The 2.9 million-acre Tonto National Forest is one of the most-visited forests in the United States with about six million visitors every year. The elevations range from 1,300 to 7,900 feet, so this is a very diverse ecosystem where you can see desert, chaparral, grasslands, and mixed-conifer forests in one visit. There are four large lakes, the Saguaro, Canyon, Apache, and Roosevelt, as well as two reservoirs, Horseshoe and Bartlett. You can also find the Verde and Salt Rivers and many different streams and brooks meandering through the forest.
Tonto National Forest was established in 1905 to protect the Verde and Salt Rivers and was named after the Tonto Basin, which is part of the Mogollon Rim. If you like hiking, biking, and horseback riding, you can explore over 900 miles of trails throughout the area. There are also several hundred miles of OHV trails to enjoy.
Many people come to the Tonto National Forest during the winter months to get away from the cold and enjoy Arizona’s warm climate. The forest is home to more than 400 wild critters including 21 threatened and endangered species. If you want to stay for a couple of days or a couple of weeks, there are 13 RV campgrounds here to choose from. We have highlighted our top three favorites below.
The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest borders Tonto National Forest to the east, Coconino National Forest to the north, Prescott National Forest to the west, and Phoenix to the south. The Apache Trail Scenic Byway was officially named in 1998 and has 39 miles of winding road that take you in and around some of the most fantastic scenery in Arizona. From both the Apache and Canyon lakes to the north and the Superstition Mountains to the south, this drive is an excellent way to enjoy the path that was originally carved out by the Apache Indians. Along your route, you will pass the Goldfield Ghost Town, Superstition Mountain Museum, and Lost Dutchman State Park as well as many other points of interest.
The Desert to Tall Pines Scenic Byway is 64 miles of beauty and diverse landscape, starting at Highway 188 in the small city of Young. Along the Salt River and past the Mogollon Rim, into the flora and fauna of the Sonoran desert scrub and Rocky Mountain conifer forest, you will enjoy every minute of the drive no matter where you are coming from and to wherever you are headed.
And although the roads are curvy and mountainous, they are well-groomed and cared for, but you should take it easy if you are driving a large rig. Once you get to the campground, park the RV and walk or ride your bike wherever you want to go, so you do not have to worry about maneuvering on the narrow roads.
Near Payson, the Houston Mesa Campground has 105 campsites, half of which are equestrian campsites. All of the sites are ADA accessible, and each has a picnic table, fire pit with a grill, and a large cleared area. The equestrian campsites also have corrals and horse troughs for the horses. Parking pads range from 30 to 99 feet long. In addition, the campground provides coin-operated showers, flush toilets, and you can get potable water at one of the 15 water spigots located around the park.
Houston Mesa is popular with hikers and equestrians for the Houston Mesa Horse Camp Trail, which is a network of trails that total up to nine miles. There is also a half-mile interpretive trail for hikers only where you can learn some fascinating history about the area. Pets are welcome, but you have to keep them restrained and supervised at all times during your visit. Be sure to reserve a spot at least six months in advance to get one that is big enough for your purposes since the sizes vary so much.
Just outside of the town of Carefree, the Riverside Campground has 12 spacious and shaded campsites known for its family-floatable river, the Lower Verde. Each of the campsites comes with its own large picnic table and a campfire pit with a grill for cooking. The parking pads are approximately 31 feet long, so your RV should fit, but since there are no reservations allowed and such a limited number of sites, you need to get here early to get a spot.
The park provides vault toilets, but there is no potable water source, so bring your water. If you want to float, bring a canoe, kayaks, or some inner tubes, and you can go for a float trip down the river or check out the 2,815-acre Bartlett Lake just a short drive away. Fishing is fun here too with carp, crappie, bluegill, bass, and catfish. Pets are welcome as long as you keep them restrained and supervised during your visit.
On Roosevelt Lake, which is Arizona’s largest lake, Windy Hill Campground near Globe has 347 campsites, each with its own picnic table, campfire ring with a grill, and a shade ramada to keep you cool. The parking pads range from 25 to 50 feet, but 147 of them are pull-throughs with enough room for any rig. With four shower houses and over a dozen restrooms, you should have no trouble finding one near your site. There are also several boat ramps and three playgrounds for the kids.
Fishing and boating here are popular with a 19,200-acre lake full of catfish, sunfish, crappie, largemouth and smallmouth bass. The amphitheater holds programs for kids as well as adults, and you can picnic at the Blevins Picnic Site, which is in the middle of the campground. Pets are welcome to stay, but you must keep them restrained and supervised during your visit. These are first-come, first-served, but with almost 350 sites, you should be able to find a spot any time of the year.
If you are into waterskiing, go ahead and toss the skis in the RV before heading to the forest because there are quite a few great lakes to ski on here. Canyon Lake is 950 acres with 28 miles of red-rock shorelines. While skiing, you may even get to see some bighorn sheep that live nearby. Bartlett Reservoir is 2,830 acres and is known for its desert mountains and Sonoran plant life. The 33 miles of shoreline is typically filled with anglers searching for the big lunkers that are known to lurk in the deep waters. During the hot summers, there isn't a more fun way to cool down than by letting the wind whip past you while waterskiing.
Gather your family and friends into the campervan and head to the forest for a picnic or BBQ. The Kellner Group Picnic Site is just south of Globe in the shade of the Pinal Mountains in Kellner Canyon. The picnic area is built into the rock walls of the mountain, and there are tables and grills with a vault toilet and enough room for five vehicles to park. The Apache Trail and Roosevelt Lake are nearby, and you can find several smaller trails around as well.
From Roosevelt Lake to Saguaro Lake, the 39.3-mile Apache Trail meanders along Apache Lake and Canyon Lake between the Superstition and Four Peaks Wilderness Areas. It joins the Tonto National Monument, Goldfield Mine, and Lost Dutchman State Park, which are awesome places to visit. Bulldog Canyon has five designated routes that pass through or next to the Salt River Indian Reservation, Tuber’s Landing, Pebble Beach, and Saguaro Lake. Four Peaks to Roosevelt Lake near Mesa is another fantastic OHV riding trail from Four Peaks Road to Brushy Basin.
In the Sonoran Desert section of the Tonto National Forest, you will find some of the most scenic areas to climb. Oak Flat is a unique section that was formed by ancient lava formations that shaped and twisted the rocks giving you plenty of hand and footholds for you to use. With bushy mesquite and creek beds surrounding you, the winter days can be fun on the side of a crag in the Tonto National Forest. There are also hundreds of large boulders to do some bouldering for those who do not like to do the big climbs.
There are 166 named hiking trails in the Tonto National Forest, so you have no excuse to sit in the RV the whole time you are here. Get on those hiking boots and explore the diverse terrain. For an easy but lengthy walk, try the Lost Goldmine Trail off East Peralta Road. This 10.8-mile trek meanders near the Gold Canyon, where you can see some vibrantly colored wildflowers and cacti. It is good for all skill levels but be ready for a long walk. For a shorter trip, the Jojoba Trail at Bartlett Lake is a fantastic and easy 2.7-mile hike that travels along the shoreline of the lake and through several outcrops and ridges.
Are you thinking about hunting? The Tonto National Forest has tons of deer, mountain lions, turkeys, javelinas, elk, sheep, bison, bear, and pronghorn antelope. If you would rather hunt the smaller game, there are also plenty of squirrels, quail, pheasant, dove, rabbits, and grouse. For waterfowl hunters, there are 15 types of waterfowl, such as canvasback, Canada geese, bufflehead, teal, and mergansers. No matter what you are hunting, make sure you wear your hunter orange vest or hat and keep your license and tags on you at all times.