Bear Canyon Lake may not be the closest, furthest, or largest of the Rim Lakes in Arizona, but smaller crowds and panoramic views make it a worthy destination.
The Mogollon Rim makes for a popular weekend trip from Phoenix, but even one free day on your calendar can make the drive north worthwhile. For most Phoenicians, a trip to the Rim Lakes means a stop at Woods Canyon Lake, a fun but extremely busy hiking and camping spot just off State Route 260.
But it doesn’t take long to escape the crowds and head deeper into Rim Country, and the 14 miles separating Bear Canyon Lake from Woods make a surprising difference. Although the former still hosts plenty of campers, there’s an isolation and peacefulness here you won’t find at the Rim’s most popular campground.
Back in September, our small family took a daytrip to Bear Canyon Lake (mostly as an excuse to get out of the house during the long pandemic days of summer in Phoenix) but also to explore reaches of the Mogollon Rim we hadn’t seen before.
We packed some food, dressed some kids, safely met up with some family in our “pod,” and headed north.
Any trip to the Rim naturally starts with a stop at one of several overlooks offering stunning views of the rolling forest below. If the Rim was a rap song, the lyrics here would be something like “look back at it” or maybe “check yo’ self before you wreck yo’ self” – seriously. Don’t get too close to that edge.
We pressed on past the bustling campgrounds at Woods Canyon and the quieter Mogollon Campground further up Rim Road 300.
The Chevy Trailblazer we were loaned for a road test – and subsequently nicknamed “Jeff” – lived up to its namesake, hugging forest road curves with ease and offering a smooth ride even through rougher washboard sections. The small SUV’s ACTIV trim equipped us with sport tires and off-road features, so navigating the Rim’s backroads was no problem, even for our driver not used to off-roading.
And let’s be honest, we looked good doin’ it.
It didn’t take long to reach Bear Canyon Lake, and after driving past spread-out campers scattered along the road, we parked and hiked the steep decline to the lake’s rocky shoreline.
We found an outcropping just big enough to lay out a spread of hummus, meat, cheese, apples and a delicacy known in some parts as “chocolate-covered pretzels.”
It was a refreshing break from the long car ride, and a chance to finally breathe in fresh forest air.
After eating, I took a plunge into the 60-acre lake. The water a bit chilly, of course, but it was a welcome shock after an active day. I can imagine that on a summer day, bringing some tubes or floats here would be an awesome way to laze away the afternoon, especially on days when more popular lakes are jammed with tourists.
Bear Canyon Lake has a max depth of about 50 feet and gets stocked with trout a few times a year, so it’s a great place to fish or bring the kayak or canoe if you’re not up for swimming.
It was a short but sweet respite from the Valley’s heat, but like most daytrips, our journey ended sooner than we’d have liked.
With the sun skirting the horizon, the ride home was calm, quiet and darkened by the surrounding forest – the perfect way to wrap up a mellow Sunday adventure.
If you can swing the timing, leaving the lake in late afternoon is a good way to catch soft sunlight at the Rim’s overlooks – catching sunset here is even better than it sounds.
Leaving late in the day also clears the dirt roads of most of the home-by-five campers, which gave us a chance to see what Jeff (that’s what happens when you let kids name a car!) could really do.
Turns out he could do just about whatever we asked, including the “Mogollon Drift,” something I learned from watching The Fast and the Furious some 14 years ago. At high or low speeds, the Trailblazer’s torque keeps it from slipping too much, which is great when you’re trying to navigate a winding dirt road at dusk.
It also has a selectable all-wheel-drive function you can toggle depending on road conditions, which made me want to bring it back up in the winter after a good snowstorm. In any case, the Trailblazer was a fun alternative to the minivan I’m forced to drive most weekends (THANKS KIDS).
It was a quick but fun day trip to Bear Canyon Lake. If you’re looking to explore the area more, it’s worth grabbing a spot at the first-come, first-serve campground. It’s free, so even with the added distance from the highway, the campground can fill up fast on peak summer and holiday weekends.
Amenities are limited, but that’s the appeal, and what separates a trip here from one at Woods Canyon Lake. See our Mogollon Rim camping guide for more options in the area.
Bear Canyon Lake is about 45 miles east of Payson. To get there, take State Route 260 to the Rim Road exit, then follow Rim Road for about 12 miles to Bear Canyon Lake Road. This will take you to the main trailhead on the lake’s west side, but you can also access the lake from a southern trailhead or a forest road on the east side.
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This post is in collaboration with Chevrolet USA. However, all opinions are the author’s own.
Seen in: Arizona