Carefree: An Idyllic Arizona Community with Hiking, Biking, and a Thriving Arts Scene

Now a hub for wellness, shopping, and outdoor adventure, Carefree, Arizona, was once a 400-acre goat farm

North of Phoenix and Scottsdale there is a small community that feels almost too good to be true. The town of under 4,000 people was once a 400-acre goat farm that the founders bought for $44,000 in 1955. Their vision was to start a community with an easygoing, airy vibe—so they named the plot of land Carefree.

Today, Carefree has the feel of a small town but is close to northern Scottsdale and less than an hour from downtown Phoenix. Because it sits at the edge of the urban area it’s easy to head north into the Sonoran Desert which has abundant hiking and camping

And while Carefree’s location is one of its standout qualities, the town itself offers a unique feel that draws visitors year after year. Its home to the third-largest sundial in the Western Hemisphere and has a desert garden in the downtown area. There’s plenty of shopping, great food, and an undeniable artist vibe, too.

Here’s everything you need to know to plan a trip to Carefree including what to do, where to stay, and when to go.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best things to do in Carefree

Spending time in downtown Carefree is a must. There are shops, restaurants, and galleries to explore but the area’s biggest draw is the four-acre desert botanical garden marked with a huge sundial—one of the world’s largest.

Once you’ve got the lay of the land, head to the surrounding hills for hiking, trail running, and biking. The desert landscape of the neighboring Cave Creek Regional Park is covered in hiking paths, picnic spots, and campsites. Most weekends, there’s a bird tour, fitness hike, or wildflower walk scheduled. The park offers over 11 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to 5.8 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult.

If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike the Slate Trail is recommended. If you are looking for a longer, more difficult hike, try the 5.8-mile Go John Trail. The trails within the Cave Creek Regional Park are very popular with dramatic elevations and spectacular views of the surrounding plains.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The campground consists of 55 campsites for tent or RV camping. The average site size is 40 feet; however, pull-through sites may accommodate up to a 60-foot RV with water and electrical hookups, a picnic table, and a barbecue fire ring. Cave Creek Regional Park provides clean restrooms with flush toilets and hot water showers. A dump station is available for use by registered campers at no additional cost.

Four miles north of town, Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area offers a similar cactus-covered landscape with seven miles of trails that are open to hikers, bikers, and people on horseback. Park trails range in length from 1.2 miles to 4.6 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult.

One of the last remaining year-round spring-fed streams in Cave Creek flows through Spur Cross. Its banks are covered with plants and trees including mesquite, cottonwoods, and willows. Abundant water and plant life make this a home to many species of animals including javelina, mule deer, and coyotes. Over 80 species of birds have been observed in this habitat, per Audubon bird counts. Beyond the banks of the stream lies one of the region’s densest stands of saguaro cactus.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park contains nearly 90 archaeological sites used by the Hohokam Indians between 700-1200 A.D. Hohokam petroglyphs dot the area. Both the Hopi and the Fort McDowell Mohave-Apache Indian communities have identified the Spur Cross Ranch as a sacred place.​

Meanwhile, 12 miles to the southeast, Brown’s Ranch Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy is known for its unique rock features including the impossible-looking Balanced Rock and Cathedral Rock. This trailhead features interpretive exhibits about the human history of the Preserve and serves as the major access point to the vast network of trails in the area. It provides access to such unique destinations as Granite Mountain, Cholla Mountain, and Brown’s Mountain as well as the before-mentioned Balanced Rock and Cathedral Rock.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the mountains 20 miles east of Carefree, Bartlett Lake was formed by the damming of the Verde (Spanish for green) River. The pristine waters of the Verde were spoken of descriptively in legends of the Indians of the valley who called the water sweet waters. The lake is framed by Sonoran desert scenery with gently sloping beaches on the west side and the rugged Mazatzal Mountains on the east side, studded with saguaro, cholla cacti, mesquite, and ocotillo.

A fair portion of the west side of the reservoir is devoted to camping and picnicking. Bartlett has been a favorite with anglers since Bartlett Dam was constructed in 1939. Several state-record fish have been caught there.

If hiking and biking are not your thing, spend some time exploring the shops and galleries of Carefree. Start your day at the historic Spanish Village which is both one of Carefree’s oldest buildings and the community’s arts and culture hub. Inside the beautiful white stucco gates, you’ll find gems like the Desert Moon Market, an eclectic collection of women’s clothing, jewelry, home goods, and gifts, and the Grace Renee Gallery which showcases contemporary paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and jewelry. You also won’t want to miss a visit to the M & E Stoyanov Fine Art Gallery in downtown Carefree or The Lazy Lizard which sells a mix of new and used home furnishings.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best places to stay in Carefree

The above-mentioned Cave Creek Regional Park offers a clean and quiet family campground set among Saguaro cactus, mesquite trees, and cholla cactus. The park includes 2,922 acres with a visitor center, several hiking trails, equestrian trails, and various programs throughout the year.

The campground has 59 campsites all with electricity and water. Campsites 1-38 are larger campsites and also have paved parking pads. Campsites 30-55 (and E, F, G, H) are smaller and have gravel parking pads. Sites 10 and 20 have horse corrals. Each campsite also has a table, fire ring, and grill. Campground amenities include flush toilets, hot showers, a picnic area, and a dump station. Cell service is good.

Like Scottsdale, Carefree has become a hub for wellness seekers looking to reset and relax in the open desert atmosphere. Civana, a wellness resort and spa to the east of Carefree has been a top destination for many. Guests get access to more than 10 daily complimentary classes—from a desert hike to aerial yoga—and a spa with a hydrotherapy thermal circuit of hot and cold pools.

Just to the south of Carefree in Scottsdale is a property that’s worth a mention. The Boulders Resort & Spa has long been recognized for its 33,000-square-foot spa, two golf courses, six dining options, four outdoor pools, and a location at the foot of an eye-catching rock formation.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best places to eat in Carefree

For such a small town, there’s a surprisingly large selection of cafes, restaurants, and bars in Carefree. It’s all about healthy eats with big flavor at Confluence, a well-loved restaurant with open-air patio seating and a standout tasting menu—you can choose from four, five, or seven courses.

Those looking to fill up on protein following a long day on the trails should head to Keeler’s Neighborhood Steakhouse which has a meat-heavy menu and a rooftop deck designed for post-meal stargazing. Meanwhile, for an entirely different feel, book a table at the English Rose Tea Room which serves tea-time ready fare (think quiches, sandwiches, soups, and salads) in a beautiful, floral-laden tearoom with crystal chandeliers.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to visit Carefree

Although Carefree tends to be cooler than Phoenix, it’s still super hot in the summer with the average temperature in June, July, and August in the triple digits. The best time to visit is easily the spring before the heat of summer sets in and in the fall when the weather cools down. Those looking for cooler weather should come during the winter when the average monthly temperature is in the mid-60s.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

The 12 Most Charming Small Towns in Arizona

From intriguing artists’ colonies and former ghost towns to historical centers and mountain communities, Arizona’s best small towns never fail to impress

Arizona is filled with incredibly beautiful places. The Grand Canyon remains the most majestic and well-known natural phenomenon in the state or, arguably, the entire country. You’ll also find towering San Francisco Peaks, ponderosa pine forests, Saguaro National Park, and the Sonoran Desert. Maricopa County has the vibrant cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale while Tucson offers the University of Arizona and breathtaking gardens teaming with an array of cacti species. You can even see snow as well as ski and snowboarding at Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff.

Outside the major metropolitan areas are a slew of charming small towns, creative communities, and former mining hubs. Of course, you’re familiar with Sedona. Though, many travelers haven’t heard of Bisbee, Carefree, and Holbrook. That’s why I’ve rounded up 12 tiny and mid-size treasures across the Grand Canyon State that should be on your radar.

Use this list to plan an upcoming winter getaway or save it for inspiration later down the line.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona

Without question, the most famous town in all of Arizona, Sedona—which you might remember from my article, RV Travel Bucket List—is an enchanting spot with photogenic red rocks, world-class hiking, and a deeply spiritual side. Test your fitness on the popular 3.9-mile Devil’s Bridge Trail, take a pilgrimage to an energy vortex, book a stress-melting massage, and shop for crystals at the New Age shops downtown.

Where to stay: Dead Horse Ranch State Park or Verde Valley RV and Camping Resort

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

A close second to Sedona in the natural beauty department (though, in fairness, some firmly believe Bisbee deserves the coveted top slot), this picturesque former mining town in the Mule Mountains of southern Arizona brims with 19th-century architecture including colorful Victorian houses and creative flair. Step back into the past at the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum. Since numerous artists call present-day Bisbee home, there are galleries and hip boutiques galore.

Where to stay: Desert Oasis RV Park and Campground

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome

The gold, silver, and copper boom of the 1920s turned Jerome into a rather debaucherous place—hence its moniker “the Wickedest City in the West”—with bars, bordellos, and unscrupulous behavior. Like so many mining towns, it was later abandoned. Then in 1967, Jerome earned National Historic Landmark status. Today, tourists flock to this notoriously haunted destination to visit spooky sights. Feeling brave enough for a ghost tour?

Where to stay: Rain Spirit RV Resort

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone

A trip to Tombstone is sort of like stepping into a Wild West-era live-action play where characters wearing period costumes walk the dirt roads and talk in all sorts of old-timey jargon. Add to that you’ll find shops that sell frontier memorabilia, western-themed restaurants, and saloons. Staged brawls and duels are also part of the shtick. Speaking of, be sure to stop by the O.K. Corral to watch a reenactment of the famous 1881 shootout.

Where to stay: Tombstone RV Park and Campground

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Williams

Set along the iconic Route 66, Williams is a great home base for road trippers and travelers keen to explore the wonders of the Grand Canyon (the Grand Canyon Railway departs from the historic Williams Depot). The town itself has a wonderfully retro feel with motor lodges, classic cars, diners, soda fountains, shops selling all manner of nostalgic Americana items and a gas station museum.

Where to stay: Grand Canyon RV Park

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac

An easy 45-minute drive south of Tucson, the small community of Tubac entices shoppers with the promise of southwestern decor—especially colorful pottery—as well as jewelry, art, and leather goods. If you want to bring a piece of Arizona back home with you, this is the place to buy it. Famished with browsing the more than 100 shops and galleries? Chow down delicious local fare. And don’t leave without visiting the oldest Spanish fort in the state.

Where to stay: De Anza RV Resort

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carefree

Sometimes a name says it all. Such is the case with Carefree. We genuinely can’t think of a better place to kick back. Situated just over 30 minutes north of Scottsdale, this Maricopa County town with a population of 3,360 people has an endearingly relaxed vibe and tons of leisure activities, from hitting the links and tennis to spa sessions and strolling along Easy Street. Carefree also lays claim to the largest sundial in the U.S. Be sure to bring your walking shoes so you can hike at Cave Creek Regional Park or head out to Bartlett Lake

Where to stay: Cave Creek Regional Park

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camp Verde

A tight-knit community of friendly locals who welcome visitors like old friends, Camp Verde, located 86 miles north of Phoenix in Yavapai County, is an ideal destination for those seeking outdoor adventure. It’s a super laid-back spot with rural charm where you can truly unwind. Pastoral pastimes include farm tours, horseback riding, hiking, biking, birdwatching, camping, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. Camp Verde even hosts an annual corn festival in July. Don’t forget to visit the Montezuma Castle National Monument and the Out of Africa Wildlife Park.

Where to stay: Distant Drum RV Resort, Verde Ranch RV Resort, or Verde River RV Resort and Cottages

Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood

Part river town, part wine trail, and part historic hub: Cottonwood offers a fun and lively scene that sets it apart from the arid desert to the south and the soaring mountains to the north. Although it might be best known as a gateway to the nearby red rocks of Sedona, Cottonwood has plenty of charms of its own.

 They start with the quaint Old Town district and branch out to the banks of the lushly green Verde River. Because the Old Town area is relatively small and compact, the restaurants and tasting rooms are wonderfully walkable. On-street parking is available and convenient parking lots are sprinkled throughout the area.

Where to stay: Dead Horse Ranch State Park or Verde Valley RV and Camping Resort

Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott

The former territorial capital of Arizona, Prescott is one of those little out-the-way places that are a one-third resort town, one-third hipster getaway, and one-third small town Americana. Cozy yet adventurous, Prescott offers coffee shops and eateries, arts and crafts, and abundant nature you might not expect in Arizona. The desert atmosphere remains, but things are green and growing.

Modern Prescott has the advantage of not being very modern. Banners proclaim Prescott as “Everyone’s Home Town.” You won’t find high rises, but the downtown businesses clustered around the 1916 Yavapai County Courthouse and its plaza are thriving. Holbrook

Where to stay: Point of Rocks RV Campground

Holbrook © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Holbrook

Located at the convergence of Interstate 40, U.S. Highway 180, and State Highway 77, this roadside town feels more like a real place than a ghost town like other destinations on the Mother Road. Wander out to the nearby Petrified Forest National Park for some gorgeous hiking and check out the Agate House, a ruin that demonstrates the ancient Puebloan practice of using petrified wood as a building material. Spend the night in the very cool Wigwam Motel. The motel is composed of fifteen individual concrete teepees. A big attraction is the gorgeous vintage cars that decorate the grounds.

Where to stay: OK RV Park

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Globe

In the foothills of the Pinal Mountains, sits the former mining camp known as Globe. Founded in 1876 and incorporated in 1907, this lovely town is brimming with century-old buildings, cottages, and hillside houses. The Besh-ba-Gowah Archeological Park features stunning partially restored ruins of a Salado pueblo along with an accompanying museum. The historic downtown area is perfect for strolls and shopping for antiques while the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts is a great spot to explore and experience the talent of some incredible artists.

Where to stay: Apache Gold RV Park

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers