The Woods Canyon Lake Loop trail is an easy 5-mile round-trip that circles one of Arizona's most accessible lakes.
© Nick Berezenko
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Woods Canyon Lake LoopThe best hikes in Arizona are usually hard to get to. This gorgeous loop is one of the exceptions.
By Robert Stieve
hiking isn't usually something that's done on the spur of the moment. Gear, maps, vehicle requirements, trailhead directions, physical conditioning ... there's a lot to consider before hitting the trail. The Woods Canyon Lake Loop is one of the exceptions.
Naturally, a little planning is necessary, but for the most part, you could wake up on a Saturday morning, expecting to lounge around watching reruns of This Old House, and then think to yourself: I've gotta get off the couch and do something. With about as much effort as it would take to walk around the block, you could head to Woods Canyon Lake. The drive is simple and the trail is easy, requiring nothing more than a good pair of tennies, some sunscreen and a big bottle of water. That's about it.
The trail begins at the Spillway Campground, which is one of the best in Arizona if you can commandeer a site. Adjacent to it is a small parking area, but the space there is limited. A better option is to drive all the way to the lake and park in the lot at the general store.
From there, head east and follow the signs toward the amphitheater. Beyond the small structure are some random trails — there's no main trail at the outset — that wind for a few minutes to the campground. Once you get there, veer left toward the lake and look for the Spillway Dam, which is a long, narrow mound of dirt with red rocks on the lake side and green grass on the opposite slope. You'll know it when you see it.
Hop on the dirt path that crosses the dam and head for the woods, which is home to ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, Gambel oaks, bracken ferns, wild roses and this spectacular trail, which is one of the easiest and best on the Mogollon Rim.
Within minutes of entering the forest, you'll start seeing plastic blue markers tacked to the trees. Although it's virtually impossible to get lost on this trail, which parallels the shoreline for its entire length, the markers come in handy for those hikers who are directionally challenged and need some reassurance.
In addition to the blue diamonds, the forest brings an unexpected measure of solitude. Woods Canyon Lake was built for recreation, and it can feel congested at times, but the noise disappears quickly beyond the dam, and after about 10 minutes you'll come to a short side trail that leads to the water. Just beyond that junction is a tall ponderosa that's used as a nesting site by great blue herons — look for heron chicks in June.
The trail continues in a counterclockwise direction with some gentle ups and downs, but the most you'll ever climb at a time is the equivalent of three flights of stairs. This is an easy trail that conjures up images of Walden Pond. It's not as serene as what Thoreau must have experienced, but by modern standards, it's pretty peaceful.
About 45 minutes into the hike, the trail winds to the end of a slough, where you'll see a small creek that feeds the lake. The area around the creek is green, grassy and gorgeous, and it might be the most beautiful place on the trail.
From there, the trail climbs a series of railroad ties toward a bald eagle protection zone. Because eagles like to nest along this shoreline, the trail is detoured around the area from March 1 through August 31. The rest of the route continues around the lake and back to the boat landing. It's not a long hike, and you won't have worked up much of a sweat, but you'll be glad you rolled off the couch. Nothing against This Old House, but the scenery at Woods Canyon Lake is much more interesting than watching Norm Abram install a floor joist. See for yourself.
Trail Guideclick to expand/contract
Length: 5 miles round-trip
Elevation: 7,534 to 7,574 feet
Directions: From Payson, drive east on State Route 260 past Kohls Ranch to where the road tops out on the Mogollon Rim. Turn left onto Forest Road 300 and follow the signs for 5 miles to Woods Canyon Lake. Park in the lot adjacent to the general store and the boat landing.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Horses Allowed: No
USGS Map: Woods Canyon
Leave No Trace Ethics: