Hampton Inn was very good, with accessible parking outside the lobby, power doors to the entrance, tile floors in the lobby, roll-in shower with bench, and lifts for the pool and hot-tub.
If you’d rather commune with Mother Nature, Prescott National Forest offers several campgrounds, including Lynx Campground at Lynx Lake (at least 3 fully-accessible campsites); visit Recreation.gov. Camping is also available at Watson Lake, and at numerous other privately-owned campgrounds and RV parks.
Prescott’s downtown “Whiskey Row” (100 block of South Montezuma St.) is renowned for its historic hotels and saloons and its eclectic shops and galleries. When I visited the streets were blocked off for a mountain bike event so I couldn’t explore this area and can’t address its accessibility. That gives me a good excuse to return to Prescott!