Benefits of Nature: Exploring Lost Dutchman State Park & Tonto National Forest

With nearly three million acres there is so much to see and do

The renowned naturalist John Muir wrote that “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

The world has changed immensely since Muir wrote this in 1901. People, now more than ever, seek the benefits of nature.

Lost Dutchman State Park and Superstition Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As in many states, Arizona State Parks offer great campgrounds at reasonable prices. I have chosen to focus on Lost Dutchman State Park. Named after the fabled lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman is located in the Sonoran Desert at the base of the Superstition Mountains 40 miles east of Phoenix.

Camping at Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park features convenient locations for exploring the region, as well as a clean, safe campground. The paved camping sites and handicap-accessible restrooms also make the park a good choice for people with physical limitations.

Horseback riding in Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several trails lead from the park into the Superstition Mountain Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest. Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron.

Depending on the year’s rainfall, you might be treated to a carpet of desert wildflowers in the spring, but there are plenty of beautiful desert plants to see year-round. Enjoy a week of camping and experience native wildlife including mule deer, coyote, javelin, and jackrabbit. A four mile mountain bike loop trail has opened at the park—this is a great way to enjoy the park’s beauty while experiencing the famed Superstition Mountains.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those who prefer a more remote setting, the U.S. Forest Service also offers a range of camping choices from developed campgrounds to dispersed camping in the middle of nowhere.

Tonto National Forest along Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The national forests and grasslands are 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting to be discovered. Visitors who choose to recreate on these public lands find more than 150,000 miles of trails, 10,000 developed recreation sites, 57,000 miles of streams, 122 alpine ski areas, 338,000 heritage sites, and specially designated sites that include 9,100 miles of byways, 22 recreation areas, 11 scenic areas, 439 wilderness areas, 122 wild and scenic rivers, nine monuments, and one preserve.

Wildflowers at Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National forests cover 15 percent of Arizona, mostly mountains or plateaus over 6,000 feet but also large areas of desert between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Besides the varied scenic landscapes within the forests, they provide many locations for camping when exploring Arizona’s national and state parks many of which are surrounded by these public lands.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tonto is the largest and most varied of the six national forests in Arizona with terrain ranging from the cactus-covered Sonoran Desert around Phoenix to pine clad mountains along the Mogollon Rim. Highways 87, 188, and 260 are the main routes across the region though most is rough and accessed only by 4WD tracks. The forest also includes rocky canyons, grassy plains, rivers, and man-made lakes including Bartlett and Theodore Roosevelt.

On Peralta Trail in Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At over 2.9 million acres, Tonto features some of the most rugged and inherently beautiful land in the country. Sonoran Desert cacti and flat lands slowly give way to the highlands of the Mogollon Rim. This variety in vegetation and range in altitude—from 1,300 to 7,900 feet—offers outstanding recreational opportunities throughout the year, whether it’s lake beaches or cool pine forest.

Peridot Mesa in San Carlos Indian Reservation © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tonto is one of the most-visited “urban” forests in the United States with 3 million visitors annually. The forest’s boundaries are Phoenix to the south, the Mogollon Rim to the north and the San Carlos and Fort Apache Indian reservations to the east. 

Peridot Mesa in San Carlos Indian Reservation © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During winter months, snowbirds flock to Arizona to share the multi-hued stone canyons and Sonoran Desert environments with Arizona residents. In the summer, visitors seek refuge from the heat at the Salt and Verde rivers and their chain of six man-made lakes. Visitors also head to the high country to camp amidst the cool shade of tall pines and fish the meandering trout streams under the Mogollon Rim.

Along Bush Highway in Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eight Wilderness Areas encompassing more than 589,300 acres protect the unique natural character of the land. In addition, portions of the Verde River have been designated by Congress as Arizona’s first and only Wild and Scenic River Area.

First aid kit to the rescue © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pack a first aid kit. Your kit can prove invaluable if you or a member of your group suffers a cut, bee sting, or allergic reaction. Pack antiseptics for cuts and scrapes, tweezers, insect repellent, a snake bite kit, pain relievers, and sunscreen. Tailor your kit to your family’s special needs.

Tonto National Forest near Cave Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bring emergency supplies. In addition to a first aid kit, you should also have a map of the area, compass, flashlight, knife, waterproof fire starter, personal shelter, whistle, warm clothing, high energy food, water, water-purifying tablets, and insect repellant.

Remember: You are responsible for your own safety and for the safety of those around you.

Worth Pondering…

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.

—John Muir