Sonoran Desert National Monument
Guide

Introduction

The Sonoran Desert National Monument is a half-million acre BLM property to the south of Pheonix in Arizona. The monument is just part of the immense Sonoran Desert that stretches through the states of Arizona, California, and into Mexico. If you're looking for somewhere to go boondocking on BLM land in Arizona, you won't find a more remote spot than this. There are no developed campgrounds, primitive or otherwise, so all RV camping in the Sonoran Desert National Monument is dispersed and about as wild as it gets. There's a strong possibility that you won't see another human being during the entire time you're there, though you will see a cactus or two.
The Sonoran Desert National Monument is renowned for its biological diversity, and one of its outstanding characteristics is the towering saguaro cactus that can grow to staggering heights of thirty or forty feet. Camp in the Sonoran Desert National Monument, and you could well start to feel as if you're in a film set for a wild west movie. Apart from the Saguaro National Park, which is near Tucson, it's one of the best places to see the cactus in large quantities in Arizona.
The monument is a superb place for hiking and horseback riding on trails through terrains very different from the usual forest or lakeside trails. There are three wilderness areas inside the monument boundaries, which encompass three separate mountain ranges, the Sand Tank, the Maricopa, and the Table Top, and all have different landscapes to explore on foot or mounted. There are also just under five hundred miles of marked roadways outside of the wilderness areas for anyone wanting to ride through the desert on their mountain bike or ATV. Nighttime in the desert environment can be even more spectacular than it is during the heat of the day. The total lack of light pollution means you'll be able to see almost the entire universe, plus nocturnal wildlife like bats and owls flitting across the star-studded skies.

RV Rentals in Sonoran Desert National Monument

Transportation

Driving

Motoring through the Sonoran Desert National Monument is not as difficult as you might initially think. The I 8 interstate highway cuts right through the central section of the monument from east to west, or vice versa, so if you're planning on just taking a scenic drive through the area, it won't be too much of a problem. If hiking in the Maricopa Mountains is what you have in mind, head for the small town of Maricopa to the south of Phoenix and sixteen miles from there, you'll be in the right vicinity to put your plans in action.

If you're traveling down from either the Tonto National Forest or the Prescott National Forest looking for a change of scenery, once you're through Pheonix and leave the busy suburbs behind, it'll take you around an hour to reach the monument border. There are certain preparations you need to make before going into the desert as there are no services or facilities of any kind in the monument and it's very possible you won't have a cell phone signal.

If you're going dispersed camping away from the main highway, make sure you have your RV stocked with sufficient water and food for several days plus extra gasoline. If you're camping with your dog or taking your horse, don't forget they'll need plenty of water too. Carry an emergency first aid kit that's fully stocked and let at least one person know the general direction in which you're heading.

While all vehicles, including bicycles, need to stay on marked roadways, you'll find many are in remote areas and have practically no traffic so don't expect a passerby or a friendly ranger to come to your rescue if you get a flat or have engine problems.

Parking

Public Transportation

Campgrounds and parking in Sonoran Desert National Monument

Campsites in Sonoran Desert National Monument

Alternate camping

Gila Bend KOA Journey

Gila Bend KOA Journey is a KOA campground adjacent to the Sonoran Desert National Monument that will feel like a touch of luxury after you've been sightseeing in the desert all day. The campground is located on the Butterfield Trail near Gila Bend and is accessible via the I8.

The campground is open all year round for RVers and can cater for more than forty rigs up to eighty feet in length. Each campsite is fitted with a pedestal providing both thirty and fifty amp hook-ups. There is a laundry on the campground and a dog park too, but after you've been in the desert, the one thing you'll probably appreciate the most is the on-site swimming pool that's open twelve months of the year.

Picacho Peak State Park

The Picacho Peak State Park is a one hour drive from the Sonoran Desert National Monument. At the park, there is a campground with eighty-plus standard electric campsites suitable for RVs of any length. The semi-primitive site has a desert setting and there are no water or sewer hook-ups provided though there is drinking water and a dump station. The campground has two accessible toilets and shower blocks. The campground is open all year round and requires prior reservations.

Private Campgrounds

There are numerous private campgrounds along the I 8 between Arizola and Gila Bend as well as along the I 10 between Eloy and Sacaton.

Seasonal activities in Sonoran Desert National Monument

In-Season

Hiking

There are some great hikes throughout the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Head out on the Juan Bautista de Anza Historic Trail and you'll be treading paths that have remained unchanged since the Spanish settlers strode their way to Mexico almost two-hundred and fifty years ago.

Part of the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach Trail also runs through the monument. The old stagecoach route is a hike over flat terrain, though not easy, that runs from east to west the entire width of the BLM property.

For some stunning scenery try the Margie's Cove Trail. It's a seven-mile-long hike that starts near Buckeye and winds its way into the desert. There is a parking facility for day-use at the tent-only Margie's Cove West campground where you can leave your vehicle before setting out into the wilderness on foot.

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding through the Sonoran Desert National Monument is one equestrian experience all horse owners will love. There are no restrictions on where you can ride in the monument so that means all trails and roadways are suitable for you and your saddled-up steed. The only thing to be cautious of is the high temperatures in the summer months, though you can compensate for that by riding in the early morning or at dusk when it's cooler.

Wildlife Viewing

It's hard to imagine that the arid landscapes of the Sonoran Desert National Monument is home to many animals, but it is. If you're hiking or riding through the desert, you'll have a fair chance of spotting mule deer, javelina, bighorn sheep and maybe even a mountain lion on the hunt for its next meal.

Keep your eyes on the ground, and although they camouflage well with the terrain, you'll see Sonoran Desert Tortoise, rattlers, and several species of lizard. When you're sitting outside your rig of an evening, don't be surprised to hear the hoot of an owl or to see the speedy, but shadowy silhouettes of bats flying around.

Fishing

If you're feeling dry in the Sonoran Desert National Monument and are desperate to hear the trickle of running water or go fishing for your dinner, don't worry. The Gila River runs along both the western and northern borders of the BLM lands and is teeming with fish.

Head to the Estrella Mountain Regional Park and you'll soon find a prettily scenic spot on the river bank from where to cast your hook. Expect to catch any one of over thirty-six species though if you catch a Gila trout, do the right thing and put the endangered fish back in the river so it can breed some more.

Off–Roading

Apart from in the three designated wilderness areas within the Sonoran Desert National Monument, off-roading and backcountry driving are permitted everywhere. That gives all ORVers acres and acres of desert plus almost five-hundred miles of roadways, trails, and tracks to explore. Many of the best spots are in remote locations where there's no cell phone coverage so if possible, go out riding with a friend so you have a back-up if your vehicle breaks down or runs out of gas.

Stargazing

The night sky is an amazing sight often hidden by the light pollution and smog layers in the major cities. Look up at night when you're pitched at your dispersed campsite in the Sonoran Desert National Monument and you'll be awe-struck by just how many stars, nebulae, planets, and galaxies you can see.

If you don't know one from the other but would like to learn more you can attend informative stargazing lectures in many of the nearby regional day-use parks. The cost of the talks is included in the park entrance fees. If you'd like to attend one when you're visiting the Sonoran Desert National Monument, you'll find the program of events here.

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