Behind Walnut Canyon
This Is An Easy Day Trip Behind Walnut Canyon
October 1, 2023
John and I and Mochi took a fun ride up in the cool pines the other day – it wasn't a ride packed with things to see, but it did take us past Marshall Lake, Upper and Lower Lake Mary, Mormon Lake, and Stoneman Lake – all of which are currently chock full of water! You will need a high-clearance vehicle for this drive, and I'm thinking it could get iffy after a big rain.
I'm an Arizona native, but this is the first time I've ever seen water in Stoneman Lake, and the first time I remember seeing Upper Lake Mary full. So for me, it was an exciting trip. As usual we got to see some critters including deer, chipmunks, squirrels, lots of birds, and a jackrabbit – in the forest! This trip was full of firsts for me!
Start At Winona
We started on I-40 east of Flagstaff, past Walnut Canyon National Monument at the Winona exit. We headed south on that road and turned onto FR128 after a short time. The forest here is lovely, and we pulled off several times to breathe the fresh air. There are beautiful views of Mt. Eldon from the road and we found a couple of water holes and some really pretty bushes in bloom. Mochi found a jackrabbit – it leapt out from under a downed log and took off at full speed. I had no idea there were jackrabbits in the forest!
After a bit of a rocky spot, we passed through a gate in a barbed wire fence and there was Marshall Lake. Even on a Friday there were a LOT of RVs and tent campers scattered around. Marshall Lake is very big and marshy, with lots of coots and ducks – and dragonflies.
Apparently it vanishes in dry years, but when it has enough water, the Game and Fish stocks it with trout. There are lots of great camping spots all around it, and fantastic views of the mountains. Seriously beautiful. You can actually put a boat on the water, but you're limited to a single electric motor or a gas engine 10 hp tops. The launch is on the east side.
Marshall Lake is on FR 128 about three miles from the turnoff on Lake Mary Road. The last mile or so in is unpaved, but still the easiest way to get there is from the Lake Mary Road. You can't park right by the lake – you're supposed to park across the road. We saw plenty of people in chairs next to the lake, though, just enjoying the coolness of the day.
Very near Marshall Lake is a USGS Observatory. We drove up to it – it's a super short drive – but there really isn't much to see. The sign says it's Perkins Telescope and there were some men on a lift working on the dome.
FR 128 dumps you out right onto Lake Mary Road right where the lakes are. We came out east of Lake Mary and took the road south. Upper Lake Mary was full as can be, which is something you don't see every day, so we parked in the little day use area there and walked across the earthen dam between Upper and Lower Lake Mary. It's really pretty and a nice short walk – just enough to let you stretch your legs.
There was a guy in a kayak fishing near the dam and he told us he'd been catching pike. Those are so much fun to catch – they're strong! (I caught a 42-inch pike on our honeymoon lo, those many years ago!)
Heading south on Lake Mary Road, we soon passed Mormon Lake. I've seen Mormon Lake with water many times, but it never gets old. Such a big, round, beautiful lake – it's actually the largest natural lake in Arizona! Once when we were there and it was dry, the entire center of the lake was full of elk. One of the biggest herds of elk I've ever seen! That area is just loaded with them and I'm always amazed we don't see more of them, since they're so darn big.
On the western shore of the lake there is a little resort where you can rent mountain bikes, horses, snowmobiles, skis, etc. There are also a couple of nice campgrounds nearby – Dairy Springs and Double Springs. Trinity's best friend, Danielle, camped at Dairy Springs with her family every summer and rode horses from the resort. She still talks about it, and she's married and living in Maryland!
There are also plenty of hiking trails all around, and it's so nice to be able to hike in the shade of the pines. It's nice and soft on the old feet, too. Mochi just loves to hike in the forest, and so do we. Getting to Mormon Lake is easy and it's paved all the way. Just take Lake Mary Road from Flagstaff. You can't miss it.
Every summer when we took the girls to Flagstaff for a week of hiking and fun, we'd take the Stoneman Lake turnoff and then take the Lake Mary Road to Flagstaff. There is a little rest area on the Stoneman Lake Road that overlooks the lake, but every time I ever saw it, it was dry as a bone.
There is a tree right on the edge of the drop to the lake that the girls called The Big Tree, and I have a LOT of photographs of them in that tree. Once we stayed there for hours because there were fuzzy black caterpillars all over the place and they were having such a good time playing with them.
This time, I actually got to see Stoneman Lake full of water – and is it ever gorgeous! It is so round that we were wondering if it is a sinkhole, so I looked it up. Turns out there isn't a consensus on whether it is a sinkhole or an old volcanic crater – apparently it has features common to both. The rocks under it have fissures, which why it doesn't stay full for long. There's no creek feeding it, so it just fills up from rain and then slowly empties out.
Once you get past Stoneman Lake, you're not too far from I-17. This made a very pleasant Friday drive for us. With all the stopping and walking around, it took up the whole day and it was very nice. It's an easy drive with lots of water (right now), so I highly recommend it!