Stoneman Lake, Arizona
Spring-Fed Mountain Lake on the Mogollon Plateau
Text and photos by Howard Sheldon
Check before you go - There is seldom any water in Stoneman Lake.
Rolling down Arizona's Interstate Highway 17, my son Wesley and I reminisced about the last time we visited Stoneman Lake. We remembered the successful day of fishing and our subsequent misadventure. What should have been "just another day on the lake" turned into an incident that brought belly-laughs to family and friends. That day our electric motor seemed under-powered. I had charged the deep-cycle battery the night before, so what could the problem be this time? The difficulty we had was with a little extra ballast under the boat.
There were three of us in the small aluminum boat taking turns rowing back to the boat launch against a stubborn wind. What deepened our frustration was that the closer we came to shore the more our pace seemed to slow. Finally, as we neared the launch, the motor was so sluggish that the boat came to a standstill. Tromping through knee-deep, murky water, we lugged the boat the last 100 feet to shore. The rude awakening came when we discovered that we had massaged the entire length of the lake bottom with our anchor.
Stoneman Lake is one of several spring-fed mountain lakes on the Mogollon Plateau. It is situated in Coconino County, known as "Plateau Country." Mogollon Plateau country lakes offer hiking, fishing, boating, picnicking and the viewing of a wide variety of wildlife. The surroundings provide unlimited opportunities for photography.
Stoneman Lake is a veritable window to Arizona's native past. Its craggy basaltic slopes, covered with ponderosa pine, Arizona white oak, Gambel oak, Utah and alligator juniper are a sight to behold. With the exception of a few cabins dotting the east shoreline, the view has changed little since the Hopi Indians led Spanish explorer Antonio de Espejo to the lake in 1583.
This body of water is one of Arizona's few permanent lakes not created by man. The lake's water supply is provided by five natural springs, derived from rain and snowmelt from surrounding watershed drainage.
Why would you visit Stoneman Lake? Its assets include abundant solitude, spring and fall waterfowl migrations, summer songbirds, an assortment of spring wildflowers and a wilderness area not yet exploited by commercialism. Stoneman Lake is well worth the trip for a day of recreation. At an elevation of 6,900 feet you can expect a comfortable summer's outing away from the maddening crowds.
Stoneman Lake occupies a small, 80-acre basin with an average depth of 8 to 10 feet. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for with its earthy, unspoiled beauty, crisp fresh air, and productive fishing.
It is a fishing hot spot for pugnacious northern pike, scrappy yellow perch and sunfish. Stoneman Lake holds Arizona's state record for yellow perch -- 1 pound 10 ounces, 13.5 inches by anglers Art Ellico of Kingman and Curt Bryant of Flagstaff -- twice established in March of 1984. Readily noticeable upon arrival are the sentinel-like cattail reeds that encircle the lake. These reeds create limited access for fishing from shore. Most anglers use canoes or small aluminum boats. The pike and yellow perch, who are year-round residents, thrive in the weedy bulrush and milfoil. These same conditions make swimming difficult. Take note: There are no full-service marinas or paved boat launches. There is only one shallow, gravel launch at the northwest end of the lake. Boats are restricted to one single electric motor. Canoes, cartoppers and inflatables work well on this body of water.
This lake is perfect for a young angler's first fishing experience. Anyone can catch a mess of yellow perch without a trunkload of expensive gear. According to Arizona Game and Fish Department, Stoneman Lake has the only successful stocking of yellow perch in Arizona. Mealworms and night crawlers are a favorite of yellow perch and usually cause a feeding frenzy. One restriction exists in Coconino County -- no live baitfish can be employed to lure any species of fish.
"Stoneman is an important habitat for the neotrops and a crucial stopover for species migrating farther north," says Northern Arizona Audubon Society (NAAS) member. In the past 15 years, 140 different species of birds have been recorded at Stoneman Lake, including an occasional migratory bald eagle, golden eagle and white-faced ibis. April and September are the two prime months for bird watching.
NAAS provided a list of recently sighted birds: western grebe, great blue heron, cinnamon teal, gadwall, redhead, ring-necked duck, bufflehead, ruddy duck, turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, American coot, common snipe, Anna's hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird, acorn woodpecker, northern flicker, black phoebe, Say's phoebe, violet-green swallow, barn swallow, Steller's jay, scrub jay, mountain chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, Bewick's wren, house wren, European starling, yellow-rumped warbler, Townsend's warbler, common yellowthroat, Wilson's warbler, rufous-sided towhee, dark-eyed junco, red-winged blackbird and the yellow-headed blackbird.
Stoneman Lake's wildflower display changes annually. Winter and summer precipitation controls the variety and quantity of flowers.
With the assistance of botanist Norman Herkenham of Sedona, we located Indian paintbrush, fleabane, penstemon, woodhouse phlox, bedstraw, yarrow, Himalaya blackberry, canyon grape, squaw currant, serviceberry, Goodding's willow, wild rose, and several non-native apple trees were found.
Several theories as to the formation of this small, circular body of water have been debated over the years. USGS Geologist James Dohm of the Flagstaff office conducted extensive field mapping and photo-geologic surveys of the area in 1995. His subsequent master's thesis furthers the understanding of an area that has been a mystery for eons. "The large circular depression that contains Stoneman Lake exists on a volcano alignment that was probably influenced by a northwest-trending fault of the Cataract Creek fault system," Dohm wrote.
Rejecting the possibility of either an explosion or meteor impact being responsible for the lake, Dohm concludes that the circular depression originated by collapse. "Because the relatively large Stoneman Lake depression is located on a principal fault, it is possible that ground water infiltration at a depth along the fault caused dissolution of the Redwall Limestone and other subsurface limestone units. An overall thickness of the subsurface limestone strata, which may include the Kaibab Formation, Redwall Limestone and Martin Formation would be sufficient to account for the collapse that resulted in the formation of the Stoneman Lake depression."
Stoneman Lake's Future
What the window to the future holds for the commercial and residential development of the area remains uncertain. One private landowner at Stoneman Lake has future plans for commercial development. This is sure to cause detrimental environmental impact on the native plants and animals that will have no voice in these affairs. Preserving primitive native habitats from the destructive processes of man known as "progress" is a commendable pursuit. Oftentimes we don't appreciate what we have until we've lost it or given it away. It's too late to undo the ravages of development after they're completed.
Spending a day here away from the city heat will refresh and rejuvenate the inner person. Above all, remember to pull up your anchor when moving to another spot on the lake.
Stoneman Lake shares ownership between private landowners and government stewardship. Respect landowners' privacy, and ask for permission to enter private property that is next to Stoneman Lake. Respect the laws and limits set by the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the National Forest Service. Recreational activities can be off-limits in the future if resources and natural balances are abused now.
How to Get There
Stoneman Lake is located 36 miles south of Flagstaff and 125 miles north of Phoenix. Take Interstate 17 to the Stoneman Lake Exit #306, and follow the clearly marked signs. After traveling approximately 8 miles on FR (Forest Road) 213, turn left (north) on FR 665, then right immediately on FR 213A. The lake becomes visible after about half a mile, and the road ends at the day-use area. There are no developed campgrounds, but there are picnic tables, restroom facilities and a gravel-shoreline boat launch at the northwest end of the lake. Arrive prepared -- remember, there are no stores, bait shops, ice machines or 110 volts to charge that battery for your electric trolling motor. Note: Camping is available to the north at Mormon Lake and to the south at Beaver Creek.
Tips for Travelers
Visit Stoneman Lake spring through fall for a pleasant day's jaunt. Coconino National Forest Service (CNFS) recommends not visiting during the winter months due to poor road conditions caused by bad weather. Fire danger can be extreme, and CNFS rangers have periodically closed Stoneman Lake because of the high probability for human-caused forest fires. For current information, contact: Coconino National Forest Service, Mormon Lake Ranger District at 4825 S. Lake Mary Road, Flagstaff, AZ 86001. Telephone: 520/774-1147. They will have current road conditions and camping information. For further information, contact Arizona Game and Fish Department, 3500 S. Lake Mary Road, Flagstaff, AZ 86001. Telephone: 520/774-5045.
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