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Willow Springs Lake Kayak
Mogollon Rim
July 11, 2023
by Chuck Parsons
group A
Trailblazers on the shore of Willow Springs Lake.
Scott, Burt, Norma, and Chuck. [photo by Scott]

Tuesday, July 11, and four heat-weary Arizona Trailblazers gather on the shore of Willow Springs Lake, one of the seven Rim Lakes located on Arizona’s lofty Mogollon Rim, for a day of kayaking. We’re all refugees from endless scorching days of 110+ degree temperatures blazing across the desert. It was a humid and stifling 94 degrees at 6:30 this morning when most of us departed the valley for Arizona’s high country. On arrival here, the temperature at 9:00 A.M. is a refreshing 80 degrees under mostly cloudy skies, with a cool breeze blowing across the lake.

Scott and Chuck paddle across the lake. [photo by Norma]

With the lake nearly full today, what a contrast from our last trip to Willow Springs Lake two years ago this month when the lake level had dropped a full ten vertical feet, leaving the lake’s main launch ramp and many areas of the lake sitting high and dry and no longer accessible to kayakers or boaters. At one point on that trip, when we beached our kayaks to take a lunch and rest break, as we got out of the kayaks on what appeared to be firm ground, most of us quickly got mired down in deep mud that threatened to suck the shoes right off our feet.

Burt, Chuck, and Norma explore a shallow inlet on the lake. [photo by Scott]
Chuck and Burt paddle deeper into the inlet. [photo by Norma]

Willow Springs Lake was originally created in 1966, primarily as a recreational trout fishing lake, by the Arizona Game & Fish Department. With no permanent inflows of water from natural sources like springs or creeks, the only water source for this lake is snow melt. And in recent years snow has been in unusually short supply on the Mogollon Rim, as well as most other parts of Arizona’s high country. However, an unusually wet winter and spring this year, with lots of snow and rain, has managed to fill most of Arizona’s lakes for the first time in many years.

Burt, Chuck, and Norma take a break from paddling. [photo by Scott]
A Great Blue Heron stalks the shoreline for a meal. [photo by Norma]

From the looks of the parking lot today and just glancing around the lake and nearby shore, many other people have also decided to escape the heat and retreat to cooler areas, especially around water. After a quick group shot, we slide our kayaks into the lake at exactly 9:20 A.M. and begin paddling along the shore in a counter-clockwise direction. A number of people are scattered all along the shore today, sitting in the shade and reading, relaxing, and fishing, so we give them all a wide berth, as a measure of common courtesy.

Burt and Chuck taking a break. [photo by Norma]

Although at a casual glance it doesn’t really appear to be that much larger, at 158 surface acres Willow Springs Lake is almost three times the size of nearby Woods Canyon Lake, at 55 surface acres. Both lakes are 7,500 feet above sea level and during the hot summer months offer a cool and refreshing retreat from the blazing hot deserts of Southern Arizona. And, like all the Rim Lakes, the shoreline around Willow Springs Lake is covered with a towering forest of Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, aspen, and even several species of oak.

Chuck and Burt paddle along the reed beds. [photo by Scott]

On the 2021 kayaking trip we saw a number of osprey flying over the lake, including four circling directly overhead at one point, carefully scanning the lake’s surface below for any signs of fish. Like the bald eagles often seen around many of Arizona’s lakes, the primary diet of osprey is fish. But unlike the eagles, osprey will dive straight down into the water, becoming completely submerged, in an attempt to snag a fish. On that trip we also saw a juvenile osprey in its nest high atop a dead tree, testing its flight wings. But today we only see one lone osprey overhead.

Burt’s having a great time in his Adventure XL kayak. [photo by Norma]

After kayaking for over two hours, we start looking for a good place to beach our kayaks and get out to stretch stiffened leg muscles and take a lunch and rest break. After sitting in a rather cramped position in a kayak for two or more hours, it’s time to get out and walk around for a while and get the blood flowing and the leg muscles firing again. We finally locate what looks like a good place to land and, as gracefully as possible, exit our kayaks. However, the graceful part doesn’t always go so well. Getting into a kayak is usually a lot easier than getting out of one.

We pull into shore here for a relaxing lunch and rest break. [photo by Scott]

Lunch break over, we climb back into our kayaks and continue paddling around the lake for another hour or two, since none of us are in any particular hurry to get back to the desert heat. We see a few other kayakers and paddleboarders on the lake, but people fishing from the shore and from boats far outnumber kayakers today. In the full sun, with no breeze, it gets a bit toasty from time to time, but cloud cover blocks the sun for much of the day and intermittent breezes continue to cool us off. The towering forest cover along the lakeshore also provides shade when needed.
Finally, we decide to call it a day and by 2:30 in the afternoon arrive safe and sound back at the launch ramp, load all kayaks and gear back into our vehicles, and get ready for the long drive back home and back into the desert heat. It’s been another great day for kayaking the Rim Lakes of Arizona’s beautiful Mogollon Rim. But we’ll be back next summer for more kayaking.

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Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club, Phoenix, Arizona updated July 22, 2023
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