Located in the thick of Tonto National Forest and the edge of the Mongolian Rim, Payson is a prime spot in Northeastern Arizona for camping.
Camping in Payson comes with views of dense ponderosa pines, juniper trees, and huge views of Central Arizona from the cliff’s edge of the Mogollon Rim.
With miles of forest service roads and the 450,000-acres of wooded areas in the Tonto National Forest, the free, dispersed camping spots are endless!
In order to help you narrow down where to set up camp for the night, here’s a list of our favorite free, dispersed camping spots and areas around Payson:
Colcord Ridge Dispersed Camping Area
East of Star Valley – 35 miles from Payson
The Colcord Ridge Dispersed Camping Area is not too far from the Canyon Creek Fish Hatchery. There are fifteen camping sites in this area and most of them have a fire pit and a picnic table. There is no water available in this camping area, but there is a vault toilet. You can camp at Colcord Ridge at any time of the year, but the summer months are the best.
It is at that time when you can go down to Canyon Creek Fish Hatchery to do a little fishing. During your stay, you will have the chance to see many animals like deer, black bears, javelinas, elk, and mountain lions.
There is a trail that goes through Canyon Creek to the Fish Hatchery. You will also find many other hiking trails within Tonto National Forest. There are dozens to choose from, so you won’t be at a loss for things to do during your visit.
Little Green Valley Dispersed Camping Area
East of Star Valley – 12 miles from Payson
The Little Green Valley Dispersed Camping Area is right near Hell’s Gate. There are approximately fourteen different campsites and you can easily fit an RV in many of them if you are not tenting. You will find most of the campsites on the northern side of the road, but there are a couple on the southern side.
There are no hookups at this campground or any other amenities, so you will basically need to bring everything you need.
Since this is so close to Hell’s Gate, you must tackle the Hells Gate Trail. The trail is fourteen and a half miles. It is a challenging hike, but you will discover a swimming hole to cool down in if you are there during the summer.
Airplane Flat Dispersed Camping Area
East of Payson – 40 miles
There are approximately twelve different campsites at the Airplane Flat Dispersed Camping Area. It is near the Canyon Creek Fish Hatchery, but there are not too many amenities.
You will basically have access to a vault toilet and nothing else during your stay. You will have a chance to see deer, turkeys, mountain lions, black bears, and elk from your campsite and when you are out hiking the trails.
There are many different hiking trails within the Payson ranger district of Tonto National Forest, so you will have plenty of hiking options to choose from. The Canyon Creek Trail is near this campground and it is ten miles in length.
Upper Canyon Creek Campground
East of Payson – 40 miles
You will find the Upper Canyon Creek Campground near the Mogollon Rim, as well as the Canyon Creek Fish Hatchery. There is no water at this campground or any other amenities. You will find that each campsite does have a picnic table and fire pit. There is one campsite that will work well for larger groups, but you will not be guaranteed that it is available since this is a first-come, first-served camping area.
There are quite a few hiking trails to consider when you are staying at this campground. One of the popular ones during the summer is Bell Trail because after three and a half miles you reach Beaver Creek. You can see waterfalls if you decide to do the Horton Creek Trail, while the Kelsey Springs and Dorsey Trails loop together to give you more than seven miles of hiking adventures with views.
FSR 405A Dispersed Camping Area
East of Payson – 40 miles
The FSR 405A Dispersed Camping Area is in Tonto National Forest near the Mogollon Rim. There are no amenities at this camping area, so you will need to pack carefully. You can easily hike down to Bear Flats or to the Tonto Creek. Cows roam the fields near this camping area, so you will want to watch where you are walking. However, it is kind of fun to watch the locals round up the cows.
Flowing Spring Campground
North of Payson – 4 miles
There are not really designated campsites in this area north of Payson, but you can pull off and camp. You will find a vault toilet near this camping area, but there are no other amenities. The Verde River is close to the Flowing Spring Campground.
You can fish in the river and most people take advantage of the peace and quiet too. You may want to consider hiking the Monument Peak Loop Trail, Cypress Trail, Boulders North and South Trail, Round Valley Trail, and the Peach Orchard and Loop Trail.
Off of the Barnhardt Trailhead – FSR 419
Near of Rye – 17 miles south of Payson
The dispersed camping area off the Barnhardt Trailhead on FSR 419 is perfect for both tents and RVs. There are quite a few spots to choose from, despite the fact that there are only five fire rings scattered around.
This is quite a scenic area and you can easily get to the Barnhardt Trailhead for a hiking adventure. This hike is between eight and ten miles and you will see a couple of waterfalls along the way. This is one of the best-dispersed camping areas near Payson, due to the stunning sunrises and sunsets.
With so many places to camp for free around Payson, Arizona thanks to the Tonto National Forest, it’s easy to have decision paralysis! Hopefully, the blog of our favorite dispersed camping spots gave you some areas on where to pitch your tent! We’ve picked our spots because of their proximity to Payson, their overall views from camp, and privacy.
So get outside, save some money, and enjoy the views from your free, dispersed camping spot in Payson!
Nick is the owner and regular content writer for Southwest Microadventures. When he’s not writing, you can find him rock climbing, peak bagging, mountain biking, backpacking, or drinking strong coffee.