Bartlett Lake: A Sonoran Desert Oasis

When exploring Arizona, it is always an amazing experience to come upon a lake. With the desert landscape surrounding the water, the lake jumps out as the sapphire hues of the water sparkle against the rugged desert terrain.

Bartlett Lake, a Sonoran Desert oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bartlett Lake, a Sonoran Desert oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the mountains northeast of Phoenix, Bartlett Lake is one of those Arizona lakes. A man-made reservoir, Bartlett Lake was formed by the damming of the Verde (Spanish for “green”) River. The pristine waters of the Verde River was spoken of descriptively in legends of the Indians of the valley who called the water “sweet waters”. The lake is framed by Sonoran desert scenery, with gentle sloping beaches on the west side and the rugged Mazatzal Mountains on the east side, studded with saguaro, cholla cacti, mesquite, and ocotillo.

Located in the Tonto National Forest, Bartlett Lake is less than an hour from downtown Phoenix.

The primary inflow of Bartlett Lake is the Verde River. A 7,500 square mile watershed, fed by melted snow and runoff. The Verde River flows into Horseshoe Lake and then into Bartlett Lake. When full, Bartlett Lake covers 2,815 acres—more than Canyon Lake and Saguaro Lake, combined.

Bartlett Lake is a water recreation wonderland that includes water skiing, jet skiing, wakeboarding, kayaking, swimming, and shoreline camping.

Bartlett Lake, a Sonoran Desert oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bartlett Lake, a Sonoran Desert oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bartlett Lake has been a favorite with fishermen since Bartlett Dam was constructed in 1939. Anglers can catch largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, flathead catfish, crappie, carp, sunfish, and bluegill. Several state-record fish have been caught there. The 1977 smallmouth bass state record tipped the scales at seven pounds. Flathead catfish weighing up to 60 pounds lurk in the depths.

Forest Service camping is available at Bartlett Lake. However, there are no designated campsites or hookups.

Bartlett Lake is open all year. It is most crowded during the hot summer months as visitors swarm to the cool refreshing waters and tranquil nights under the brilliant stars.

The only approach by road is from the west, starting from the dispersed communities of Cave Creek and Carefree. The newly engineered, fully paved, scenic Bartlett Lake Road combined with the expanding Phoenix freeway system offers easy access from the entire Valley of the Sun. Bartlett Lake is 20 miles east of Carefree. From Carefree, take the Cave Creek Road/FR 24 to the Bartlett Road/FR 19 junction. Turn right on this paved highway; it is 13 miles to the lake.

Cacti, desert shrubs, and rocky terrain gradually give way to grassy plains as the road climbs to a plateau at 3,300 feet, where a side road forks off north, leading to the more remote Horseshoe Lake. From the junction it is nine more miles downhill to Bartlett Lake, where the grasslands are replaced once more by cacti as the road descends.

Bartlett Lake, a Sonoran Desert oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bartlett Lake, a Sonoran Desert oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This scenic drive through the Sonoran Desert is worth the trip by itself. It was particularly gorgeous on our recent drive to Bartlett in late March when wildflowers and agave blooms colored the landscape. As we approached Bartlett Lake, the hills were a mass of yellow brittlebush along with globemellow, chuparosa, desert primrose, fairy duster, and ocotillo. What a sight!

And when we arrived at the lake we were rewarded with even more spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.

Approaching the lake the road forks, and the two branches follow the shoreline north and south, passing various sites for picnics, boat launching, and camping. For day use, the best area is Rattlesnake Cove with shaded tables, fire rings, and showers above a wide, clean, sandy beach. A short walk in either direction along the water’s edge leads to quiet, private coves with interesting rock formations and saguaro near the water. Further north is the main camping area of Bartlett Flats—here the road splits into a number of sandy tracks that end at sites on beaches close to the water.

Bartlett Lake, a Sonoran Desert oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bartlett Lake, a Sonoran Desert oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to Bartlett Lake find a blend of warm desert landscapes with a cool lake oasis, providing visitors the best of both land and water activities.  To the first time visitor who thinks of Arizona as a barren wasteland of sand, think again! There’s just something about the water and the desert and the bright blue sky that makes Bartlett Lake so beautiful.

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

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