When thinking of Phoenix, and Arizona in general, lakes and swimming holes don't immediately come to mind. However, there are several great swimming holes throughout the state, and two beautiful lakes just north of Phoenix: Bartlett Lake and Horseshoe Lake.
Bartlett Lake is nestled in a small valley in the northern part of the Tonto National Forest. Known as a fishing hotspot to locals, this lake also offers great swimming in the summer and camping in the fall and early winter. Bartlett Lake is long and narrow with sandy beaches on one side and towering saguaro cacti scattered among rolling hills and mountains on the other. It truly is an oasis in the desert of central Arizona.
The camping at Bartlett Lake is a must if the weather is right. The fall offers ideal conditions as the water level falls significantly, opening up dozens of additional campsites, most of which are relatively private because of the drop-off that is underwater during the summer. Arrive early for the best spot, set up a tent and fire just off the water, swim for a few hours, enjoy dinner over the fire, and then lay back and gaze at the hundreds of thousands of visible stars from the comfort of your tent.
One downside: The water can be very cold, even in the summer. That said, it is very refreshing once you adjust to the temperature, especially when the sun is beaming down. The sandy bottom has rocks here and there, and water shoes or water sandals are recommended. There are buoys that boats are not allowed to come past that provide ample room for swimmers.
This little oasis offers a little bit of everything, as there are even off-road trails along the water for the four-wheel drive junkies in your group. You will see a lot groups on fishing trips as well as plenty of RVs. There are some free spirits who enjoy the Lake au naturel, so be aware that you might encounter some nude sunbathers and swimmers. They keep to themselves.
Getting to Bartlett Lake can be difficult if you are unfamiliar with the area. There is only one way in and out through the small town of Carefree, Arizona, about 20 miles north of the Phoenix metro area. Once you find Bartlett Dam Road in Carefree it's a windy and bumpy 14 miles to the marina, where you can choose from several paths to different parts of the lake.
If you're looking for a great place to beat the heat or find a waterfront campsite near Phoenix, Bartlett Lake is a great choice. With the close proximity and variety of activities, you'd have a hard time finding a better swimming hole in central Arizona.