See why Watson Lake in Prescott, AZ is the best small lake in the country to paddle a kayak or stand-up paddleboard

If you’re looking for the best places in the United States to paddle your kayak or stand-up paddleboard, you must put Watson Lake near Prescott, AZ on your list. I’d go so far as to say that if you narrow your search to small lakes, under 100 acres, you won’t find a better lake than Watson.

Watson Lake: Best small lake for paddling in the United States

A couple of years after I moved to Arizona in 2012, I received a text message from my brother in Kansas.

“Have you ever heard of Watson Lake?” he wanted to know.

I told him yes and asked him how he heard about it. His response made me chuckle: “There’s a picture of it on the Bing search engine today.”

“Watson Lake is the best small lake for paddling a kayak or paddleboard in the United States.”

Paul Fiarkoski, Author Arizona Bucket List Adventure Guide & Journal

I first learned about Watson Lake when one of my favorite Arizona photographers shared a few pics from his camera roll on social media. I immediately added it to my Arizona Bucket List and made plans to visit the lake as soon as I could.

Clouds, granite boulders and the water's reflection
Clouds, granite dells (boulders) and the water’s reflection create a striking image at Watson Lake near Prescott, AZ

This place is a photographer’s dream.

Fast forward to today: I’ve paddled my kayak (and hiked) around Watson Lake several times. Each time I’ve left thrilled by the experience and mesmerized by the views. It was the kayaking trip I took to Watson Lake in September, 2021 that prompted me to write this post. I mean with a low entry fee, easy-access boat ramps and so many cool sights to see, what’s not to love?

Actually, I’d go so far as to say Watson Lake is the best small lake for paddling a kayak or paddleboard in the United States.

Reasons why Watson Lake is the best small lake to paddle in the United States:

  • Famous granite dells (boulders) to paddle to and through
  • Numerous small coves to explore
  • Plenty of wildlife to see
  • No wake rule on the entire lake
  • Can paddle all year long – it never freezes over
  • Seasonal kayak and paddleboard rentals available
  • Two easy-access launch ramps

Full disclosure: I haven’t paddled every lake in the country. But I’ve paddled enough of them to know that Watson Lake is very special.

If you think there’s a better small lake for paddling than Watson Lake, tell us about it in the comment box below.

surface algae creates camo effect in water
Mats of algae in one of the still coves on Watson Lake’s east side lend to the visual variety.

Watson Lake quick stats:

  • Located 5 miles from Prescott, Arizona
  • 100 miles from Phoenix
  • 70 acres of surface area
  • Average depth: 50 feet
  • Elevation: 5,000 feet above sea level
  • Entry fee is only $3 per day
Pay close attention to the landscape as you paddle Watson Lake. You never know what dropping water levels might “expose”. 🙂

Watch this video to see why I call Watson Lake the best small paddling lake in the country

More reasons to love Watson Lake

  • No cost to use the boat ramps
  • Scenic hiking trail circles the lake
  • Picnic and camping sites available inside the park
  • Inexpensive campground (seasonal)
  • Average temps: (high/low): 51/21 in January; 89/57 in July
Weather data source:

Frequently asked questions about Watson Lake

Can you swim in Watson Lake?

Short answer: no. The lake has a history of unsafe levels of mercury and nitrogen. The fish and birds don’t seem to be affected, but you know how the government is about protecting people from themselves. Just stay on your kayak or paddleboard and you have nothing to worry about.

Are boats allowed on Watson Lake?

Yes. The question implies “motor boat”. Power boats are allowed but there’s a strict no-wake rule on the entire lake. Kind of defeats the purpose of having a motor, so it’s rare to see (or hear) a motorized boat on Watson Lake.

Is fishing allowed at Watson Lake?

Yes, with an Arizona fishing license. Based on the number of fish-eating birds waiting on the rock outcroppings it’s evident there’s a good population of fish beneath the surface. The lake is reportedly loaded with rainbow trout, largemouth bass, channel catfish and bluegill. Just head the mention of contaminants above.

What else is there to do at Watson Lake?

Watson Lake rests inside of a relatively large park managed (very well) by the city of Prescott. People flock to the park for all of the activities below.

  • Hiking
  • Photography
  • Bicycling
  • Frisbee golf
  • Camping
  • Birdwatching
  • Turf sports
  • Picnics

Get answers to all of your other Watson Lake questions at the official website:

What are you waiting for? If you consider yourself a paddler, or aspire to be one, you need to plan a trip to Watson Lake ASAP. It’s affordable, easy to access, open year-round and guaranteed to be one of the most visually stunning places you see in your life. Once you experience Watson Lake, I’m confident you’ll agree with me that it’s the best small lake for paddling in the United States.

Hey Google, take me to Watson Lake


  1. PS….loved the video. The bird is a Heron. I have enjoyed Lake Patagonia. They did allow motor boats on 1/2 of it, at least when I used to go there. It is known for great birding and the area around it is very pretty, too. I challenged myself and swam across it. I never saw any water warnings but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’ve kayaked there and canoed, hiked and camped.

  2. It is so pretty with the Dells surrounding it. The entry fee must be somewhat new. I was there is 2014 and didn’t see any fees listed. I can’t imagine eating fish with high mercury purposely. Thanks for the great post.

    1. At $3 it’s still one of the lowest recruiting fees in the state. Who knows how bad the mercury levels even are? It came up in my research, so I thought I’d mention it.
      Tons of fish in there, though. I went into one cove and they were jumping over people’s kayaks and SUPs. These days fishermen rarely eat the fish the catch anyway. It’s more for sport.

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