Officially the ninth largest national forest in the United States, Arizona’s Tonto National Forest should be on your must-see list! Whether staying for a week or just a couple of days, there are plenty of activities guaranteed to make a camping experience fun for the whole family.
Keep reading for all you need to know about Tonto National Forest camping trips, including things to do, where to stay, what to expect, and more!
About Tonto National Forest
Long before Tonto National Forest was federally recognized and protected, many prehistoric Native American tribes roamed the land. Throughout the years, the land became a popular place to settle and many new cultures were introduced to the region.
In the mid to late 1800s, the US Army relocated the remaining tribes to the San Carlos and Fort Apache Indian Reservations, which today form the eastern border of Tonto National Forest. Phoenix is at the forest’s southernmost border, and the Mogollon Rim sits at the northernmost border.
In 1905, Tonto National Forest was officially established to protect the watersheds around the Salt and Verde Rivers. The forest is home to over 400 species of vertebrates, 21 of which are endangered!
What to Expect On a Tonto National Forest Camping Trip
Tonto National Forest is one of the most visited urban forests in the United States. The forest’s 2.87 million acres are quite diverse, ranging from an elevation of 1,300 feet in the Sonoran Desert to 7,900 feet at the Mogollon Rim.
The weather while camping in Tonto National Forest can change in just a few hours, and it’s important to be prepared for the unexpected. Wildfires are the most common threat while camping, but taking precautions can make them easily preventable. May to mid-July is considered critical fire season, but caution should be taken year-round.
When planning what to do during your Tonto National Forest camping trip, it’s important to note that some activities require a recreational pass. Various picnic sites, boat launches, and shorelines require a pre-purchased pass. Recreational passes can be bought at Tonto National Forest offices and retail vendors.
Cell phone service in the forest is spotty – it’s best to come prepared with any maps and information you’ll need before entering the park!
Where to Stay in Tonto National Forest
There are plenty of options for camping in Tonto National Forest. Whether you’re traveling with a large group or seeking a remote dispersed camping trip, here are a few places we recommend!
- Windy Hill Campground – This year-round campground boasts a whopping 347 accessible sites that come with a grill, fire pit, and picnic table. The campground is very close to the lake, which makes it a popular campground for fishermen and boaters – yes, motorboats are allowed! There’s even a playground for kids. Even-numbered sites are first come, first served, and odd-numbered sites are reservation only.
- Cholla Campground – Open year-round, Cholla is one of the largest solar-powered campgrounds in the US. Located right on Theodore Roosevelt Lake, Cholla’s 206 campsites range from tent-only to RV-friendly. Picnic tables, a playground, and paved boat launches are all available to campers. Even-numbered sites are first come, first served, and odd-numbered sites are reservation only.
- Ponderosa Campground – Available April 1st through November 2nd, this campground is nestled amongst the towering ponderosa pines and is close to hiking and multiple lakes. 47 single campsites provide campers with a relaxing experience sure to leave you feeling rejuvenated. The campground also has two group sites that can hold up to 25 people, perfect for large gatherings amongst friends or families! Every campsite must be reserved in advance.
For even more places to stay, check out this full list of campground camping in Tonto National Forest.
If complete privacy is more your style, don’t worry! There are plenty of places for you to stay during your Tonto National Forest camping trip.
- Catfish Point Dispersed Camping Area – This area is located on Horseshoe Reservoir and is a perfect camping spot for fishermen and those looking to spend some time by the water. Small, non-motorboats only are permitted at the boat ramp. If you’re looking for a tranquil stay, this is definitely the place for you!
- Valentine Ridge Dispersed Camping Area – Located near Canyon Creek, this camping area is another great option for anglers, especially those on the hunt for trout. A 9-mile bike trail surrounds the campground, perfect for bikers seeking easy and peaceful access. Wildlife frequently roams this area – a great opportunity to see some exciting guests!
For even more secluded Tonto National Forest camping options, check out their page on dispersed camping for a full list.
Things to Do
Hiking and Mountain Biking
Tonto National Forest is home to hundreds of miles of beautiful hiking and biking trails. Whether you’re looking for a place to take a casual stroll or prefer to spend hours traversing tricky terrain with stunning views, the forest’s 234 trail options have got you covered.
Here are some noteworthy paths you won’t want to miss during your Tonto National Forest camping trip.
- Massacre Falls Trail – This trail is 5.4 miles out and back and is a popular moderate hiking option. The trail winds through beautiful desert views that end at a waterfall, which only shines after heavy rain or snowfall. Although a great hike on any given day, planning to walk this path when the waterfall roars will really elevate your experience!
- Horton Creek Trail – For thrill-seekers, this 8.6 mile out and back trail is quite the challenging path, yet well worth the effort. Throughout the journey, hikers are rewarded with stunning river and waterfall views amid towering trees – many of which are great for hammocking! For hikers looking to shorten (or extend!) their hike, this path connects to many other trails.
- Hawes Ridge Loop – This 2.7-mile loop trail is a great option for hikers looking for an easy trail that can be done in about an hour. The path is home to many cacti and is extra beautiful in the spring once the wildflowers start to bloom! This trail is one of the best options for families as well as bikers looking for a casual ride.
All of these trails are dog friendly, as long as they are kept on a leash!
No Tonto National Forest camping trip is complete without a dip in the water. With six major water reservoirs, there are plenty of places for friends and families to get together and cool off in the Arizona heat!
Kayaking, canoeing, sailing, and motorboating are all common watersports at Tonto National Forest. Motorboating has a smaller list of designated areas, so it’s important to ensure you’re boating in the proper area when planning your trip. Motorboats often share the water with other, smaller boats – when on the water, always keep an eye out for fellow boaters!
Swimming, fishing, and waterskiing are other water activities to enjoy while camping at Tonto National Forest. For a relaxed day at the water, the park has quite a few picturesque day beaches with picnic tables and grills. Adventurous campers can rent tubes at Saguaro Lake Ranch or go parasailing at Roosevelt Lake.
Tonto National Forest camping trips are a birdwatcher’s dream. With over 160 species of birds roaming the forest, you’ll be amazed at what you can find in these woods. From the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher to the beautiful indigo bunting, each hiking trail offers a unique viewing experience – just don’t forget to pack your birdwatching checklist!
Rock climbing, horseback riding, and going for a scenic drive are other popular and rewarding ways to make the most of your Tonto National Forest camping trip. You can’t go wrong!
Wildlife and Plants
While exploring Tonto National Forest, there are many wonderful plants and animals to admire. Elk, bald eagles, the desert spiny lizard, and much more can all be found within the area. There are also wild horses living inside the forest and the Salt River is a popular spot for seeing them.
However, coyotes and black bears also reside in this forest. Although sightings aren’t common, if you happen to see one – don’t panic! Keep your distance and remain calm. While camping in Tonto National Forest, always secure food, scented items, and trash in animal-proof containers. Skunks and raccoons tend to snoop around areas with exposed trash.
Four venomous snake species also live inside the forest – these reptiles are rarely seen, but it’s always important to always keep an eye out while walking. At night, spiders and scorpions tend to roam around. Always use a flashlight while walking in the dark, and make sure to check the inside of your shoes for unwanted guests before slipping them back on in the morning!
Wildflowers, trees, and an array of spectacular cacti decorate Tonto National Forest. If you happen to get pricked by one of these plants, simply remove the thorn, wash the area, and apply a bandage!
Time For a Tonto National Forest Camping Trip
Spanning over 2.8 million acres of land, you’re sure to find something fun to do during your Tonto National Forest camping trip – it’s time to get excited!
Want to learn more about camping in other parts of the United States? Check out our other Campground Guides for all you need to know!