At some point a few years ago, Paul and I became aware of the Prescott Circle Trail, a 56-mile hiking loop that circles the city of Prescott in Northern Arizona. Not having done a lot of hiking around Prescott, it seemed like a fun and quick little trail to bag. We hiked the trail over 3 days in 2021.
Pros of this trail
The Prescott Circle Trail is very well taken care of. The tread is wide and the route is easy to follow. On the west side of town, the terrain is more forested in Ponderosa pine. On the east side, the vegetation is more scrub so the trail is more exposed, but the Granite Dells at Watson Lake are the highlight of the trip. The birding on the north side of Willow Lake is fantastic. Overall, the trail is hilly, but no climbs are particularly long or difficult.
Cons of this Trail
Unfortunately, dispersed camping is not allowed along most of this trail, and in the few areas it is allowed, there really is not ideal camping. There are 3 established campgrounds along the trail, but they are all road-accessible, meaning RVs, lots of people, and paying for camping. Overnight parking is not permitted at many of the trailheads. None of this is ideal for a backpacking trip.
We decided to take this trip in June. It’s a little on the warm side, but certainly better than anything in the low desert. We traveled in a counter-clockwise direction, starting and ending at the Yavapai campground. The first day was really nice, as we were on the eastern, forested side of the trail, and therefore mostly in the shade. Additionally, we were at the highest elevations along the trail. Of course it was lovely, and we saw a handful of hikers out on the trails.
Our second day, we left behind the tall trees and high elevations, but we still had plenty of hills to climb in the sun. We stopped for a long break in the shade of a juniper tree, until we felt guilty and started hiking again. Stepping back into the sun and onto the trail, we immediately regretted leaving the shade. We took another break at the next juniper tree we came to! Eventually we got back to it, and made our way down to Watson Lake and the Granite Dells. This area was really cool. We spent our time exploring in the rocks and along the lake shore. Just north of Watson Lake is Willow Lake, and the north side of Willow Lake is a wildlife sanctuary. There were tons of little trails all around. We saw a massive tree with at least 50 cormorants nests! Lots of folks out birding.
Our final day was nice, but also felt more urban than the prior two days. Leaving the crowded lakes, we walked past a university and then near a road for a long time. Gradually the trail climbed into the trees and away from town, and we returned to our car.
Would I do it again?
Sure, differently. I’d probably just stay overnight in Prescott and do the trail in 2 days, getting an Uber or a shuttle to and from the trailheads in the morning and evening. Then I’d avoid the lousy campgrounds and get to carry less. Alternatively, if I had to camp out, I’d make sure to make it at the Yavapai campground. It’s the most forested and backpacker-friendly of the three, but finding overnight parking on the opposite side of the trail is tricky, so this would still probably require getting a drop-off and pick-up from someone.
For all my gripes about the trail, those are from the perspective of a backpacker, and that’s just not who this trail was built for. It’s built to be an accessible way for the people of Prescott to get outside and get hiking. It creates a fun challenge for those who want to complete the entire trail in day-hiking segments. It’s a great length for an ultrarunner to do in a day. For what it was meant to be, this trail is great.
Check out some of our tried and tested gear from this hike-
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Poles: My Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z poles are super light, easy to stow, and pretty durable. I’ve replaced the tips one time so far to make them like new again.
Water Filter: The Sawyer Squeeze has inspired many variations, but the original is still the best. Coming in as a close runner-up is the Platypus QuickDraw Microfilter, which we didn’t use on this particular hike but have been using a lot lately.
Socks: Darn Tough Socks are super durable, and they’ll replace a pair if it gets a hole!