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Kayak, hike or bird watch at Granite Dells in Prescott, Arizona

Granite Dells at Willow Lake outside of Prescott, Arizona
Granite Dells at Willow Lake outside of Prescott, Arizona
Heather Schlichting

A charming mile-high mountain town with an old west feel, Prescott, is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise filled with mountain trails and lakes for kayaking and boating. Twin parks Willow and Watson Lake Parks offer the most spectacular scenery you will find in a city park anywhere.

Watson Lake was formed in 1916 when Granite Creek was dammed, and Willow Lake was formed similarly in 1935 with the damming of Willow Creek. The two reservoirs that formed and the surrounding land were ultimately sold to the city of Prescott in 1998, and they are now city parks.

Watson Lake lies just four miles north of downtown Prescott, along Route 89. Only a $2 fee is required to enter. You’ll find free parking, a covered pavilion and public restrooms. Numerous hiking trails around the lake range from easy to moderately hard. The large boulders, named Granite Dells are ancient rock weathered over time. The rocks have a smooth texture and are molded into unique, almost mystical shapes that reflect on the surface of the water. Open year-round, the scenic Dells offer a great place for boating, picnicking, or a stroll. Rock climbers tackle the challenging granite formations.
For hikers, explore the Prescott Peavine National Recreation Trail. This rails-to-trails path crosses Granite Dells on the east side of Watson Lake. Hikers, cyclists, and equestrians head down the nearly level, packed-gravel trail, which is 4.15 miles one way and connects with several other trails.

If you’re looking for a less challenging pursuit, consider renting a kayak for the day. Solo kayaks cost $15 for the first hour and $10 each hour after. Tandem kayaks and canoes are also available for rent with the first hour costing $20 and $15 each hour after. This is a truly fabulous way to enjoy this serene lake and experience the variety of birds and view the spectacular collection of mountains in the distance. Simply contact prescotttoutdoors.com for more details.

At Willow Lake the entrance is free but the same amenities are still available. A boat launch is available, but not for motorized boats which adheres to the no wake rule and quiet and serene surroundings. Multiple trails follow around the lake, most with little elevation perfect for the novice hiker. You’ll experience a multitude of bird life which has made it an "Important birding area" designated by the Audubon Society. While walking the grounds you’ll come across the Willow Lake Archaeological Site that dates back to A.D. 900-1100. Take the self-guided tour along a .25 mile trail to view three excavated pithouses. These pit-houses were exposed in the early 2000s, when the City of Prescott was preparing for construction of the ramadas, boat ramps and parking lots that are a part of the recreational plan. Despite some controversy at the time over the cost of the excavation, the city ultimately opted to preserve several of the pithouses for public viewing. Today, ramadas protect the archaeological remains, and interpretive signs help to paint a picture of the prehistoric life.

From Phoenix, the drive to Prescott averages about ninety minutes on I17 North. Located outside of the famous town’s courthouse square, the vistas at both of these parks are indeed stunning, perhaps even from another world. Add the backdrop of intensely blue western skies and clear water and a day in the Granite Dells of Watson and Willow Parks will be unforgettable.