Getting out of busy, congested cities to soak in the natural beauty of our planet has long been my favorite thing to do and I wanted to see the natural side of Phoenix.
Phoenix often becomes overshadowed by Tucson or Sedona and it frequently is viewed by visitors as a refueling stop on a journey to the Grand Canyon or Joshua Tree. What many don’t realize is that there is much to see and do in and around Phoenix.
Downtown architecture displays a mix of silver skyscrapers, adobe missions, and vintage Spanish Colonial homes. Phoenix boasts numerous galleries and museums including the Heard Museum with its extraordinary collection of Southwest American Indian art. Another interesting place to visit is the famous Taliesin West home built by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in nearby Scottsdale.
I wondered what area campgrounds were like and soon headed out to explore. Starting at the small town of Apache Junction, I took the Apache Trail Scenic Drive (State Route 88) to Lost Dutchman State Park located 40 miles east of Phoenix.
In the 1870s, a Prussian immigrant named Jacob Waltz reportedly found gold in the Superstition Mountains. He kept the whereabouts of the mine secret, only revealing the location to his caregiver on his deathbed in 1891. She and countless others since have tried to find the Lost Dutchman Mine without success.
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The state park campground has 138 sites; 68 of them with 50/30/20-amp electric service and water and a paved road network to all sites. The campground has no RV size restrictions. Several hiking trails lead visitors from the park deep into the Superstition Mountains Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest. In March, a carpet of wildflowers takes over the park. Lost Dutchman is in the middle of an area with diverse wildlife habitat, so don’t be surprised to see a desert mule deer, a jackrabbit, a greater roadrunner, or a Gila monster stroll through your campsite.
An internet search for Tonto National Forest yields a five-star-rated description of the desert, mountains, rivers, and camping. What more could one ask for?
Leaving Lost Dutchman State Park on Apache Trail Scenic Drive, I headed north straight into Tonto National Forest. This is one of the most scenic drives in Arizona. However, a warning: Drivers encounter narrow shoulders and steep grades along parts of this route and some of it is unpaved. Large RVs are not recommended on certain sections of the 120-mile loop. And it’s advisable to check road conditions before heading out.
But, this scenic route is well worth the endeavor although nervous drivers or passengers may want to take a pass. Twisting and turning around buttes of alternating layers of rose-, cream-, and rust-colored sandstone canyons sprinkled with stubby pine bushes suggests a scene right out of an old John Wayne movie. It’s best to avoid this road on weekends.
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I made it as far as Canyon Lake that day. Known for its shorelines with easy access for boaters seeking seclusion, Canyon Lake resembles a turquoise gem trapped between rocky cliffs. Many picnic areas, private campgrounds, and RV resorts surround the lake. Most places are set in a typical desert atmosphere with campsites surrounded by conifer, oak, and aspen trees, depending on their location on the lake. The Canyon Lake Marina and Campground offers marina services, a restaurant, and a beach, as well as 28 RV sites with electric and water hookups.
Tonto, the largest national forest in Arizona consists of almost 3 million acres of cactus-studded desert among pine-covered mountains. Because of its proximity to Phoenix, the forest is considered one of the most “urban” forests in the United States with more than 3 million people visiting every year.
Some people claim that the forest was not named after the famous sidekick of the Lone Ranger but the Tonto Basin at its core was found on historic maps created when the land fell under Spanish rule. Why the Spanish named the basin Tonto is a mystery. A few historians claim the term tontos which is Spanish for fools or crazy people was often heard in early pioneer days about the Apache Indians. Most speculate the name resulted from the early settlers’ impression of a people who dressed and talked very differently from themselves. Hmm; maybe that ghost was not Roy.
Established around the construction of Roosevelt Dam, the forest was created in 1905 to protect the watersheds of the Salt and Verde rivers. These has two scenic rivers are known for their fast-moving clear water, fossil rock formations, and guided raft or kayak excursions. Another terrific place is Tonto National Monument which showcases cliff dwellings occupied by the Salado Indians starting in the 13th century. The museum there hosts a fine collection of pottery and textiles.
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Tonto National Forest is large with many camping options. Elevations range from 1,300 to 7,900 feet and some areas are difficult to reach with large RVs so it is important to research the many private and public campgrounds in the area. The main question to ask yourself is what Arizona habitat you wish to embrace for your stay—the desert flats or the forested mountains.
I spent a day enjoying nature within the city at Papago Park. The 1,200-acre park is home to “Hole in the Rock” a red rock that is distinctive to its landscape. Its massive, otherworldly sandstone buttes set Papago Park apart, even in a city and state filled with numerous world-class natural attractions. While visitors to Papago can enjoy its extensive trail network through the Sonoran Desert habitat, they can also enjoy the park’s two major residents, the Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Garden, world-class attractions that draw millions of visits each year.
Beautifully designed with more than 21,000 cacti and desert flora, Desert Botanical Garden is made for a calming stroll along prickly cacti. Desert plants of many colors were showing off spring blooms of red, lavender, and yellow. Many sizes were represented as well with one cactus as tall as a two-story building. The garden boasts of nurturing 4,400 different species in its Living Collection and 485 plants that are rare and endangered species.
Water features are scattered throughout inviting visitors to stop and rest their feet. I highly recommend the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail and the enclosed Butterfly Pavilion is a must-see.
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Programs for children, families, teachers and gardeners are held routinely at the Desert Landscape School with online or in-person activities.
A Few Fun Facts
- At Tonto National Forest starting in early November, a special permit can be purchased to cut down your own Christmas tree.
- The Salado Indians settled along the Salt River near where the original city of Phoenix was built. Salado in Spanish means salty.
- The Desert Botanical Garden is a popular venue for weddings and nature photographers. During the winter holiday season, 8,000 flickering luminaria candles light up the garden in the evening at the Las Noches de Las Luminarias throughout December.
Alone in the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.
I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, and sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world.