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12 Lakes near Payson, AZ for Swimming, Kayaking, and Fishing

Payson is an excellent base for accessing the stunning and remote Rim Lakes. Also, there are well-developed reservoirs south of the city, perfect for wakeboarding, paddling, and swimming.
ItIsWild.com: Lakes near Payson, AZ

Payson is a fantastic base for exploring the famous Rim Lakes. Abound with rainbow trout and set among the breathtaking landscape, these lakes are well-known beyond the state.

Most of the options offer trout fishing, incredible paddling, and camping among the pines. And in summer, you can cool off in crystal clear water or relax on a beach.

Check out what Payson has to offer.

Lakes near Payson:

  1. Woods Canyon Lake
  2. Willow Springs Lake
  3. Bear Canyon Lake
  4. Knoll Lake
  5. Black Canyon Lake
  6. Chevelon Canyon Lake
  7. C. C. Cragin (Blue Ridge) Reservoir
  8. Green Valley Lakes
  9. Fossil Creek
  10. Verde Hot Springs
  11. Theodore Roosevelt Lake
  12. Apache Lake
Lakes near Payson Arizona Comparison Table

1. Woods Canyon Lake

  • Official Page: Woods Canyon Lake
  • Distance from Payson: 35 miles (40 min)
  • Activities: Swimming, Boating, Fishing, Kayaking, SUP, Canoeing, Hiking, Camping

Woods Canyon Lake is an excellent destination just 40 minutes away from Payson. It offers lots of activities and is suited for families and outdoor enthusiasts.

The reservoir offers a wide range of facilities, including boat rentals, launching ramps, and campgrounds. There is everything you may need for a fun weekend on the lake.

However, the biggest drawback to Woods Canyon Lake is that it’s seasonal. It’s only open to visitors between April and October, as the snow restricts access in winter.

Yet, in summer, it’s a bustling place with plenty of activities. You can try swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding, and boating; it’s all great fun here.

Also, the lake is a highly-rated fishery. It’s a trout territory with rainbow, tiger, brown, and Skamania varieties. Shore access is pretty good, but you’ll get better results fishing from the boat.

Although just 55 acres in size, this reservoir packs a lot of fun. And if you enjoy mountain lakes and camping among the pines, it’s an excellent option.

Related: 11 Fabulous Lakes near Flagstaff

2. Willow Springs Lake

Willow Springs Lake
  • Official Page: Willow Springs Lake
  • Distance from Payson: 32 miles (35 min)
  • Activities: Swimming, Boating, Fishing, Kayaking, SUP, Canoeing, Hiking, Camping

Willow Springs Lake is the neighbor to the above option and is just as well-liked by locals and visitors. This much larger lake (158-acres and 60ft deep) offers similar activities and amenities to Woods Canyon.

Fishing is widespread, with rainbow trout being stocked frequently and plenty of largemouth and smallmouth bass available. Boating is another popular activity, but it is restricted to electric motors and small gasoline motors (under 10hp).

The significant difference between this lake and Woods Canyon is that it is still accessible in the winter months when ice fishing becomes popular.

Interestingly, both Willow Springs and Woods Canyon are part of the collection of lakes known as Rim Lakes on the Mogollon Rim, so it’s worth exploring both to tick two beautiful Rim Lakes off your list.

The only criticism is that for such a large lake, there is only one paved boat ramp, but this actually helps control the flow of boats on the water, making it safer for everyone. Overall, this is a fun lake that offers something for the whole family.

Related: 7 Amazing Recreational Lakes near Show Low, AZ

3. Bear Canyon Lake

  • Official Page: Bear Canyon Lake
  • Distance from Payson: 45 miles (1h 5min)
  • Activities: Swimming, Fishing, Kayaking, SUP, Canoeing, Hiking, Camping

Bear Canyon Lake is situated in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, but it is a far more rustic canyon-bound lake than the other two mentioned above. In fact, it is only accessible via a dirt track that’s several miles long.

Despite the rustic surroundings, undeveloped Bear Canyon Lake Camping Area, and tricky location, it is still one of the most popular destinations in the area because of its pure, uninterrupted natural beauty.

Boating isn’t possible on the lake, despite its 60-acre surface area and the maximum depth of 50ft, because of the lack of ramps. Instead, fishing is most popular, with rainbow trout being the most prized catch.

There are multiple hiking trails around the lake, making this a popular spot for people wanting to explore, and the dense forest offers lots of beautiful viewing spots as you climb.

Swimming in summer is popular here as it’s an excellent lake to beat the Arizona heat. The only drawback is the accessibility issues, but if you’re determined to see nature in its raw form, then Bear Canyon Lake is the perfect option.

Related: 11 Fantastic Lakes near Tucson, AZ

4. Knoll Lake

Knoll Lake
  • Official Page: Knoll Lake
  • Distance from Payson: 55 miles (1h 20min)
  • Activities: Swimming, Boating, Fishing, Kayaking, SUP, Canoeing, Hiking, Camping

Knoll Lake is located 40 miles north of Payson and is another perfect example of a secluded forest lake with plenty to do and see. This lake is not as well-known as the others because there is a long drive down a gravel road to reach it, so few visitors stumble across it.

The area itself is surprisingly well-developed given its remote location, with a campground, boat ramp, potable water, and picnic tables nearby. The facilities might be basic, but there’s everything you need, and camping out at Knoll Lake is a great way to reconnect with nature.

Boating is restricted to electric motors only, and fishing is popular, with the rainbow trout being stocked regularly. There are also brown trout and brook trout in the lake that are catchable too.

With a surface of 75-acres and a maximum depth of 50ft, this lake can keep you busy all day. And with hiking trails along the Mogollon Rim offering stunning, stomach-knotting views, the area has plenty to offer.

The island in the middle of Knoll Lake offers something unique and exciting, and there are few criticisms about the site. Perhaps the only real drawback is that the more people talk about it, the more popular it will become, and there really aren’t enough facilities for large crowds…

Related: 11 Incredible Recreational Lakes near Phoenix, AZ

5. Black Canyon Lake

Black Canyon Lake
  • Official Page: Black Canyon Lake
  • Distance from Payson: 45 miles (1h)
  • Activities: Swimming, Boating, Fishing, Kayaking, SUP, Canoeing, Hiking, Camping

Like all Mogollon Rim Lakes, Black Canyon Lake is surrounded by a beautiful forest. However, the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire did cause some damage, making it one of the less densely forested lakes in the area.

Despite this, it’s still a beautiful, scenic area worth visiting with the entire family. Views of the lake are stunning, but because of the danger of falling trees, it is only accessible during the day.

This 78-acre, 60ft deep lake is popular for fishing and boating, and the one launching area is allowed to be used by boats with a motor of 10hp or less.

In terms of fish, rainbow trout is the most prized catch, but the lake is treated as a put-grow-and-take fishery. Illegally introduced green sunfish and largemouth bass reproduce here too.

Although the area has struggled somewhat since the fire, it is still beautiful, and there are so many activities and fun things to do. The nearby campsites are first come first serve, so be quick on the day to avoid disappointment if you want to camp close to this stunning lake.

Related: 7 Amazing Recreational Lakes near Show Low, AZ

6. Chevelon Canyon Lake

Chevelon Canyon Lake
  • Official Page: Chevelon Canyon Lake
  • Distance from Payson: 53 miles (1h 15min)
  • Activities: Swimming, Fishing, Kayaking, SUP, Canoeing, Hiking, Camping

Chevelon Canyon Lake is located in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, but unlike most of the others, this is a genuine challenge to get to, making it one of the more undisturbed lakes in the area.

A 3/4 mile hike up a steep incline from the parking area is required to reach the lake, and only the keenest outdoors people bother to make the trip with all their gear.

At the top, though, should you be brave enough to try, there are plenty of rewards. The best of which is for anglers – the trophy size rainbow trout and brown trout.

Because few people use the lake, the fish here grow to an impressive size, and the area is only stocked twice per year because it’s such a low trafficked site compared to the others.

Besides the fishing, there are a few primitive campsites, stunning views unrivaled by any of the lakes on the list, and miles of hiking trails.

And when it comes to paddling, it’s possible too, but you will have to carry your craft to the lake. This difficulty of access is the lake’s only disadvantage, but it keeps the crowds away.

Related: 11 Fantastic Lakes near Tucson, AZ

7. C. C. Cragin (Blue Ridge) Reservoir

  • Official Page: C. C. Cragin Reservoir
  • Distance from Payson: 47 miles (1h)
  • Activities: Swimming, Boating, Fishing, Kayaking, SUP, Canoeing, Hiking, Camping

C. C. Cragin Reservoir is known as such because of its name change in 2004, when Blue Ridge Reservoir became the C. C. Cragin Reservoir, though most locals still refer to it as Blue Ridge. It is located on the Mogollon Rim, too.

The unique thing about this reservoir is that it looks more like a canyon-bound river than a reservoir because of its long, thin, and winding route. As such, this is one of the most irregular bodies of water in the entire area.

Kayaking is common, and so too is boating with a motor of 10hp or less. There are many excellent facilities, including a boating ramp, toilets, and nearby campgrounds.

The best thing about this reservoir is the stunning natural beauty, an exciting route lined with thick forest, and its beautifully clear, chilly waters.

However, there are some safety concerns here. Because the reservoir is located in a canyon, there is very little to no shoreline or sandy, flat spaces to get out of the water – meaning once you’re in, you’re in until you get back to one of the limited access points. 

That makes this reservoir unsafe for swimming and unsuitable for sunbathing. But if it’s a kayaking adventure you’re looking for, it doesn’t get better than this.

Related: 11 Fabulous Lakes near Flagstaff

8. Green Valley Lakes

  • Official Page: Green Valley Lakes
  • Distance from Payson: 2 miles (5 min)
  • Activities: Boating, Fishing, Kayaking, SUP, Canoeing, Picnics, Walking

Green Valley Lakes are the three lakes located in Green Valley Park near Payson. The park itself is open from 6 am until 10:30 pm and is the perfect place for a relaxing day out with friends and family.

Boating and fishing are the most popular activities here. The upper lake is 2-acres, the middle is 1, and the main lake is 10 acres, which gives you a choice, with the biggest lake being the busiest of the three.

Boating is restricted to electric motors only, floatation devices must be present, and you are only permitted to use your boat between sunrise and sunset.

Beautiful views of the nearby mountains surround Green Valley Park, and there are lots of green spaces to enjoy a relaxing sunbath, picnic with friends and family, or a leisurely stroll.

Swimming and wading are strictly prohibited here because the water isn’t monitored for safety. With that said, it’s probably one of the more accessible and family-friendly lake areas near Payson, perfect for fun days out!

Related: 11 Incredible Recreational Lakes near Phoenix, AZ

9. Fossil Creek

Fossil Creek
  • Official Page: Fossil Creek
  • Distance from Payson: 36 miles (1h 30min)
  • Activities: Swimming, Fishing, SUP, Whitewater Kayaking, Hiking

Fossil Creek is a ‘wild and scenic’ recreation area 40 miles from Payson and is one of the most popular spots for water activities and cooling down in summer.

One notable fact about the creek is that it’s fed by the spings, making its waters crystal clear. It’s beyond belief!

In addition to the swimming attractions, the location is known for waterfalls and fantastic hiking trails with stunning scenery, but if you’re planning on boating or paddling, look elsewhere. You can probably get away with SUPing in one of the swimming holes, but in general, the creek is unsuited for that unless you enjoy the extreme version – whitewater kayaking.

Despite its remote location, the area is inundated with visitors to the point that rangers have to issue permits for each vehicle between April and October – the busy period.

Still, the crowds are usually concentrated around swimming holes, and there is plenty of space to escape into the wilderness. Plus, you can always take a rod and find a quiet fishing spot away from everyone else.

Despite all the downsides, it would be unwise to ignore this remarkable location. It’s certainly worth visiting. It’s a gem well-known beyond Payson.

Related: 11 Fantastic Lakes near Tucson, AZ

10. Verde Hot Springs

  • Page: Verde Hot Springs
  • Distance from Payson: 38 miles (1h 50min)
  • Activities: Swimming, Fishing, Hiking, Camping

Verde Hot Springs is located Verde River, past the Fossil Creek area. It is one of those spots that are just perfect for some therapeutic relaxation out in nature. And the best part is, it’s not a heavily trafficked area either.

Accessing Verde Hot Springs is difficult, as it’s a long trek up a narrow dirt road, and it also requires you to cross the Verde River, which can be difficult and may even be dangerous if the water is high so exercise caution.

The first of the hot springs is located in an art gallery-filled square tub, which is the smallest of the two. The second is located outside in a much deeper tub near the river.

The area surrounding the hot springs is perfect for hiking, although it only has a few trails. Yet, the scenery is stunning, with canyon walls and the River Verde gorge dominating the landscape.

Also, there is a dispersed campsite near the trailhead, making overnight trips possible.

Related: 11 Incredible Recreational Lakes near Phoenix, AZ

11. Theodore Roosevelt Lake

  • Official Page: Theodore Roosevelt Lake
  • Distance from Payson: 45 miles (45 min)
  • Activities: Swimming, Boating, Fishing, Kayaking, SUP, Canoeing, Hiking, Camping, Picnics

Theodore Roosevelt Lake is located 45 miles south of Payson. It offers a stunning body of water set against the Arizona desert, making it one of the most striking spots to come and enjoy year-round.

Despite being the perfect spot for camping, boating, fishing, and vacationing, the Theodore Roosevelt Lake doesn’t get as much footfall as one might expect. At least, it’s so vast that it never feels crowded.

Naturally, there are plenty of activities at the lake. For example, if fishing, look out for largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappie, sunfish, and flathead catfish – all of which are common here.

Also, any type of boating is permitted at this lake. There are plenty of boat ramps and marinas. Wakeboarding and water skiing are very popular, as well as kayaking and SUPing, which are great for exploring the coastline. 

The lake stretches for roughly 18 miles, so there’s plenty of room for recreation, including numerous campgrounds that are easily accessible from Route 188.

It’s difficult to find any drawbacks as the area is well-developed and cared for, making it perfect for a whole host of water-based activities and family trips.

Related: Best Hiking Trails near Mesa

12. Apache Lake

  • Official Page: Apache Lake
  • Distance from Payson: 58 miles (1h 20min)
  • Activities: Swimming, Boating, Fishing, Kayaking, SUP, Canoeing, Hiking, Camping, Picnics

Apache Lake is probably the most developed of all the bodies of water discussed so far, with beaches, boat and jet-ski rentals, and even the Apache Lake Marina and Resort, which offers stays by the water in the beautiful motel.

There’s everything you could need here, from a bar and grill to places to stay, and the water is perfect for all manners of activities. If you’re an adrenaline junkie or a relaxed sunbather at heart, then there’s something here for everyone.

The only drawback about this lake is that despite its remote location, it’s very well known because of how well-developed the area is, and it becomes a hive of activity in summer.

Yet, at 2,568-acres, this lake is vast, so there’s always a spot available. If you want somewhere to beat the Arizonian heat, few places are as versatile and accessible as Apache Lake.

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