The Complete Guide to Coconino National Forest

From the famous red rocks of Sedona to Ponderosa pine forests, from southwestern desert to alpine tundra, the Coconino National Forest is one of the most diverse and unforgettable destinations in the country

Stretching across two million acres of northern Arizona, the Coconino National Forest is a captivating tapestry of natural wonders and diverse ecosystems. Originally established in 1898 as the San Francisco Mountains National Forest Reserve, it gained its current designation as a U.S. National Forest in 1908.

Named after the Coho Native American people, the forest encompasses three distinct districts: Flagstaff, Mogollon Rim, and Red Rock. From the awe-inspiring peaks of the San Francisco range to the iconic red rock formations near Sedona, the landscape is as varied as it is breathtaking.

With elevations ranging from 2,600 to 12,633 feet, the forest boasts a mosaic of environments including deserts, ponderosa pine forests, alpine tundra, and ancient volcanic peaks. Beyond its stunning natural beauty, Coconino National Forest preserves a historical narrative reflecting the delicate balance between human settlement and environmental conservation. Today, it stands as a sanctuary for outdoor enthusiasts beckoning visitors to explore its trails, discover hidden canyons, and connect with the timeless allure of the Arizona wilderness.

Oak Creek Canyon in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Features of the Coconino National Forest

San Francisco Peaks: Dominating the Flagstaff District, the San Francisco Peaks are a majestic volcanic range showcasing the highest point in Arizona—Humphreys Peak at 12,633 feet. This ancient volcanic field covers 1,800 square miles featuring tree-covered cinder cones, lava flows, and the intriguing Lava River Cave. The peaks provide a diverse and captivating landscape for exploration.

Red rock formations: The Red Rock District unveils the iconic red rock formations, mesas, and canyons that have made the region famous. These geological wonders sculpted by millions of years of erosion contribute to Sedona’s status as Arizona’s second most popular tourist attraction. The vibrant red hues and intricate formations create a breathtaking and unique landscape.

Mogollon Rim: Defining the southern edge of the forest, the Mogollon Rim stretches across central Arizona marking the boundary of the Colorado Plateau. The Mogollon Rim District features a dense ponderosa pine forest, lakes, and perennial streams. This area serves as a transition zone between the high-altitude plateaus and lower elevations, offering diverse ecological habitats and picturesque scenery.

Diverse vegetation zones: Coconino National Forest boasts varied vegetation zones from the arid lowlands with shrubs and sagebrush to the towering stands of ponderosa pine in high-altitude plateaus.

Verde Canyon Railway in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historical landmarks: The forest preserves historical landmarks including Walnut Canyon National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. These sites offer insights into ancient civilizations and volcanic activity adding cultural depth to the Coconino National Forest experience. Exploring these landmarks provides a connection to the region’s rich history.

Recreational lakes: Natural lakes like Mormon Lake, Ashurst Lake, and Marshall Lake dot the landscape offering recreational opportunities such as fishing and boating. Additionally, manmade reservoirs like Upper Lake Mary and Lower Lake Mary provide water resources and scenic spots. These lakes contribute to the diverse recreational activities available within the forest.

Distinct districts: Divided into three districts—Flagstaff, Mogollon Rim, and Red Rock—the forest ensures a varied experience. The Flagstaff Ranger District surrounds the San Francisco Peaks, the Mogollon Rim Ranger District showcases a dense ponderosa pine forest, and the Red Rock Ranger District captivates with its famous red rock formations. Each district offers unique ecosystems ensuring a comprehensive exploration of Coconino National Forest’s vast and varied terrain.

Schnebly Hill Road in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

Established against the backdrop of the late 19th-century expansion and evolving land management practices, the Coconino National Forest has a rich and storied history. In 1898, President William McKinley responded to Gifford Pinchot’s advocacy for forest conservation by creating the San Francisco Mountain Forest Reserve. However, local opposition in Williams, Arizona, viewed the reserve as detrimental to Coconino County. In 1905, the Forest Reserves transitioned to the Department of Agriculture, marking a pivotal shift toward federal management.

Finally, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt merged various forest reserves including the San Francisco Mountains to form the Coconino National Forest. Covering two million acres, this diverse landscape became a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and a testament to the delicate balance between human settlement and environmental preservation. Today, the Coconino National Forest stands as a testament to the enduring importance of conservation and sustainable land management in the American West.

Oak Creek near Sedona in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unique location of Coconino National Forest

Located in northern Arizona, the Coconino National Forest covers a vast two million acres extending from the vicinity of Flagstaff. Its elevations range from 2,600 feet to Arizona’s highest point, Humphreys Peak at 12,633 feet. What makes it special is the wide range of landscapes it includes. From the red rock formations near Sedona to the famous San Francisco Peaks in the Flagstaff District and the dense ponderosa pine forests along the Mogollon Rim, the Coconino National Forest boasts a diverse mix of ecosystems.

It not only surrounds lively towns like Sedona and Flagstaff but also shares boundaries with four other national forests, making it an essential part of the expansive Arizona wilderness. The forest’s strategic location contributes to its unique blend of geological wonders, rich biodiversity, and recreational opportunities making it a must-visit for those wanting to explore the varied beauty of the American Southwest.

Red Rock Scenic Byway in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vegetation and plant species in Coconino National Forest:

Ponderosa pine forests: The Coconino National Forest is renowned for its extensive ponderosa pine forests covering vast expanses of the landscape. These towering and aromatic trees thrive in the high-altitude plateaus particularly between 6,500 and 8,000 feet contributing to the forest’s distinctive and pleasant fragrance.

Engelmann spruce and blue spruce: At the highest elevations particularly around the San Francisco Peaks the forest hosts coniferous species such as Engelmann spruce and blue spruce. These hardy trees are adapted to the challenging conditions of alpine environments adding to the unique character of the highest reaches of the Coconino National Forest.

Bristlecone pine: The high-altitude regions including areas near Humphreys Peak are home to the bristlecone pine. These ancient trees, known for their twisted and gnarled appearance are among the oldest living organisms on Earth adding a sense of historical depth to the forest.

Corkbark fir: A variety of subalpine fir known as corkbark fir is found in isolated areas of the Coconino National Forest specifically around the San Francisco Peaks. This unique tree species contributes to the biodiversity of the high-elevation zones.

Juniper-pinyon woodlands: In the lower elevations between 4,500 and 6,500 feet the forest transitions to juniper-pinyon woodlands. Species like alligator juniper and Utah juniper dominate this region accompanied by Arizona cypress, manzanita, and pinyon pine.

Quaking aspen: Scattered among the ponderosa pine forests particularly between 6,500 and 8,000 feet, quaking aspen stands offer a visually striking contrast with their white bark and vibrant golden leaves in the fall. Aspen stands are often the first to regenerate after wildfires contributing to forest renewal.

Alpine tundra vegetation: Above 11,000 feet, the Coconino National Forest features the only alpine tundra region in Arizona. Here, vegetation is sparse with small grasses, lichens, and alpine wildflowers dotting the landscape showcasing the resilience of life in extreme conditions.

Deciduous trees in Oak Creek Canyon: Part of the Red Rock District, Oak Creek Canyon stands out for its deciduous trees. In the fall, the canyon becomes a popular leaf-peeping destination as deciduous trees such as oak and maple dominate the vegetation offering a burst of autumnal colors.

Grand Canyon Railway in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fauna

Elk: The Coconino National Forest is a sanctuary for elk where these magnificent creatures roam through the ponderosa pine forests and open meadows. With their impressive antlers and graceful presence, elk are a common sight especially during the cooler months when they gather in larger groups. The forest’s diverse landscapes provide ideal habitats for elk making it a key destination for wildlife enthusiasts hoping to witness these majestic herbivores in their natural environment.

Mule deer: Mule deer are a familiar sight throughout the Coconino National Forest adapting to various habitats across the region. Whether traversing the high-altitude plateaus or navigating the edges of the ponderosa pine forests, these adaptable herbivores are integral to the forest’s ecosystem. Their presence adds to the allure of the Coconino National Forest offering glimpses of these agile and resilient mammals against the backdrop of the diverse landscapes.

Mountain lion: The elusive mountain lion, a symbol of stealth and power finds a home in the Coconino National Forest. Though rarely seen by visitors these solitary predators play a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance within the forest. Navigating the rugged canyons and dense woodlands, mountain lions are a testament to the wild and untouched nature of this expansive landscape.

Black bear: Iconic symbols of North American wilderness, black bears inhabit the Coconino National Forest with occasional sightings reported particularly in the Mogollon Rim District. These omnivores contribute to the forest’s biodiversity foraging for food in the diverse ecosystems that range from dense forests to open meadows. The presence of black bears underscores the importance of the Coconino National Forest as a haven for various mammalian species.

Bobcat: In the Coconino National Forest the elusive bobcat with its tufted ears and spotted coat adds a touch of mystery to the forested landscapes. These skilled predators navigate the transition zones where forests meet open spaces. The bobcat’s presence highlights the delicate balance maintained by the forest’s ecosystem.

Abert’s squirrel: The ponderosa pine forests of the Coconino National Forest are home to the distinctive Abert’s squirrel. Recognizable by its tufted ears and grayish fur, this arboreal squirrel is well-adapted to life among the towering pine trees. Their presence adds a lively element to the forest canopy contributing to the rich biodiversity of the Coconino National Forest.

Golden eagles: High above the diverse landscapes of the Coconino National Forest, golden eagles soar through the expansive skies. These majestic raptors showcase the importance of the forest as a habitat for various bird species. With their keen eyesight and impressive wingspan, golden eagles contribute to the avian diversity that characterizes the skies above this vast and varied landscape.

Gila monster: In the lower elevations, the Coconino National Forest is home to the Gila monster, a unique and venomous lizard. Thriving in the desert shrublands within the forest, the Gila monster adds a touch of exoticism to the region’s wildlife. This distinctive reptile is a testament to the diversity of habitats within the Coconino National Forest.

Mexican spotted owl: The old-growth forests in parts of the Coconino National Forest provide a crucial habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, a species facing conservation challenges.

Trout species: The lakes and streams within the Coconino National Forest such as Upper Lake Mary and Oak Creek teem with various trout species. These aquatic ecosystems not only provide recreational opportunities for fishing enthusiasts but also contribute to the overall biodiversity of the forest. The presence of diverse trout species reflects the health and vitality of the forest’s waterways.

The Coconino National Forest’s diverse fauna from iconic large mammals to elusive predators, arboreal creatures, and unique reptiles, underscores the ecological richness of this Arizona landscape. Conservation efforts within the forest contribute to the overall health of these ecosystems providing a unique opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts to experience a rich tapestry of biodiversity.

Arizona Route 89A in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Activities in Coconino National Forest

1. Hiking and trail exploration

The Coconino National Forest offers an extensive network of hiking trails that cater to all levels of outdoor enthusiasts. Whether exploring the lush landscapes around Oak Creek or trekking through the high-altitude plateaus near Flagstaff, visitors can immerse themselves in the diverse beauty of the forest. Trails like the West Fork of Oak Creek Trail provide a scenic journey through canyons and alongside babbling creeks, creating a memorable hiking experience.

2. Scenic drives

For those who prefer a more leisurely exploration, scenic drives within the Coconino National Forest offer breathtaking views of its diverse landscapes. The Forest Roads such as the scenic drive along the Mogollon Rim provide opportunities to witness the forest’s grandeur from the comfort of a vehicle. Visitors can take in panoramic vistas, ancient volcanic peaks, and the iconic red rock formations surrounding Sedona.

3. Wildlife watching

The forest’s diverse ecosystems make it an ideal habitat for a wide array of wildlife. Visitors can engage in wildlife watching activities hoping to spot elk, mule deer, and a variety of bird species. The forest’s status as a wildlife corridor enhances the chances of encountering these creatures in their natural habitats creating a unique and enriching experience for nature enthusiasts.

4. Fishing in lakes and streams

Coconino National Forest features numerous lakes and streams including Upper Lake Mary and Oak Creek providing excellent opportunities for fishing enthusiasts. Trout species thrive in these clear waters offering a serene and picturesque setting for anglers. Fishing permits are typically required adding to the regulated and sustainable nature of this recreational activity.

5. Camping and picnicking

The forest provides an array of camping options from established campgrounds to dispersed camping in more remote areas. Camping allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the natural surroundings with the sound of rustling leaves and the scent of ponderosa pine filling the air. Picnic areas are also available providing a peaceful setting for outdoor meals amidst the forest’s beauty.

6. Mountain biking

Mountain biking enthusiasts can explore designated trails that wind through the Coconino National Forest offering a thrilling way to experience its diverse terrain. Trails like the Soldiers Pass Trail near Sedona cater to bikers of various skill levels providing an adrenaline-packed adventure through red rock formations and shaded canyons.

7. Rock climbing

The unique geological features of the Coconino National Forest especially around Sedona make it a popular destination for rock climbing and bouldering. Climbers can challenge themselves on the red sandstone cliffs with routes that offer both breathtaking views and a sense of accomplishment upon reaching the summit.

8. Stargazing

The forest’s expansive and less light-polluted areas make it an excellent location for stargazing. Visitors can witness a dazzling night sky especially in higher elevations where constellations, planets, and the Milky Way become visible. Stargazing events and programs are occasionally hosted to enhance the celestial experience for visitors.

The Coconino National Forest provides a diverse range of activities ensuring there’s something for every nature lover and outdoor adventurer. Whether seeking serene moments in nature, engaging in recreational pursuits, or embarking on thrilling adventures visitors can tailor their experience to fully appreciate the beauty and diversity this forest has to offer.

Jerome in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Coconino National Forest stands as a testament to the extraordinary diversity and beauty that the American Southwest has to offer. From the towering ponderosa pine forests and iconic red rock formations to the serene lakes and high-altitude plateaus, this expansive landscape captivates the senses and beckons explorers to its scenic trails.

Here are a few more articles to help you explore the area:

Looking for more on national forests? Here are some articles to help:

Worth Pondering…

I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.

—Willa Cather

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Watching wildlife a relaxing pastime

Among the natural wonders that wait for exploration by RVers is wildlife. An amazing variety of creatures great and small can be spotted while traveling throughout the United States and Canada. Wildlife watching is a fun pastime and can be enjoyed on many levels depending on your interests.

This can range from casual observation to serious wildlife-viewing expeditions. You don’t even need to leave your campsite to have wildlife encounters. Scampering squirrels amuse. Birds flitter about. Bears and raccoons often make visits and create mischief if you’re not careful how you store food and trash.

Bison in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When staying on public lands you might encounter wild horses, ponies, and burros. Of course, you also can embark on trips and tours specifically designed for viewing whales, bison, polar bears, and more.

In this post, I share ideas for capturing great wildlife photos as well as safety tips related to wildlife encounters. They may be cute but they are called wild animals for a reason and can be unpredictable and dangerous. I also offer suggestions for making the most of wildlife-watching expeditions.

Here’s to bears, bison, birds, bees, bugs, bunnies, and the many other critters sharing our planet.

Safely photographing wildlife

If you enjoy taking photos, you already may have a nice collection of pet pics. How about expanding your shutterbug skills to capture wildlife photos? Try photographing critters in national parks, state parks, national wildlife refuges, preserves, national forests, and other natural areas.

Pronghorn in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camera equipment

Determine the best type(s) of camera for your interest and level of expertise. I suggest SLRs and mirrorless cameras for their versatility. For extensive outdoor use, invest in a weather-sealed model. A telephoto lens or a lens with a telephoto zoom facilitates shooting from a distance while macro lenses work for close-ups of insects and other small subjects. A weatherproof camera backpack in muted colors works well for toting all the photo gear.

Weather

Protect yourself, too. Dress to stay warm and dry; in buggy places, wear a wide-brimmed hat— with mosquito netting if needed.

Photographing wildlife in the middle of a snowfall or other weather event can add drama and interest to your shots.

Wild burros in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Know your subjects

The U.S. Forest Service notes that capturing great wildlife images takes “preparation, patience, and practice.” Familiarize yourself with animal behavior. For example, many butterflies emerge in the early to mid-morning, warming themselves in the sun before they take flight. Such knowledge can help you find a great vantage spot. Wait for animals to come to you; they won’t pose if they feel you’re invading their space.

Photo tips

Follow the rule of thirds: Divide your frame into nine imaginary squares and place your subject in spots where the lines intersect. If an animal is looking in a specific direction include space in front of its head to improve the overall shot. Don’t just focus on your wildlife subjects; incorporate the surrounding beauty in some photos as well.

Be safe

You alone are responsible for your well-being around wildlife. Keep your distance; don’t feed them; avoid sudden or aggressive moves. If you encounter a bear, remain calm—if you can! Don’t run away. Avoid placing yourself between a mama bear and her cubs.

Here are some pointers for hiking in bear country: Hiking and Camping in Bear Country: What You Need to Know

Elk in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife camping and viewing

Traveling in an RV allows you to experience a wide range of exciting and beautiful natural destinations. And one of the best things about spending time in these scenic spots is wildlife watching.

If you are looking to completely immerse yourself in nature, check out the National Wildlife Refuge System. This massive network of conservation lands and waters covers more than 95 million acres of land and 740 million acres of submerged lands and waters in the U.S.

Camping near these protected lands will not only help you avoid crowds typically found at national parks but you’ll also have less competition for campsites. Touring a wildlife refuge may be perfect for your next road trio:

Before you set out to explore the nature around you, it’s a good idea to take some steps to make sure you get as much as possible from your RV wildlife-watching experience. Learn how to identify wildlife through books or apps, take plenty of photos, and choose a wildlife-friendly location to make the most of your experience.

You should also be aware of your safety while wildlife watching. Keep your distance from predators or other creatures you don’t want to attract and follow local guidelines and signage in the area.

Big horn sheep in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watching wildlife in national parks

Know before you go. Every national park is unique and has specific guidelines, including minimum wildlife viewing distances and food storage requirements. Before you head out on the trail, take a few minutes to review the park’s rules.

Give animals room. The best way to stay safe when watching wildlife is to give animals room to move. Many parks require you to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. (Check with your park: for example, Olympic National Park requires a minimum distance of 50 yards.) Parks provide a unique opportunity to view animals’ natural behavior in the wild. In general, if animals react to your presence you are too close. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens and move back if wildlife approaches you. Let wildlife be wild and observe from a distance.

Rocky mountain goat in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you stay near a wildlife refuge or national park or in a boondocking spot, stop a moment to take in your surroundings while camping to see the wildlife around you—who knows what you’ll see!

Worth Pondering…

I would rather be amongst forest animals and the sound of nature than amongst city traffic and the noise of man.

—Anthony D. Williams.