San Carlos Lake, Arizona, USA

Welcome to the ultimate guide for history, statistics, local fun facts and the best things to do at San Carlos Lake.

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San Carlos Lake visitor and community guide

Lake Locations: USA - Southwest - Arizona - North Central -

San Carlos Lake is on the San Carlos Apache Native American Reservation in north-central Arizona. With 19,500 surface acres of water when full, San Carlos Lake is one of the largest lakes that lies entirely in the borders of Arizona. The crystal blue waters offer a refreshing contrast to the Sonoran Desert that surrounds the lake. Although San Carlos Lake is located on a Native American Reservation, the lake is open to the general public upon the purchase of a permit. Recreational activities are abundant and include hunting, fishing, and camping.

The desert setting of San Carlos Lake creates a challenge of keeping water levels regulated. In fact, after Coolidge Dam was built in 1930, creating San Carlos Lake, President Calvin Coolidge and comedian Will Rogers gazed at a dry lake during its dedication. Will Rogers stated, “If this was my lake, I’d mow it.” Coolidge Dam was constructed on the Gila River to provide irrigation to the neighboring farm lands. Due to its desert surroundings and purpose as a water source for irrigation, San Carlos Lake is not always at full capacity. When the heat of summer is intense and there is little or no rain, the lake is draw down to irrigate nearby farms. When this happens San Carlos lake looks more like a pond than a lake; however, new salt cedar bushes grow where the water has evaporated. When the lake fills again with water, re-stocking of fish takes place and the new growth of plants makes a healthy environment where the fish can thrive.

Anglers benefit from re-stocking of San Carlos Lake and find it is an excellent place to fish. Warm water and cold water fishing are both allowed with a permit. Game fish species include trout, bass, channel catfish, flathead catfish, carp, bullhead, black crappie, and bluegill. Fish enthusiasts are not the only ones who delight in visiting San Carlos Lake; nature lovers and hunters know that wildlife is plentiful along the 158 miles of shoreline and throughout San Carlos Native American Reservation. Hunting for big and small game is popular, with elk, antelope, black bear, migratory birds and bighorn sheep roaming the desert landscape.

The location of San Carlos Lake is ideal for vacation travelers who want some diversity in their scenery. Lake visitors can enjoy the Sonoran Desert atmosphere around San Carlos Lake, then cool off in one of three national forests located close by. To the south of San Carlos Lake, travelers will find Coronado National Forest that covers 1,780,000 acres in both Arizona and New Mexico. This national forest is made up of 12 widely scattered mountain ranges, also known as sky islands. These mountain ranges tower over the desert providing vastly different environments that many visitors will find refreshing. The other two national forests are Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest located to the northeast, and Tonto National Forest located to the northwest. Tonto National Forest covers almost three million acres of land and is the fifth largest forest in the United States, while Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest covers two million acres. All three national forest are recreational wonderlands and provide outdoor activities such as camping, fishing, hiking, and nature observation.

Shopping, fine dining, vacation rentals, and bed and breakfast accommodations can also be found near San Carlos Lake. Both Phoenix and Tucson are easy day trips from the lake. For those who fall in love with the climate and people may want to make this area of Arizona their home. Real estate in the Phoenix and Tucson areas is abundant, with home owners having the benefit of city life with the retreat of peaceful San Carlos lake close by. Sightseers who prefer small towns to big cities may want to visit the nearby town of San Carlos, which is known to have the world’s largest deposit of Peridot. This August birthstone is crafted into jewelry by local artisans and jewelers and can be found in many stores in San Carlos. Buying hand-crafted Peridot jewelry is a great way to take a bit of Arizona home with you.

The San Carlos Lake area is an excellent vacation getaway, whether it is for a week or one day away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The serene desert setting with the refreshing blue waters will offer tranquility to all who visit.

Custom San Carlos Lake house decor

Read our full review of these personalized lake house signs.

Things to do at San Carlos Lake

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Camping
  • Hiking
  • Hunting
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • National Forest
  • Shopping

Fish species found at San Carlos Lake

  • Bass
  • Black Crappie
  • Bluegill
  • Carp
  • Catfish
  • Channel Catfish
  • Crappie
  • Flathead Catfish
  • Sunfish
  • Trout

Best hotels and vacation rentals at San Carlos Lake

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San Carlos Lake photo gallery

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San Carlos Lake statistics & helpful links


Lake Type: Artificial Reservoir, Dammed

Surface Area: 19,500 acres

Shoreline Length: 158 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 2,425 feet

Maximum Depth: 75 feet

Water Volume: 900,000 acre-feet

Completion Year: 1930

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