Pristine Sonoran Desert Camping

Try these outdoors camping getaways in the Valley of the Sun. Here’s how!

There is no winter like a Sonoran Desert winter. It’s a great time for a little adventure in the outdoors. People travel from all over the world to experience the desert’s 70-degree sun-filled winter days. And you can enjoy them, too? So why not pack up the RV and hit the road?

For a Valley getaway, look no farther than a Maricopa County Regional Park. Don’t just go for a day hike or a bike ride. Spend a week instead. Or two weeks! Revel in the mild days and roast marshmallows over a campfire on a cool star-laden night.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now that’s a getaway worth heading to Phoenix for.

Camping in Maricopa County Regional Parks

Six Maricopa County Regional Parks have campgrounds suitable for RVs:

  • Cave Creek Regional Park
  • Estrella Mountain Regional Park
  • Lake Pleasant Regional Park
  • McDowell Mountain Regional Park
  • Usery Mountain Regional Park
  • White Tank Mountain Regional Park
McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maricopa County Parks Camping Reservations and Fees

Developed campsites in each park include such amenities as water and electrical hookups, a picnic table, and a fire ring. Restrooms offer flush toilets and hot showers.

You can reserve a site up to six months in advance starting on the first day of each month. To do that online, go to maricopacountyparks.org.

Phone reservations can be made by calling 602-506-2930 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Payment in full is required and there’s an $8 reservation fee.

Developed sites are $32 per night; semi-developed sites are $22. Primitive camping (only at Lake Pleasant) is $15. There are also some shaded RV sites for $40. 

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things To Do When You Get There

Once you’ve got your camp set up, get out and explore your home away from home. Put aside tablets and phones and reconnect to wide-open spaces. Immerse yourself in the outdoor experience. Keep an eye open for wildlife, especially during the prime hours around dawn and dusk when critters are most active.

White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parks lifted their annual fire ban on December 1, allowing visitors to build campfires in designated rings and receptacles. For many, the friendly warmth and flickering light of a fire is the highlight of camping. But if you’re there to be amazed by a galaxy of stars away from city lights, it’s better to forgo the fire and enjoy the clear night sky.

Just don’t forget your hiking shoes. Each park offers plenty of opportunities to spend quiet time walking around outside.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave Creek Regional Park

This 2,922-acre park which is located north of Phoenix sits in the upper Sonoran Desert and ranges in elevation from 2,000 feet to 3,060 feet. This desert oasis provides any hiker and equestrian majestic views. Cave Creek Regional 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. 

Camping at 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.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estrella Mountain Regional Park

Located near the meeting of the Gila and Agua Fria Rivers in the southwest Valley, the park includes seasonal wetland or riparian area. The majority of the park remains pristine desert. Estrella Park offers over 33 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park Trails range in length from 2.3 miles to 8.8 miles and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous. If you are looking for an easy hike, the 2.4 mile Baseline Trail is recommended. If you are looking for a long, all day hike, the Pederson Trail encompasses 8.7 miles.

Camping space is at a premium at Estrella Mountain which offers only seven sites. Each site is developed and can accommodate a 45-foot RV.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Pleasant Regional Park

At Lake Pleasant anglers will be eager to drop a line. The lake is a popular spot for largemouth bass, striped bass, and Arizona’s only population of white bass. Or rent a kayak at Scorpion Bay Marina. Pontoons and fishing boats are also available for rent. Landlubbers have a variety of hiking trails to choose from. At 4.1 miles, Beardsley is the longest as it rambles through open desert before it junctions with the epic Maricopa Trail. Yavapai Point (1.5 miles) makes a moderate climb to the crest of a hill at the edge of the water that offers impressive views. Snaking along the shoreline, Wild Burro Trail (2 miles) is so named because it provides the best chance to see some of the park’s long-eared residents.

Lake Pleasant has 148 developed and semi-developed (no hookups) sites with nearby restrooms and showers. There’s even boat-in camping for those who would like to spend the night on the water.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McDowell Mountain Regional Park

Nestled in the lower Verde River basin, the 21,099-acre park is a desert jewel in the northeast Valley. Elevations in the park rise to 3,000 feet along the western boundary at the base of the McDowell Mountains. McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers over 40-miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails. Park Trails range in length from 0.5-miles to 15.3-miles and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous. Those looking for an easy hike should try the North Trail at 3.1 miles. Those looking for a good workout should try the Pemberton at 15.3-miles. All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated.

Camping at McDowell Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers 76 individual sites for tent or RV camping. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and offers water and electrical hook-ups, dump station, a picnic table and a barbecue fire ring.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Usery Mountain Regional Park derives its name from King Usery, a rancher turned rustler and stagecoach robber. Whatever you think of his moral choices, spend some time hiking in this park in the East Valley and you’ll admit the man knew a good hideout. Most people visit Usery to hike up the flank of Pass Mountain to the Wind Cave, a scooped-out alcove where seeping water irrigates a hanging garden of plant life. Views are exquisite from the high perch. If you prefer to stay on more level ground, the Blevins Trail makes a 3-mile loop through picturesque desert.

Camping at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain Regional Park offers a campground with 73 individual sites. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and offers water and electrical hook-ups, dump station, a picnic table, barbecue grill, and fire ring.

White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountain Regional Park

Anchoring the far western edge of the Valley is White Tank Mountain Regional Park. At nearly 30,000 acres, the largest Maricopa County regional park is spread across the desert lowlands and sharp-rising peaks of the White Tank Mountains. With 40 miles of hiking trails rambling across the landscape, visitors will find a perfect blend of scenery and solitude. The most popular hike is the nearly mile-long Waterfall Canyon Trail that leads to a pool in a narrow box canyon. There are other short easy pathways but a true White Tank specialty is the series of long lanky trails that twist into the backcountry away from the crowds. Put together a moderate loop by combining Mesquite Canyon and Willow Canyon trails.

Camping at White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers 40 individual sites for tent or RV camping. Most sites have a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV. Amenities include water and electrical hook-ups, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, a fire ring, and nearby dump station. All restrooms offer flush toilets and showers.

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes