Look on most maps of the Mogollon Rim region of Arizona and you’ll have trouble finding a label for Blue Ridge Reservoir, one of the nicer lakes in Arizona to kayak. Instead, you’ll run across a far less glamorous name, the C.C. Cragin Reservoir. This gorgeous narrow lake is located about 25 miles north of Payson, but only came into being because of water needs 200 miles away.
The lake that copper built
In the early 1960s, Phelps Dodge was looking for water to service its huge mining operation in Morenci. The most obvious source was the nearby Black River, but its water rights were tied up by the Salt River Project, better known as SRP. Phelps Dodge and SRP found a solution in a water trade. SRP would allow Phelps Dodge to use water from the Black River if the mining company delivered the same amount of water from outside SRP’s existing service area. A site on the Mogollon Rim was selected to complete the deal.
By 1965, Phelps Dodge had constructed a dam on East Clear Creek an hour’s drive north of Payson. The resulting reservoir—originally named Blue Ridge—held only 15,000 acre feet of water, but was surprising reliable given its location atop the Mogollon Rim. The project included an 11-mile long pipeline to deliver the water down the rim to the East Verde River, which eventually flows into SRP’s reservoir system. It was an exchange that served both parties well for decades to come.
More than 40 years later, the Arizona Water Settlement Act of 2004 changed the name of the dam and reservoir to honor C. C. Cragin, a former SRP superintendent that helped greatly expand the system of dams along the Salt River east of metro Phoenix. The following year, Phelps Dodge handed over the reservoir to SRP, who now provides water to Payson and surrounding communities.
What’s it like to kayak here?
Blue Ridge Reservoir is definitely a favorite of many kayakers in the state. The narrow, intimate lake is flanked by relatively steep pine-covered slopes, so it feels more like you’re paddling a slow moving river than a broad lake. It’s easy to feel like you’re the only boat on the water here, as the lake curves around multiple bends just as a river does, obscuring other paddlers. With a treeline that comes right down to a 15 mile-long shoreline, the lake offers many opportunities to dock and enjoy a snack under the shade of the cool pines. Craggy rock outcroppings abound at the water’s edge, offering plenty of geologic eye-candy while you paddle past.
The lake is split between two arms. The western arm is much longer, while the southern arm includes the interesting curved dam that holds the water back. At an elevation of 6700 ft, the paddling season runs from May through October. While small motorized boats are allowed, this isn’t a place where paddlers will feel overwhelmed by motors.
How to get there
Blue Ridge Reservoir is located about 45 miles north of Payson, a roughly 2-hour drive from Phoenix. From Payson, continue north on Highway 87 for roughly 40 miles to FR751, near milepost 295. You’ll see a large US Forest Service sign pointing the way to Blue Ridge Reservoir (as with most paddlers, the CC Cragin name hasn’t quite taken hold). Turn east on FR751 and follow it about 4 miles to the boat ramp.
Parking at Blue Ridge Reservoir
One of the appealing qualities of kayaking on the Blue Ridge is the narrow, river-like canyon of the reservoir. Unfortunately, the same narrow width applies to the approach road, boat launch, and available parking area. You won’t find a large paved parking lot capable of storing dozens of trailers here. Indeed, there are only a handful of legal spots clinging the guardrail near the top of the boat ramp loading area, with a small parking lot up the hill for the remainder of the vehicles. Parking is currently prohibited anywhere else along the road. In short, expect an uphill walk after your paddle to retrieve your vehicle. I recommend either arriving early in the morning or late in the day to claim a parking spot.
Camping near Blue Ridge Reservoir
The Rock Crossing Campground is just two miles from the reservoir boat launch, so it’s well placed for a weekend of boating. It’s a popular place during the summer months and no reservations are accepted, so you’ll want to have a backup plan in case it’s full. Blue Ridge Campground and Clints Well Campground are the next nearest options, each a 10 minute drive away.
In addition, dispersed camping is available throughout the surrounding national forest, so you shouldn’t be without some sort of campsite to call home for the night. There are a handful of spots that work for shoreline camping from your kayak or canoe, if you’re feeling adventurous.