Massive boulders of ancient rock have weathered into delicately balanced forms and fanciful shapes, reflected in the surface of Watson Lake. Ruins and artifacts indicate that Native Americans used to live here. The scenic Dells offer a great place for boating, picnicking, or a stroll. Rock climbers tackle the challenging granite formations. Watson Lake Park, four miles north of town on AZ 89, offers year-round day use and summer weekend camping.
Prescott Peavine National Recreation Trail
This rails-to-trails path crosses Granite Dells on the east side of Watson Lake. Hikers, cyclists, and equestrians head down the nearly level, packed-gravel trail, which is 4.15 miles one way and connects with several other trails. From AZ 89 at MP 315, turn east 0.3 mile on Prescott Lakes Parkway, then turn left 0.1 mile to the trailhead. Currently the trail ends at former Hwy. 89A, but eventually it may connect with Chino Valley's Peavine Trail.
Thumb Butte Trail
This popular loop hike begins just west of town and climbs Thumb Butte Saddle (6,300 feet) for good views of Prescott and the surrounding countryside. The trail winds through a valley of dense ponderosa pine, then crosses windswept ridges where pinyon, juniper, oak, and prickly pear grow. A spur trail leads to a vista point with a panorama of the city, Granite Dells, Chino Valley, and countless mountains, including the distant San Francisco Peaks.
Reaching the fractured granite summit of Thumb Butte is hazardous and not recommended. The trail itself is a moderate outing of two miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 600 feet, taking about two hours. Signs identify many of the plants along the way and explain the forest ecosystem. Hiking season runs year-round except after winter snowstorms.
From downtown, head west 3.5 miles on Gurley Street and Thumb Butte Road to Thumb Butte Park; the trail is on the left side of the road and parking on the right (there's a $2 parking fee unless you have a Golden pass or National Parks pass w/hologram). Picnic tables, restrooms, and seasonal drinking water are nearby.
Granite Mountain Wilderness
On a day trip, hikers can explore the rugged Granite Mountain Wilderness and enjoy fine views from an overlook at an elevation of 7,185 feet. Rock climbers come to challenge the granite cliffs, which offer a nearly complete range of difficulties, but check first for seasonal closures. Five trails allow many hiking combinations, but only Granite Mountain Trail #261 climbs to the top. This trail ascends gently 1.3 miles to a trail junction at Blair Pass, then turns right and switchbacks 1.3 miles to a saddle on Granite Mountain; from here the trail turns southeast, climbing another mile to a viewpoint. Ponderosa pines grow at the trailhead and on top of Granite Mountain, though much of the trail passes through manzanita, mountain mahogany, pinyon, agave, and other plants of the chaparral.
Average hiking time for the 7.5-mile roundtrip hike is six hours. It's a moderately difficult trip with an elevation gain of 1,500 feet; carry water. It's open all year except when blocked by snow. Forest Service offices sell a Granite Mountain Wilderness map; you can also use the Iron Springs and Jerome Canyon 7.5-minute topos. From W. Gurley Street in Prescott, drive northwest 4.3 miles on Grove Avenue, Miller Valley Road, and Iron Springs Road, then turn right and travel five miles on Forest Road 374 past the campground and lake turnoffs. The trailhead has a $2 parking fee unless you have a Golden pass or National Parks pass w/hologram.
Chino Valley Ranger District
This section of the Prescott National Forest lies northwest of town beyond Granite Basin Wilderness. It lacks developed sites, but it does have hiking trails, two wilderness areas, and good opportunities to spot wildlife. Except in hunting season, you're likely to have this country to yourself. Granite Knob (6,632 feet) dominates Apache Creek Wilderness. Pinyon pine, juniper, and chaparral cover most of the land with some ponderosa pine in the southwest corner.
Juniper Mesa Wilderness has cliffs on the south side of the mesa and some canyons on the north. Ponderosa pine, Arizona white oak, and alligator juniper grow in the canyons and on ridgetops, while pinyon pine, juniper, and chaparral cover the south slope; elevations run 5,650–7,050 feet. Prescott National Forest offices sell a map that covers both wilderness areas. Chino Ranger District Office (735 Hwy. 89 N, P.O. Box 485, Chino Valley, AZ 86323, 928/636-2200, www.fs.fed.us/r3/prescott, 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) is north of Prescott in Chino Valley.
Scenic drives and dozens of trails wind through this rugged range south of Prescott. You can get trail descriptions, maps, and back-road information from the Prescott National Forest office.
The Senator Highway weaves atop the Bradshaw Mountains between Prescott and Crown King with many fine views and some historic sites along the way. Despite the road's name, you'll need a high-clearance vehicle past the Groom Creek area. Head south from downtown on Mt. Vernon Avenue and continue straight on the Senator Highway, also signed as Forest Road 52.
Spruce Mountain has views, a lookout tower, and a picnic area at its 7,700-foot summit. From Prescott, turn south 5.5 miles on Mt. Vernon Avenue/Senator Highway/Forest Road 52, then turn left four miles up Forest Road 52A (not suited for RVs or trailers). Groom Creek Trail #307 makes an 8.7-mile loop between here and Groom Creek Horsecamp.
Probably the most unusual trail is the 1,200-foot Groom Creek School Nature Trail, built by the Sunrise Lions Club of Prescott especially for blind people. Trail pamphlets explain natural features and processes. The trail lies just past the village of Groom Creek, six miles south of town on Mt. Vernon Avenue/Senator Highway/Forest Road 52.
An 1880s charcoal kiln, made of fitted granite blocks, once served precious-metal smelters in the Walker area. From Prescott, head east four miles on AZ 69, turn south 6.5 miles on Walker Road/Lynx Lake Road/Forest Road 197 to Walker, turn left on Big Bug Mesa Road/Forest Road 670 just north of Walker Fire Station, and follow signs 0.8 mile to parking—then it's a three-minute walk to the kiln.
Stagecoach passengers in the 19th century stopped at Palace Station on their way between Prescott and Peck's Mine. The station lies 11 miles south of Prescott on Mt. Vernon Avenue/Senator Highway/Forest Road 52. The rustic structure is now used as a residence and isn't open to the public, but you can view the exterior.
Crown King and Vicinity
Old mines, ghost towns, and wilderness surround this rustic village 55 miles southeast of Prescott via the Senator Highway. Prospectors discovered gold at the Crown King Mine in the 1870s, but mine owners had to wait until the late 1880s before the ore could be processed profitably. A branch line of the Prescott and Eastern Railroad reached the site in 1904. Legal battles closed mine operations in the early 1900s, and today the mining camp attracts retired people and serves as an escape from summer heat. The Crown King Saloon dates back to 1898, when it was built at Oro Belle camp, five miles southwest. Pack mules later hauled the structure piece by piece to Crown King.
Rough roads discourage the average tourist, but the region can be explored with maps, determination, and a high-clearance vehicle. The easiest way in is from Cleator on Forest Road 259, reached from the I-17 Bumble Bee or Cordes Exits. You'll follow the twisting path of the old railroad on the drive up; cautiously driven passenger vehicles can make it okay. With a high-clearance vehicle, you can approach Crown King on the very scenic Senator Highway (Forest Road 52) across the rugged Bradshaws from Prescott. Another route follows Pine Flat Road (Forest Road 177) from Mayer into the Bradshaws, then turns south on the Senator Highway. The Prescott National Forest map, sold at Forest Service offices, shows back roads and most trails.
Bradshaw Mountain Guest Ranch (928/632-4477, www.crownking.com, $100 d suites, $150 d cabins) is on the left as you turn into Crown King; guests enjoy the gardens, barbecue pits, and continental breakfast delivered to their door. You can also stay near Crown King at Bear Creek Cabins (928/632-5035 or 899-2031, $80 up to four persons) and Cedar Roost (928/632-5564, $65–105 d weekdays, $75–115 d Fri.–Sat.).
For atmosphere and great American food, try The Mill (928/632-7133, Sun. for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and Fri.–Sat. for lunch and dinner). Inside, the huge Gladiator Stamp Mill, built in 1893 and moved here from a site two miles away, now forms the centerpiece of the restaurant along with other materials salvaged from old buildings. The entrance is opposite the turnoff for Crown King. In Crown King, you can eat at the saloon or at a restaurant across the street, both open daily. The general store sells groceries and has a post office. The staff at Crown King Work Center, up the hill from town, can tell you about trails and roads; they're mostly local people who know the area well. Arizona Ghost Towns and Mining Camps by Philip Varney contains good information on this historic and very scenic part of Arizona.
Horsethief Basin Recreation Area, seven miles to the southeast, offers camping in the Prescott National Forest. Hazlett Hollow Campground (elev. 6,000 feet) is open May–Oct. with water and a $6 fee. On the way you'll pass near 3.5-acre Horsethief Lake, a reservoir used for boating (electric motors okay) and fishing; no swimming or camping. Groups can reserve Turney Gulch Campground, which has water, at 877/444-6777 or www.recreation.gov. Castle Creek Wilderness, east of the campgrounds, has very steep and rocky terrain with vegetation ranging from chaparral to ponderosa pine.
On to the Grand Canyon