When temperatures in the Valley of the Sun get unbearable, the people of Arizona head to higher ground, where the air is cooler. The best place to go depends on who you talk to, but one place that should be on everyone’s short list is Willow Springs Lake, located on the Mogollon Rim about 30 miles east of Payson.
It’s a lake, so you can expect to do all the normal water things like fishing, kayaking and paddle boarding. But thanks to some unique campgrounds and trails nearby, you can also camp, hike and mountain bike. All without suffering heat exhaustion.
Willow Springs Lake quick facts
- Located on the Mogollon Rim 30 miles east of Payson
- Created in 1966 by AZ Game and Fish as a trout fishing lake
- Elevation: 7,600 feet (2,316 meters)
- 150 surface acres and over 4 miles of shoreline
- No fees or permits required*
- Stocked with rainbow trout spring through fall*
- Open to kayaks, canoes and boats with motors up to 10 hp
- Freezes over in winter
- Hiking and mountain biking trails nearby
- Sinkhole Campground is 1/2-mile away
*Arizona fishing license required to fish
What you need to know before visiting Willow Springs Lake
Where is Willow Springs Lake located?
Willow Springs Lake is a man-made reservoir located on Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. To reach it, take US Hwy 260 30 miles east from the town of Payson, AZ. This stretch of mountainous highway presents a lot of twists, turns and steep sections.
Look for the sign alerting you of the Willow Springs Lake turnoff just beyond mile marker 283. (Hint: it’s the first left past the Mogollon Rim Visitor Center and overlook.) If you start seeing signs for Forest Lakes, you’ve gone too far.
Is a pass required to access Willow Springs Lake?
No. Unlike some natural parks and government-managed recreation areas, Willow Springs Lake is completely free to access. No pass or permit is required.
Where to park and access the lake
Willow Springs Lake visitor parking lot (see map) will get you closest to the boat ramp. There’s a separate parking area nearby that provides easy access to picnic areas and the lake’s shoreline. If you happen to be camping in the nearby Sinkhole Campground, the lake is a short walk away.
What to expect if you head out on the lake
Considering buying a kayak? Before you do, read my Sevylor K1 QuickPak kayak review.
Where to stay near Willow Springs Lake
Since this part of Arizona is fairly remote and mostly visited by Arizonans who come here to enjoy the cool, mountain air, there aren’t a lot of traditional lodging options to choose from. However, there are plenty of campsites and a few lodges in the vicinity where you can hang your hat.
Is camping allowed at Willow Springs Lake?
Not exactly. Signage near the lake informs visitors that overnight camping is not allowed. But keep reading to find out about super cool camping options close by.
Although camping is technically not allowed at or around Willow Springs Lake, there are plenty of primitive, semi-primitive and dispersed camping options nearby. Regardless of where you set up camp, you can expect plenty of shade from towering ponderosa pine trees and cool, mountain breezes in the evening.
Where to camp near Willow Springs Lake
Primitive and semi-primitive campgrounds
Sinkhole Campground is the closest; less than a mile away. Pretty basic in its amenities, you can expect to find a picnic table and fire ring at each of the 26 campsites that are spread out around two paved loops. Half of the sites can be reserved ahead of time at recreation.gov. The rest are first-come, first-served. Vault toilets are cleaned daily by the super-friendly campground host. Drinking water is available from a large tank at the campground entrance.
Canyon Point Campground is about five miles east of Willow Springs Lake on Hwy 260. It’s much bigger than Sinkhole, with more amenities, such as running water, group sites, electricity at 32 of the 100 sites and an RV dump station.
Dispersed camping in the national forest
Dispersed campsites are widely available along many of the forest roads near Willow Springs Lake. These sites require that you be fully self-contained. There are no amenities, except maybe a stone fire ring. In essence, you’re just setting up a tent, hammock or camper on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The best thing about dispersed camping sites is they’re totally free. No reservations are required or allowed; just show up and claim your spot.
Although there are thousands of acres of land on which you can disperse camp, here’s a good place to start your search: Take Hwy 260 east from the Willow Springs Lake turnoff to Young Highway, then head south. Since dispersed campsites are first-come, first-take it’s a good idea to arrive early to beat the weekend rush.
Two important rules about camping in Arizona:
- Know and abide by any fire restrictions at all times
- Leave no trace (trash) when you leave
Are there hotels or resorts near Willow Springs Lake?
In these, parts, campsites out number hotel rooms by far; however, you can book rooms at Forest Lakes Lodge and Kohl’s Ranch Lodge. In addition, there are a number of private properties that you can rent via airbnb and Vrbo from the owners.
Scenic trails near Willow Springs Lake
Since Willow Springs Lake is located in the Forest of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, there are plenty of excellent hiking and mountain biking trails nearby. Even though the elevation is relatively high and the landscape has a mountainous feel, many of the trails are fairly flat. I would definitely recommend the hikes featured in the blog posts below.
Check out these hiking and biking trails nearby
Arizona’s Mogollon Rim is loaded with all sorts of recreation sites and natural wonders. If you’re looking for a place to escape the heat that’s not too far off the beaten path, put Willow Springs Lake on your bucket list.