Mike and I almost went camping out at Lake Pleasant during the New Year’s Weekend. But since neither of us wanted to camp in one of the established campgrounds — we don’t like living too close to other people — and we didn’t really know the back roads north of the lake very well, we decided to leave the camper home. Instead, we made a day trip of it on New Years Eve Day, taking my Jeep on the back roads, GPS turned on, to see what we could learn about potential campsites for the future.
Here’s a quick summary of our day out.
Getting to Lake Pleasant is easy. From Wickenburg, take route 60 (East Wickenburg Way, which turns into Grand Avenue) south to route 74. Turn left (the only way you can go) to head eastbound. Drive for about 20 miles through some of the most beautiful and barely touched Sonoran Desert landscape around. (Enjoy it while it lasts; developers will be turning it into housing developments and strip malls as soon as they can.)
After going over some rolling hills, you’ll see a left turn marked Lake Pleasant. This is also the east portal for Castle Hot Springs Road. Turn left and follow the road. You’ll pass one park entrance on your right. Then the road will end at a T with another park entrance to the right. To be legal to use the park, you should drive over to that park entrance and pay a small fee for a day pass. Then go to the left side of the T and follow that. After a short while, the pavement will end and you’ll be on the back roads.
Our GPS and Maps
I have a Garmin GPS Map60c. It’s a handheld GPS that can be loaded up with maps from Garmin software. I loaded it up with just about all the Arizona topo maps, so we had a moving map image of where we were, right on a USGS topo map of the area. We also had printed maps that we brought along, but only consulted once.
The drawback to the topo maps is that they haven’t been updated recently and they show the lake levels to be a lot lower than they really are. Although the levels were low the day of our trip — around 1680 feet elevation — the maps showed them to be even lower. As a result, the maps showed roads that had long since been covered by water, making you think you could drive a lot farther than you could. They also depicted a very different shoreline.
My GPS has a mapping feature that’s pretty cool. You basically turn on the tracking feature (which is on by default) and it automatically keeps track of everyplace you go. You can review the track on the GPS, use it to backtrack (if you get lost), or upload it to your computer. Then, with a little software on your computer (I use Terrabrowser on my Mac), you can display your track on a topo map.
We created a map for this trip, but it was lost in a hard disk crash. In any case, we were making a conscious effort to map the decent roads, the ones we thought we might be able to pull our camper down. Now don’t get the idea that these are good roads, suitable for the family car. They’re not. Although some cars might be able to make some of the roads without problems in dry weather, I don’t recommend it. A high clearance vehicle, like a Jeep, is your best bet. There are a few sandy places where 4WD is helpful. Although I used 4WD a few times, I don’t think we would have gotten stuck anywhere without it.
If you go exploring, be sure to bring a map and a compass. It’s easy to get lost out there, especially if you don’t know much about the area. The Governors Peak 7.5 Minute Series Topographic Map is your best bet, unless you have something newer and more detailed.
Where We Went
We followed Castle Hot Springs Road to the first major intersection, which was right over the bridge. We went right there. The road is well maintained and, if you follow it and make all the right turns, it’ll eventually get you to Senator Highway, Crown King, and Prescott.
We tried turning onto a narrow dirt track just before a paved-over wash. That road, which ran in the wash most of the way, took us back to the bridge. I have a feeling that that may have been the original path of the road; that’s what my GPS’s map was telling me.
We came out of there and followed the main road a bit farther. That’s when we saw a more substantial road to the right that matched the location of the “Jeep Trail” on the topo map. We followed it mostly south, taking most right turns we could find to drive down to the water’s edge — or as close to it as we could get. A few of these side roads already had tents or campers parked on them; we avoided those to give the campers privacy. But, as you can see from the map, there were quite a few side roads to explore.
The campsites at the very end were the best, although they weren’t easy to get to. Many of them were close to the water’s edge and the very last would probably be impossible to reach by wheeled vehicle if the water level rose another 10 or 20 feet.
It was out here that we saw about 20 wild burros, grazing in a grassy area near the water. A fishing boat floated nearby. It was very peaceful and very picturesque.
A High Point on a Rough Road
After stopping for lunch and checking out a few more potential campsites, we backtracked all the way back to the main dirt road and continued north along it. There were literally dozens of campers and parked along the road, especially at an old landing strip east of the road. Quads churned up dust all over the place.
The road forked again and we took the right fork. We followed a very rough piece of road toward Humbug Creek, descending down almost to the water’s level before climbing a very narrow Jeep trail south. The road was badly eroded, filled with big loose rocks and huge ditches. High clearance was required and my Jeep did just fine. After that, the road climbed up onto a mesa more than 1840 feet up with Humbug Bay on one side and Coles Bay on the other.
We passed a lone burro about halfway up the mesa. He looked more curious about us than we were of him. I think if I had shown him a carrot, he would have come over to get it. He seemed almost tamed — probably fed a few times too often by campers in the area.
The road ended abruptly at a sheer cliff with great views of the islands south of us in the lake. I wished I had a friend flying by in a helicopter to take a picture of the Jeep from the air. It was a perfect Jeep commercial moment.
The Return Trip
I let Mike drive back to pavement. I was pooped. We took a road that ran along Humbug Creek, then met up with the road we’d come in on. Then we pretty much followed our track back out to Castle Hot Springs Road. From there, it was about 40 miles back to Wickenburg.
Distance: About 100 miles round trip.
Time: At least 5 Hours, including time to stop, get out, and walk around. Add 30 minutes if you plan to have a picnic lunch.
Features: Challenging 4WD roads, lake, Sonoran desert scenery, wildlife.
Driving Conditions: Although the drive from Wickenburg to Lake Pleasant is on paved roads, most time was spent off pavement. High clearance is required for many of the more primative roads. 4WD is recommended. Do not attempt this trip during rainy weather.
Equipment: High clearance vehicle in good condition, maps, compass. GPS very helpful. Wear good hiking shoes and bring your camera. There are plenty of places to swim or fish in the lake. (A permit is required for fishing.)
Arizona Lake Levels/River Flows