Bartlett is a small lake in the mountains northeast of Phoenix, surrounded by particularly fine Sonoran desert scenery, and being quite far from the city it does not receive as many visitors and so has less litter than other lakes with easier access. The only approach by road is from the west, starting from the dispersed communities of Cave Creek and Carefree, which seem to be nice places to live - they have many adobe houses blending in with an interesting landscape of large granite boulders and desert plants, especially the ever-present saguaro. More expensive homes are built higher up the hilly ground to the north, and these have great views over the desert towards Phoenix.
The scenery is similar around the 23 mile road to the lake except there are no houses once past the Tonto National Forest boundary, just countless more cacti, bushes and boulders. These gradually give way to grassy plains as the road climbs to a plateau at 3,300 feet, where a side road forks off north, leading to the more remote Horseshoe Lake. From the junction it is 9 more miles downhill to Bartlett Reservoir, where the grasslands are replaced once more by cacti as the road descends.
After a new self-pay fee station the road forks, and the two branches follow the shoreline north and south, passing various sites for picnics, boat launching and camping. For day use, the best area is Rattlesnake Cove - this has shaded tables, fire rings and showers above a wide, clean, sandy beach. A short walk in either direction along the waters edge leads to quiet, private coves with nice rock formations including many dykes (vertical igneous intrusions cutting through overlying strata) and saguaro right next to the water. Further north is the main camping area of Bartlett Flats - here the road splits into a number of sandy tracks that end at sites on beaches close to the water. Generally, access to other parts of the lakeshore is limited; other rougher tracks continue into the mountains but the south part and all of the eastern shore is mostly inaccessible. A good location for free camping is along a side track on the approach road - a narrow, sandy route used by 4WD jeep tours, it does have several nice sites, set amid sandy ground, though quite densely covered by several types of thorny bushes. There are also many cacti including scattered saguaro and clumps of the same monzonite boulders as are found in Joshua Tree National Park
, plus views of far away hills all around with the lake visible in the distance.
Of all the popular desert sites in Arizona, the ground around Bartlett Reservoir seems to have the most abundant wildlife. Walking around the lake, almost every step disturbs one or more lizards of various species, including one of the large, secretive chuckwalla. Snakes too appeared plentiful on this occasion; three rattlesnakes, a large specimen sunning itself in the center of the main road that did not appreciate being pushed to safety, another crawling amongst tents at the Bartlett Flats and, appropriately enough, one near Rattlesnake Cove.