The Black Sand Beaches of Arizona's Upper Lake Mary
The Black Sand Beaches of Arizona's Upper Lake Mary
"Yes, they just built a beach down there - its Arizona black sand but it's a beach!" said the Forest Ranger as we entered Upper Lake Mary's Picnic Area. "Arizona has a beach?!" I thought. "A beach! An hour from my house?!"
We pulled into the parking lot and spilled out the car like water bursting out of a fire hydrant and descended - our two cars, eight kids, four adults and one dog - onto the beach like we were seeing the ocean for the first time. Brave souls we are, we had set out on this venture completely outnumbered in our ratio of adults to small children. The oldest of our kids was ten, then there were seven under the age of five including the youngest, my son, who is only sixteen months!
We played for hours digging miniature sand castles and water tunnels in the shallow waters along the shore. The kids jumped in and swam, or walked out ten, even fifteen feet where the water never dipped deeper then a few feet. We spread our Mexican blankets out on the granular grains of course, black sand and stretched our eyes out to the horizon in each direction, sunbathing in the eighty-five degree "cool" afternoon (drive an hour South and 95 degrees is "cool!").
Upper Lake Mary is probably the most easily accessible Northern Arizona lake, located just twelve miles southeast of Flagstaff down a stretch of highway bursting with wildlife. At an elevation of about 7,000 feet, it's surrounded by cool Ponderosa Pine forests. It sits up above its twin sister lake, Lower Lake Mary, which may or may not have water in it depending on the time of year. Upper Mary has water year round, though, providing drinking water to the city of Flagstaff. It is long and narrow but spans about 450 acres when it's full, at a maximum depth of 38 feet.
From April to October, power boaters, water skiers, even sailboats can be seen across the water's surface. This lake is also a fisherman's haven! At the Lake Mary Country Store five miles down the road, dozens of photos line the walls, picturing anglers of every age and size showing off record five-to fifteen-pound Northern Pike, Channel Catfish, Crappie, Yellow Bass, and Trout.
Most of Lake Mary's shoreline is peppered with large boulders that make perfect perching posts for father-son duos casting out a line. But beaches of boulders are not ideal for a bunch of wobbly toddlers who just want to play in the mud, so this new black sand beach is a happy accident to discover. It could satisfy any nature-lover or water-lover's appetite with bird watching, wildlife spotting, swimmin' or just plain mud pie-makin'!
We spent most of the day there picnicking, starting up bucket-splashing water fights, dunking our heads, and watching pools of young boys swim out to the buoys and back. At least twenty-nine times as we played, I laughed out loud, "This is so much fun! We have to come back here again! I can't believe we have a beach an hour from our house!"
We were camping for two nights at nearby Lakeview Campground, described as a "tent lovers paradise." It sits in a stand of peaking pines that gently shade the sun and block the afternoon monsoon rains. This campground proved to be ideal for our kidlet clan. We brandished stick swords to fight off giant enemy trees in a game of war then hiked into the surrounding woods to gather firewood for dinner. After a dinner of barbequed chicken (extra crispy fire-ring flavor!), we roasted marshmallows and licked our fingers sticky with 'Smores.
The next morning, we walked a short half mile down to the lake to pick wildflower bouquets that would've suited Princess Katherine herself. Our monsoon rainstorm season just began a few weeks ago, so the wildflowers have spread like ashes from a fire--streams of bright orange daisy-types and dazzling yellow sunflowers surging down the shores with bits of Indian Paintbrush, tiny Bluets, pink Evening Primrose and Arizona Thistle tucked within.
In the woods around us, at dusk or dawn, you could spot a herd of mule deer or elk coming out for a drink of water, and throughout the day you might spy a rare bald eagle (the Forest Service reports a new "couple" has been spotted nearby mating), osprey, red-tailed hawk or great blue heron.
This entire area is considered a Wildlife Viewing Area by the Coconino National Forest. In fact, it is part of a statewide Wildlife Conservation Project working to keep several species from becoming endangered. Some of the less popular visitors you might happen upon in this area include small reptiles or amphibians, such as Arizona Treefrog or toads, tiger salamander, many-lined skink and a few well known Arizona lizards and snakes. But don't let those pesky little guys deter you!
Upper Lake Mary is a welcome respite from the Arizona heat whether you're a fisher, boater, water skier, wildlife lover, or family of four or twenty! With a number of nearby lakes, hikes and campgrounds, nature enthusiasts of every sort can enjoy time here.
I returned from our short weekend in the woods of Northern Arizona renewed and refreshed and took a piece of Upper Mary's peace home with me, smiling all the way home to Sedona. It may not be the white sand beaches of Bali or the California coastline or the summertime shores of Lake Michigan - yes, it is an "Arizona black sand beach" - but it is a beach and it is mine, and I will be back again to visit it soon!
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Megan Aronson is the Tourism, Travel and Toddlers Editor for Sedona, Arizona; Breckenridge, Colorado and beyond. She lives in the Red Rock Country of Sedona, Arizona with her husband and two children.