Natural Wonder: Stoneman Lake

It is a sight to behold when you approach the rim above Stoneman Lake and gaze at the waters below.

A perfect circle of basalt creates a basin that traps runoff and springs, forcing their waters into the lake. It is the only natural lake in Arizona where water remains year-round.

The view leads one to immediately speculate that volcanic activity created this natural wonder. Such speculation would be partly correct.

The history behind this view is one that fascinates no one more than James Dohm, a planetary geologist at the University of Arizona.

"It’s a beautiful, pristine area," Dohm said. "So many windows into the past, this jigsaw puzzle waiting to be understood.

"It’s such a wonderful archive of geologic, paleo-climatic and botanical information."

Dohm extensively studied the lake and surrounding region, first mapping it with airborne radar data and then on the ground. He tracked ancient lava flows in the Mormon Volcanic Field for tens of miles, where the Cataract Creek Fault System once gave way to magma that created more than 200 volcanoes.

The basaltic lavas surrounding the lake probably formed 4 million to 8 million years ago, Dohm said. It is much older than most of the San Francisco Volcanic Field surrounding the San Francisco Peaks, which could become active someday.

He suspects that the cirque surrounding Stoneman formed over millions of years of time, as groundwater flowing through the fault fractures eroded away layers of limestone (geologists call it breccia pipe) that was nestled inside the harder volcanic rock.

Even today, you can see remnants of old volcanoes on the northwest and southeast sides of the lake basin, along a northwest trending fault in the Cataract Creek system that still produces an earthquake now and then.

The 80-acre lake itself formed only during the past 300,000 years or so.

The lake harbors secrets of the past, too, because it is a closed water system. When geologist Kirk McCabe drilled into it, the undisturbed sediments offered up knowledge of the paleo-climate of this region.

McCabe drilled to a depth of 300 feet without reaching bedrock. Someday, Dohm would love to drill to the bedrock to better understand the extent of the breccia pipe.

The human history of the area, such as the wagon road that passes along the top of the basin, also fascinates Dohm. His favorite panoramic view of the region comes from a climb to the top of an ancient volcano called Lake Mountain.

Stoneman Lake also is unique for its fishery. It is one of the few lakes in Arizona where non-native yellow perch and northern pike thrive, after the Arizona Game & Fish Department stocked them in the 1960s, said Fisheries Branch Chief Larry Riley.

"It’s pretty unusual, and a neat little fishing opportunity here in Arizona," Riley said. "And it is beautiful – whether you’re going to fish or hike or just look at it, it’s just an amazing little place."

Northern pike have created problems elsewhere in Arizona, when citizens releasing them into river systems led to negative impacts on trout and native fish species. They have voracious appetites.

But Stoneman, since it is a completely closed system, is perfect for the pike.

The lake is pretty low these days, only about 18 inches deep because of an extended drought. At other times it reaches 10-feet deep.

Riley suggests using a jointed Rapala artificial lure on the pike. And a steel leader or spider wire is necessary to keep their sharp teeth from snapping your line. For the perch, try mealworms.

Game & Fish is working with the Coconino National Forest and Arizona Department of Water Quality to preserve the lake’s water and its quality. The forest service may consider re-opening a cut-off ditch that helped supplement run-off into the lake.

One side of the lake is an old homestead that now is subdivided into a dozen or so home sites. Residents are working with government agencies on the preservation plan as well, Riley said.

Since it has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, unlike Arizona’s man-made lakes, Stoneman has evolved into an important resting stop for migratory birds. People have recorded more than 140 species there over the years.

Recently, we sat at the top of the basin rim and watched an osprey dive for fish, off and on for hours.

Our viewing point also was a perfect camp – a small, developed camping area with four picnic tables and restroom facilities along Forest Road 213.

Others choose to camp in dispersed sites along FR 213 and FR 665. While FR 213A accesses the lake itself, the Forest Service doesn’t allow camping there. However, a small gravel launch is available for boating access to the lake. Only single electric motors are allowed on boats.

If you go:

WHERE: 53 miles northeast of Prescott in the Coconino National Forest, less than two miles outside Yavapai County.

HOW TO GET THERE: Take highways 69 and 169 to Interstate 17, then go north to the Stoneman Lake exit. Follow the signs east seven miles to the lake.

WHAT TO BRING: The lake doesn’t have any stores, so stock up as you will. We also recommend binoculars, hammocks and bug spray.


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