Avoiding Phoenix’s triple-digit summer heat, Peter O’Dowd explores an otherworldly oasis in northern Arizona
Tourists and pickup trucks formed an unbreakable clot in Prescott’s main square. My heart sank. I’d driven two friends, who’d never been to the city’s famous Whiskey Row, straight into a late-summer festival that no one had accounted for. From an idled vantage point on Gurley Street, I could see vendors lined up beneath their tents in the shadow of Yavapai County’s 100-year-old courthouse. The belt-buckle makers and fry-bread bakers must have made a killing that day. Every ice cream shop and barstool in downtown Prescott was full of people who had the same idea we did. Escape the heat. Drive north.
Except in this traffic, we weren’t going anywhere.
With lunch on Whiskey Row now off the day’s agenda, I needed an alternative. There was no way we were making the two-hour drive back to Phoenix until after dark, when temperatures retreat below the century mark.
I considered the moonscape of Watson Lake. I had seen it on the drive in. The Precambrian granite spires appeared just off Route 89, 5 miles before we reached the crowds of downtown Prescott. How many times had I sped past that mirror on the desert floor? After so many years of crisscrossing northern Arizona’s highways, I’d become too focused on preplanned destinations. I rarely stopped anymore to take an impromptu step into the vast Western portraits that develop on the other side of the windshield.
The view I had seen of Watson Lake from the highway earlier that day was confounding. In a place where it seems there should be neither towering rock nor water, there is both. It was the kind of desert magic that makes you ask yourself, almost seriously, “If I tried to touch that, would it vanish?”
As the de facto tour guide of this afternoon excursion, I figured it was time to find out. I made a U-turn on Gurley Street and drove back toward the water.
The lot at the entrance to Watson Lake Park was nearly full, but nothing like the scene we’d left behind. A few sunburnt teenagers, whose day on the water had just ended, came lumbering up the hill. Each had a hand on one side of an empty cooler. A girl sat on a tailgate waiting for her mother to finish tying a lure.
We carried nothing appropriate for a day at the lake, but my friends are the kind of people who tend to be up for anything. Elizabeth once spent two months hiking the Appalachian Trail. The only obstacle that stopped her from finishing was the bone that had finally cracked in her foot. We could handle this. We set off toward the water wearing street clothes.
Watson Lake exists today because the Chino Valley Irrigation District put a dam on Granite Creek in the early 1900s. Today, the Peavine Trail, once a trackbed of the Santa Fe Railway, runs along the eastern edge of the lake and attracts mountain bikers year-round. The trail begins at the Watson Woods Riparian Preserve, a 125-acre park with towering cottonwoods and willows that lay down shade and solitude. Look closely, you may find a green- backed heron scouting its next meal in a shallow pond.
The Peavine connects with smaller trails like the one that we had chosen. Those smaller trails form a loop around the lake. If we kept walking to Watson’s north shore, we’d find rock climbers scaling the Granite Dells. They spider crawl their way up technical routes with names like Huckleberry Thin and the Crack of Doom. The rocks they conquer have been rounded off by eons of wind and weather.
Our path from the parking lot was easy enough to follow. We made slow but steady progress scrambling over boulders and plodding through puddles from a recent monsoon rain. Soon, any sign of civilization vanished, though we knew the highway couldn’t be far behind us. The rock formations blocked the view above. They piled up along the jagged contours of the shore and created quiet little spaces that, if we had thought to bring anything with us, would have made for a perfect place to picnic.
My mind was on things other than food, anyway. The wilderness of Arizona brings quiet to my life. I’ve spent hours on trails that snake down into canyons or climb up to fire-lookout mountaintops. But on most days I’ve chosen the opportunity of the city over the peace that comes with open air. Now that I was free of the gridlock, I was free to daydream. Long before this walk through the granite fields around Watson Lake, I knew changes were coming to my life that would take me away from the skies and desert of my home state to some place much bigger, but also, more closed in. Maybe Los Angeles, or more distant still, to Boston. Watson Lake grew closer with every step we took, but Arizona seemed to be in retreat. It delivered a punch of nostalgia even before the loss arrived.
At the granite platform that marked the water’s edge, I took off my shoes, and then my shirt. A pair of ducks had waddled up beside me. The rock was warm beneath our feet. I would later learn that swimming isn’t allowed in Watson Lake. Health officials fear a bacterial bloom that comes from too many people in the water. But at the time there was nothing that could keep me from it. Fifty yards from shore a boulder island, still and solemn, rose up from the lake like a silent steamship. Its inverted portrait of color and shape reflected perfectly on the undisturbed water.
That rocky strand was my target. I took several strokes toward it before slipping beneath the water, re-emerging on my back, eyes open to the sky above.
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