This easy lakeside walk erupts with sunflowers in late summer. Here’s where to see them

Arizona Republic (June 21, 2022) by Mare Czinar

At the tail end of the twin reservoirs of Upper and Lower Lake Mary, an airy draw closes in on the murky meanders of Walnut Creek.

Cutting through dry stubble and emergent grasses, the entrenched creek course snakes south through coniferous woodlands in Coconino National Forest.

Earthen dams on the creek contain the elongated lakes that are a major source of water for Flagstaff roughly 15 miles to the north.

While the lower lake is usually bone dry, Upper Lake Mary retains enough water for boating, water skiing and fishing. Nearby camping and access to the Arizona National Scenic Trail make the lakes a popular recreation destination.

Water levels vary depending on rain and snowmelt. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Upper Lake Mary is about 5.6 miles long with a surface area of 939 acres and a maximum depth of 39 feet when at full capacity. Prolonged drought has altered the lake’s size and character.

Deepest near the dam at its north end, Upper Lake Mary shallows out as it bends southward, gradually morphing into puddles, mucky swales and a dry draw where the ghost of the creek exists in deeply incised, twisted channels.

A short forest road on the east shore provides a close look at this transitional segment where the lake goes from pond to puddle to pasture in just under a mile. Forest Road 9485C serves as the trail for the 2-mile round-trip hike.

Wide, rocky and relatively flat, the dirt two-track sits just below Lake Mary Road. Over the first quarter mile, ponderosa pine trees stand over the last sizable reaches of lake water where great blue herons, waterfowl and — for early morning hikers — elk might be spotted browsing the weedy fringes.

The rounded peaks of Mormon Mountain stand out over an ever-fading spillway to the south. About where a rustic pole fence stands at what appears to be the former edge of the lake, water sightings are replaced by juniper-framed views of the creek meanders and glimpses of the San Francisco Peaks to the north.

While drought has altered the landscape, there’s still a thriving understory of blooming shrubs and wildflowers. Sunflowers put on an especially gorgeous show in late summer, blanketing the shores in acres of brilliant yellow.

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