Willow Dells Loops - Prescott, AZ: Big Rocks, LIttle City
An initial evaluation of Prescott, Arizona wouldn't necessarily result in categorizing it as a hiking destination city. Until I really explored the area, I held a similar view of what is by any other gauge a really nice place to visit. Prescott's about a 90 minute drive north from Phoenix and maybe an hour south of Sedona.
The city's got plenty of good places to eat, reasonable and clean places to sleep and other ways to spend your money. Its elevation places it in a transition zone between desert and pine forest mountains, including national forest land.
But what made me change my mind about Prescott and actually recommending it as a hiking city was my discovery of the Willow Dell Loops. This short (3.8) but spectacular day hike is comprised of two loops that take the hiker or adventurous mountain biker through a maze of gigantic boulders, narrow granite draws and surprisingly lush, creek-fed meadows.
The trail is but one of several within the city's Mile High trail system that is being expanded every year. Because of the transitional elevation (5,100 +/-) and adequate rainfall and snow melt from the nearby mountains, you'll encounter a wide variety of plant life, from cactus to scrub oak to fir to pine trees.
There are three primary loop hikes at Willow Lakes, with one of them having a significant up and back section. My favorite loops were the Basin and Canyon trails with an additional side trip to "The Apex" viewpoint. Because of the labyrinth nature of the Dells, there are times when you'd forget that you're within sight of the city of Prescott and state highways. Within a half-mile you'll feel well beyond the easy reach of civilized life and get that sense of remoteness so hard to find at times.
Don't pass up the side trail to The Apex. Wonderful views are gained by scrambling the 1/2 mile to the highest point in this portion of the Dells. The Apex trail crosses over boulders and wide sections of bare rock, the trail being marked by a series of white dots painted onto the rock. It should be noted that all of the trails here are similarly marked as it meanders over granite outcroppings and ledges. Keep an eye out for these markings since it could be easy to lose the trail if you're not remaining observant.
The Willow Lake trail includes an up and back section and nice views of the lake. Adding this trail to the hike provides at least another 1 1/2 miles to your day and the opportunity to see more of interesting, somewhat bizarre shoreline of the reservoir.
Coupled with the nearby national forest trails, the dozen or so city trails and those found in Sedona, Prescott makes a fine place for hikers to visit and stay for a while. If you're planning a trip to the Grand Canyon or other portions of northern Arizona, add a day or two to include outdoor charms of Prescott and the really fun Willow Dells loops.
Below you'll find some links to trail maps and other directions to reach the parking lot near the trail head which is located along the south side of the lot and not near the Willow Lake docks as described in some guides. Though the lake's day use area includes a boat dock and shaded picnic tables, I didn't notice any toilet facilities, so plan accordingly.