Willow Springs Canyon Trail

By Sara Goodnick

Willow Springs Canyon Trail

Bring the Family! Easy Cool Getaway on the Mogollon Rim

Looking for a relatively level hike with photographic opportunities along a stream for a cool escape from Phoenix? Willow Springs Canyon Trail is just the ticket! It’s just 23 miles from Payson on Hwy 260, in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

We were tired of the summer heat here in the valley, but didn’t have all day to spend hiking, nor the energy for a tough hike in the mountains. The Willow Springs Canyon Trail looked perfect. It was, at 7,500’ elevation, with mild temperatures in early August. It is also next to a beautiful 158-acre 60’ deep lake. Boats are limited to a maximum of 10 hp, so it’s nice and quiet. The lake is stocked with trout, so any fishing persons with you can be left there to enjoy that while you hike and photograph.

The trail itself begins at the lake near the parking area. Follow the lake north until you get to the dam at the end. Follow the trail down along the spillway, the only steep part, until you reach the trail below the dam. It runs along the stream leaving the lake meandering through meadows with several places narrow enough to cross back and forth.

The trail is fairly level dirt except for a few spots. We went only about 2 miles in then stopped because it got rocky and harder to navigate. Also, we were hungry, so we sat on some boulders in the shade next to the stream. The dogs enjoyed lapping the water as it gurgled past.

There were few people on the trail, but some were casting fishing lines, two jogged past us, and several had their small children with them. It really is family friendly.

I already knew that this was more of a quick hiking trip than one for photography, but any trip can serve as a scouting trip for planning a return visit. I also knew one can make the most of what one finds even in tough lighting conditions and still get some nice images.

Lesson learned:

Don’t be lazy–take that polarizer and a couple of your favorite lenses, even on a very casual hike. I wanted to travel as light as possible this day, so I carried only my mirrorless micro 4/3 camera and 2 lenses covering the full frame equivalent of 24-200.

I chose not to carry a polarizer and really missed it when we got to the water with the sun shining down on it. I didn’t take a tripod either, figuring the time of day being late morning would make for few photographic opportunities requiring it. I didn’t miss the tripod, but if we had spent a longer time there, I would have wanted it for some serious macro shots of flowers, mosses and leaves.


Take Hwy 260 north from Payson for about 23 miles. Turn left at the Forest Service sign for Willow Springs Lake. Follow the road to the lake. You will pass Sinkhole Campground, then the lake is about 1 mile further. Parking can fill up on weekends so go early. There is also a trail to it from the Sinkhole Campground and parking for another trailhead just off the road next to the campground.

There is no concession stand, but if you bring your own gear, other activities are available:


Fishing (need a license but there is no fee for putting a boat)



Sara Goodnick is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes.