Prescott is situated on the edge of a wide expanse of high plains, with the pine forests of Prescott National Forest at its back. Within the national forest are lakes, campgrounds, and many miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails. For maps and information on hikes and bike rides in the area, stop by the Bradshaw Ranger Station, 344 S. Cortez St. (www.fs.fed.us/r3/prescott; tel. 928/443-8000).
My favorite hiking and biking areas in the national forest are Thumb Butte (west of town) and the Granite Mountain Wilderness (northwest of town). Thumb Butte, a rocky outcropping that towers over the forest just west of town, is Prescott’s most easily recognizable natural landmark. A 1.2-mile trail leads nearly to the top of this butte, and from the saddle near the summit, there’s a panoramic vista of the entire region. The trail is very steep but paved much of the way. The summit of the butte is a popular rock-climbing spot. An alternative return trail makes a loop hike possible. To reach the trail head, drive west out of town on Gurley St. for about 4 miles (it becomes Thumb Butte Rd.). Past the National Forest signs, you’ll find a parking lot, picnic area, and trail head. The parking fee is $5.
The Granite Basin Recreation Area provides access to the Granite Mountain Wilderness. Trails lead beneath the cliffs of Granite Mountain, where you might spot peregrine falcons. For the best views, hike 1.5 miles to Blair Pass and then on up the Granite Mountain trail as far as you feel like going. To reach this area, follow Iron Springs Rd. northwest out of town to the signed road for the Granite Basin Recreation Area (less than 8 miles from downtown). There is a $5 parking fee here.
Both of the above areas also offer mountain-biking trails. Although the scenery isn’t as spectacular as in the Sedona area, the trails are great. You can rent a bike and get maps and trail recommendations at Ironclad Bicycles, 710 White Spar Rd. (www.ironcladbicycles.com; tel. 928/776-1755), which charges $24 to $48 per day for mountain bikes.
Want to explore the area on horseback? A half-hour drive southeast of Prescott, Foothills Ranch, at Finley Rd. and Ariz. 69 in Mayer (www.foothills-ranch.com; tel. 928/379-0260), offers guided trail rides in the Prescott National Forest. A 1-hour ride is $50; longer outings include brunch or lunch.
Reasonably priced golf is available at the 36-hole Antelope Hills Golf Course, 1 Perkins Dr. (www.antelopehillsgolf.com; tel. 928/776-7888). Greens fees start at $40.
Exploring the Granite Dells
Five miles north of Prescott on Ariz. 89, jumbled hills of rounded granite suddenly jut from the landscape, creating a maze of huge boulders and smooth rock known as the Granite Dells. In the middle of this dramatic landscape lies Watson Lake, its waters pushing in among the boulders to create one of the prettiest lakes in the state. On the highway side of the lake, Watson Lake Park, 3101 Watson Lake Rd. (www.cityofprescott.net; tel. 928/777-1122; $3 parking fee) has picnic tables and great views. Spring through fall (weather permitting), you can rent canoes and kayaks at the lake ($15–$20 for the first hour, $10–$15 per hour after that) Friday through Sunday 8am to 4pm. Reservations aren’t accepted, but you can call Prescott Outdoors (www.prescottoutdoors.com; tel. 928/925-1410) to make sure they’ll be at the lake with their boats.
For hiking in the Watson Lake area, I recommend the scenic Peavine Trail, one of the most gratifying easy hikes in the state. To find the trail head, turn east onto Prescott Lake Parkway, between Prescott and the Granite Dells, and then left onto Sun Dog Ranch Road. (There’s a $3 parking fee at the trail head.) This rails-to-trails path, extending several miles through the middle of the Granite Dells, is the best way to fully appreciate their unique beauty (you’ll be away from both people and the highway). The trail also makes a great easy mountain bike ride that can be extended 7.5 miles on the Iron King Trail. Also accessible from the same trail head, the Watson Woods Riparian Preserve has some short trails through the wetlands and riparian zone along Granite Creek.
A couple of miles west of Watson Lake you can hike in Willow Lake Park, 1497 Heritage Park Rd. (www.cityofprescott.net; tel. 928/777-1122). Parking areas on Willow Creek Road provide access to several miles of trails that lead through grasslands and groves of huge cottonwood trees adjacent to Willow Lake. The trails eventually lead to the edge of the Granite Dells. There’s fine bird-watching in the trees in this park, and there are great blue heron and cormorant rookeries. The trail head on Heritage Park Road also provides access to the Willow Dells Trails network, which meander through the jumbled boulders of the Granite Dells; they’re some of the most fascinating trails in the state. There's a $3 parking fee at all park trail heads.
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