Bear Canyon Lake gleams in the sunlight that slants through breaks in the afternoon pileup of thunderheads, deep, narrow, dramatic — and completely artificial.
Trout undulate in its depths — perhaps even a few survivors of the Arctic Greylings stocked there years ago. Osprey hunt the shallows for unwary fish; elk and deer nibble the grass and brush at dusk; wildlife gathers all around the steep, quiet shoreline — all drawn to this incongruous, essentially man-made habitat.
Bear Canyon remains one of the most scenic, but less visited, lakes in the chain of Rim Country impoundments that draw millions of visitors annually — mostly from sweltering Phoenix.
Rim Country residents often skip the heavily used and easily accessible Woods Canyon and Willow Springs lakes and head for Bear Canyon, which is protected from the heavy fishing pressure and weekend crowds by the longer drive and the steep trail.
But the artificially created lake shares key characteristics with all of those other lakes atop the Rim, mostly created by the state to lure fishermen, campers, hikers and boaters.
Remarkably enough, Arizona had only one natural lake when the first Europeans arrived — thanks to the same topography that has created such dramatic vistas, varied habitats and unique wildlife.
The landscape channels the runoff from the entire state into a few major river systems. Most of the western and northwestern portion of the state drains into the Colorado River, where dams now provide reservoirs that sustain 17 million people in seven states.
The runoff from most of the eastern portion of the state also ends up in the Colorado River, but only after passing through the Salt and Gila rivers, which merge near Phoenix before flowing on toward Yuma.
But some of the most violent and remarkable geology in the state created the backward drainage of Rim Country, where most of the streams atop the Rim flow to the north toward the often-dry Little Colorado River instead of south to the Salt River.
Blame the Mogollon Rim — it forms a nearly unbroken chain of 2,000-foot-tall cliffs. This remarkable break in the earth’s crust forms the leading edge of the vast Colorado Plateau, a region of uplifted rock topped by the Rocky Mountains. Along much of the Rim, the southernmost lip represents a high point, with the land sloping away from the lip of the Rim to the north.
Farther west, geologists believe that a smaller ancestor of the Colorado River once flowed into a vast, inland sea, trapped between the lip of that uplift and the snow-hoarding heights of the Rocky Mountain. But erosion on the front slope of that uplift eventually ate backward and captured the ancestral Colorado within the past 5 million years, triggering one of the most dramatic periods of erosion in the planet’s history — which we now refer to, modestly enough, as the Grand Canyon.
That new, merged river system caught the runoff from the tilted, uplifted plateau for hundreds of miles to the east, leaving the wall of the Mogollon Rim virtually unbroken from the Verde Valley to the White Mountains.
As a result, most of the streams atop the Rim run north toward oblivion in the high desert fastness of the Petrified Forest.
Some streams fed by springs in the fractured, faulted sedimentary layers of the Rim itself emerged from the face of the wall, including the three major streams that flow through Rim Country. Fossil Creek and the East Verde both end up in the Verde River. Tonto Creek ends up in the Salt River, with Rim Country’s own little version of the watershed defining continental divide running right through water-conscious Star Valley. But most of the streams atop the Rim run through deep canyons to the north, where they feed into the meandering, marshy, flood-prone Little Colorado River.
The settlers, mining companies and the state built small dams on many of those streams, creating the chain of Rim lakes. However, most of the canyons cut by the streams were so deep and narrow that settlers couldn’t use the water for farming in the mountains. The Mormon settlers who tried to tame the Little Colorado River once it emerged from the mountains eventually gave up, tormented by floods that washed out their irrigation works and droughts that withered their crops.
That left the Rim Country lakes mostly for the campers and fishermen.
Fortunately, that provided the foundation for the region’s most important economic activity — tourism. The lakes of Rim Country have now become a scenic summer playground located just 100 miles from the fifth largest city in the country.
For most visitors, a trip to a spot like Bear Canyon Lake represents an escape to pristine wilderness. In fact, the construction of the dams that created the lake and the introduction of alien species like crawfish, trout, bass, catfish, perch and a host of other plants and animals have created a new and sometimes unpredictable habitat — heavily stocked with trout and heavily visited by humans.
Know before you go camping
For many Arizonans, the remaining summer weekends mean camping in the pine forests of the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests. Before you go, consider these tips to make these outings safe and memorable.
• Campgrounds generally start filling up on Thursday. Most campsites are on a first-come, first-served basis. The earlier you arrive, the better your chances of finding a campsite.
• If camping beyond developed campgrounds, remember the “Leave No Trace” principles: pack out all trash when you leave; bury human waste or use a portable camp toilet.
• Keep your dog leashed for its safety. Rabies has been reported recently in part of Coconino County.
Campfires and Smoking Restrictions
As of the July 4 weekend, part of the Red Rock Ranger District had campfire and smoking restrictions in place, including the national forest land “below the Rim” in the Verde Valley on the east side of the Verde River, Oak Creek Canyon, lower Sycamore Canyon, lower West Clear Creek, Fossil Creek and Bullpen — however, with the advent of monsoon rains, these may have been modified or lifted (call the numbers below to learn what, if any, restrictions exist prior to heading out). The area southeast of Interstate 17, east of Forest Road 618, and north of Forest Road 214 is not included.
These “Stage I” restrictions mean:
• Campfires, charcoal grills, and stove fires are prohibited on national forest lands; except within developed recreation sites where grills and campfire rings are provided.
• Pressurized liquid or gas stoves, lanterns and heaters meeting safety specifications are allowed. (If the device can be “turned off,” it is permitted outside a developed campground.)
• Smoking is prohibited, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed recreation site, or while stopped in an area at least three (3) feet in diameter that is cleared of all flammable material.
Campfires are allowed on the rest of the Coconino National Forest “above the Rim,” and on all of the Kaibab National Forest as of the July 4 weekend. A few campfire safety reminders include:
• Use existing campfire rings to minimize impacts to the soil. Make a fire only if you have a shovel and sufficient water to put it out. Never leave your campfire unattended.
• To make sure your campfire is out, drown with water and stir with dirt, making sure all burned materials are extinguished. Feel with your hand to make sure it’s out cold.
All fireworks are banned year-round on national forests.
Forest Service visitor centers to contact for more information: Red Rock Visitor Station on Highway 179 south of Sedona, (928) 282-4119; City of Williams/Forest Service Visitor Center in Williams, (928) 635-4707; Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center in Jacob Lake, (928) 643-7298.
Fishing report for Rim lakes
The following summary was condensed from a report compiled by Rory Aikens with the Arizona Game and Department (current as of July 1).
BEAR CANYON LAKE
Fishing: Good, recently stocked.
Level: Down a little.
Details: Hike-in lake with steep trail, decent shoreline access, fish stocked near the dam and some larger, hold-over trout.
Tie on line: Try worms, Power Bait, corn, and salmon eggs, lures such as spinners (Mepps, Rooster Tail, and Panther Martin), Super Dupers, Z-Rays and Rapalas, and flies such as peacock ladies, wooly worms, wooly buggers, and small nymphs in black, brown or green.
Restrictions: Electric trolling motors only.
BLACK CANYON LAKE
Fishing: Good, recently stocked with rainbows.
Access: All roads open.
Tie on your line: Try worms, Power Bait, lures such as Z-Rays, Super Dupers, and spinners (Mepps, Rooster Tail, and Panther Martin), and flies such as wooly worms, wooly buggers, Peacock ladies, and small nymphs.
Restrictions; Electric trolling motors and 10 hp gas.
Fishing: Fair, due to heavy algae bloom.
Access: Dirt road to lake heavily rutted.
Details: Some large holdover trout, but brush and steep drops favor use of a small boat, kayak, canoe or float tube.
Tie on your line: Power Bait spinners flies and KastMasters. Trout eating lots of grasshopper and baby crayfish.
Lake details: The steep-sided canyon lake requires a short, arduous hike and has such steep shores that anglers do best with a float tube, canoe or kayak.
Restrictions: Lures and flies only, 10 hp gas or trolling motors.
Tie on your line: Spinners (Mepps, Panther Martin, and Rooster Tail); spoons (Super Dupers, KastMasters, and Z-rays); flies (peacock ladies, wooly worms and wooly buggers, and semi-seal leeches).
Fishing: Terrific following stocking
Access: Spring-fed lake at end of 20-mile dirt road.
Details: When wind blows, may find trout feeding stacked up near the dam. Look for ospreys fishing for rainbows.
Tie on your line: Try worms, salmon eggs, Power Bait, lures such as Z-Rays, Super Dupers, and spinners (Mepps, Rooster Tail, and Panther Martin), and flies such as wooly worms, wooly buggers, peacock ladies, and small nymphs. Worm-bobbers can work well.
WILLOW SPRINGS LAKE
Fishing: Very good, especially with a boat. Fair to good from shore.
Details: Fish biting best at dawn and dusk or when storm clouds build. Many anglers catching limits, including lots of hold-over trout, plus smallmouth and largemouth bass plus crappies. Anglers with boats report 35 to 46 trout in a day, catch and release.
Tie on your line: Fish the stickups using 4-inch worms or lizards. Drop-shotted Robo worms can sometimes produce a bonanza of bass, trout and crappie. Also Try worms, Power Bait, lures such as Z-Rays, spinners (Mepps, Rooster Tail, and Panther Martin), and flies such as wooly worms, wooly buggers, and peacock ladies.
Restrictions; Electric trolling motors and/or up to 10 hp gas motors.
WOODS CANYON LAKE
Fishing: Fair to good.
Access: Easy, off FR 300.
Details: Lots of anglers, some getting big hold-overs from last year. Heavily stocked weekly. Shop sells more fishing licenses than anywhere in the state. Look for nesting bald eagles, protected by the closure at the east end of the lake. Make sure not to leave potentially lethal discarded fishing line. Nesting eagles foraging at Woods Canyon and nearby Willow Springs lakes, so bring binoculars. The eagles often fight osprey for fish.
Tie on your line; Try worms, Power Bait, salmon eggs, lures such as spinners (Mepps, Panther Martin, and Rooster Tail), small spoons such as Super Dupers, Z-Rays, and KastMasters, and flies such as peacock ladies, wooly worms, small nymphs in black, brown or green.