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Kayaking and Camping at the Coconino National Forest – C.C. Cragin (Blue Ridge) Reservoir in Arizona

The Coconino National Forest is situated in the northwest of the state of Arizona. It is spread across a massive expanse of 1856 million acres. Flagstaff and Payson are the nearest cities to the forest. As it covers such a large area, the forest is a beautiful amalgamation of diverse topography. You can find deserts, pine forests, snow-covered mountain peaks and volcanoes, all in this one national forest.

Amid these lush tropical pine forests, lies the Blue Ridge Reservoir, now officially known as the C.C. Cragin Reservoir. These forests are a part of the Mogollon Rim. The reservoir is situated close to Clint’s Well on the Rim. It runs for 15 miles and is close to 100 feet deep when full. It is truly a serene outing to visit the reservoir while enjoying the plethora of outdoor activities it has to offer. 

As the reservoir freezes during the winter months, it is best to visit during the months of May to September. Most similar places in Arizona require permits, however, this is not the case with Blue Ridge. You may access the lake without planning ahead or needing to purchase a park pass. And naturally, if no pass is required, guess how much it costs? Absolutely Nothing!

Take a 1-hour drive to the reservoir from Payson and enjoy one of the most peaceful outings of your life. Three of the most sought after activities in and around the reservoir are Camping, Kayaking and fishing. Your visit is not complete if you have not done them all. So let’s explore each of them…

Go Kayaking…

Haven’t we all heard the rhyme, ‘Row, Row, Row your boat, gently down the stream”, well that’s exactly what you can do at the reservoir…

One of the most important things that you need to be aware of while hitting the lake, is that no boats with horsepower greater than 10HP are allowed on the lake. This is to preserve its natural habitat and prevent hurting marine life.

Let’s look at what kind of fun you can have while paddling through the 15 miles of pine-lined narrow lake. One of the most appealing features of this reservoir is that it is away from the hustle and bustle of city life. It is a secluded area that is not frequented by crowds (as long as you’re willing to paddle for 30 minutes or more) and if you still want more privacy, you can visit during the weekdays.

The lake is full of curves and bends, which make kayaking and canoeing through it very interesting. You may feel like you’re on a river but the water definitely is NOT moving!  You’ll get the sense that you are the only one paddling through it, as the curves hide other boats from your view. You can enjoy the picturesque natural beauty as you paddle through. If you would like to paddle for a longer time, take the western arm (turn right after launching your boat or kayak), but if you love the curves (and more camping options), take the southern arm (turn left from the launch site). To give you some insight, the southern arm can take you up to two hours of paddling to reach the very end. So, be sure to leave enough time to enjoy the serenity while getting back to the launch site by nightfall.

You can start your voyage from the narrow boat-ramp, the only spot for entering the lake, and head out in either direction. You may desire various paddling options such as a kayak, canoe, raft, or a motorboat. Renting them will cost you approximately $40 per day from one of the nearest rentals. Riverbound Sports is one such place or there are many options before leaving the Phoenix metro area.

It is an exhilarating experience, which can’t be aptly described in words. Once you are there on the water, you can soak in the beautiful surroundings, relax and forget all your woes. You may even reflect upon life and introspect. So, loosen up, wear your hair down and enjoy the tranquillity that nature offers.

Go Camping…

Away from the local din, amidst those tall pine trees, staring at the starry night sky, with just the burning twigs to give you light… 

If that is your idea of camping, you have come to the right place. Camping is one of the most exciting activities that Blue Ridge has to offer. You’ll sit around a fire and sing through the night while viewing billions of stars in the ultra dark sky. Look for passing satellites and shooting stars. Strum the notes on that Ukulele of yours and enjoy the cool breeze of a summer night. Grill a few marshmallows or just go for barbecue. Enjoy a can of beer or two, with a bunch of friends or your family. Be sure to pack for very cold weather as the nightime temperatures can reach into the low 40 degrees fairenheight (4 degrees Celsius). 

The reservoir is stocked mostly with Rainbow Trout and Brown Trout. You might find a few Green sunfish. So, if fishing is your pacifier or stress buster, go for it. You’ll definitely want to secure a license and review the rules at the Arizona Game and Fish department website. Fish are stocked by the Arizona G & F department regularly. You may even desire hiking and biking in the nearby trails or cliff jumping in the lake. Have a splash! A trip to the reservoir is one of the most sought after ones in the entire Coconino National forest. 

There are all sorts of campers: Families, a group of friends, or the solo ones. Blue Ridge has something for everyone. If you are going with your family, you might want to camp at the Rock Crossing Campground. Although it costs $8 per night, this campground has several amenities that may be desired when traveling with family. These include picnic spots, vault toilets, fire rings, cooking grills, and running water. Nearby, you’ll also find the Moqui Group Campground that can accommodate up to 50 people per site/pod at a cost of $85.  There are three such group sites so you can gather LOTS of friends and host up to 150 people.  So, in a way, it is the best of both worlds. You get to enjoy the outdoors but you are not burdened by the hardships of nature.

These are the only “proper” campgrounds in this area, but if you are bold enough, you can camp in many of the dispersed campsites and “rough-it”. At most, you will get a stone campfire ring or maybe not even that. You will be on your own and generally won’t find a fellow camper anywhere close but the great news is that you’ll experience privacy and solitude that many campers desire.

Another minimalistic and really fun option is to pack your gear on your kayak or boat and camp near the lake after 1.5 hours to 2 hours of paddling. (One of our editors has done this for eight years in a row and absolutely loves it!) As another option, you might park your car and then hike for close to two miles before you reach one of the sites near the lake.  At any of about 8 campsites on the Southern (left arm of the resoivoir), camping is in its most primitive stage. You’ll find great spots to pitch the tent with awe inspiring views of the water.  

No reservation or booking is required for camping anywhere, but it is on a first-come-first-served basis. So, be an early bird and reach your destination as soon as possible. As part of camping, you may even go hiking or biking on the 2-mile long Arizona Trail.

About ten miles away are located two more campgrounds, The Blue Ridge Campground and the Clints Well Campground, however, camping there would require you to take your vehicle to the lake. So it is not a great option for those who are short on time. If you are planning just one-day visit, then you should attempt to camp closer, however, if you have time, you may consider camping in these farther campgrounds.

Things you need to plan…

Before heading out, check the US Forest Service to find out about the water level and whether or not there are any fire restrictions. The lake is known for flat water paddling so the level should be high enough. When rains are not sufficient, the water level lowers drastically and the rocky surface comes to the fore. This is clearly not the time to go Kayaking. So if you don’t want to be disappointed, just make the call before you head out. 

Another word of caution is to check the weather forecast for the upcoming few days. Make sure a thunderstorm or lightning is not predicted. The forest can catch wildfires in such inclement weather conditions, which makes camping and kayaking both very risky.

Free vehicle parking is available within 100 yards from the lake entry point. This is one of the safest parking spots but it is quite small, so going in early is always better. You may park at the loading area of the lake before you head out for kayaking, but this space is also very limited and only for those displaying a Disability Placard or License Plate. 

As we have mentioned, the resoivoir is very secluded particularly the further you paddle, so please ensure you are aware of what you are doing. Don’t go solo if you are not confident or really prepared.

Blue Ridge Reservoir is known for its scenic beauty and calmness in the wilderness. You experience serene settings as you discover the outdoors and the magic of this natural beauty. We hope you now see and don’t believe that the Southwest United States, especially Arizona is only dry and sandy! Enjoy the forest and the cool breeze. Hit the trails, go hiking, biking, camping, or kayaking. Have an adventure of your own and relax under the starry sky. Take your family out or go on a spring break with your buddies. You will have a unique experience that can only be found at the C.C. Cragin (Blue Ridge) Reservoir, in the beautiful and diverse state of Arizona.

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