The Tonto National Forest is comprised of more than two and a half million acres of lush land. It is the largest national forest in the state of Arizona and the fifth largest in the entire country. You will want to place this national forest on your travel, and hiking, bucket list, because there are almost nine hundred miles of trails and quite a bit of nature to explore. There are many different places of interest within Tonto National Forest, so you must plan your trip properly if you do not want to miss any of them. You can easily camp for free in many parts of the Tonto National Forest, once you know where those areas are located.
If you’re ready to save some money on your next Microadventure, here are my personal favorite free dispersed camping sites and spots in the Tonto National Forest:
Catfish Point Picnic and Dispersed Camping Area
The Catfish Point dispersed camping spot can be found in Cave Creek on the Horseshoe Reservoir. The views of the surrounding mountains only add to the ambiance of the nearby remote lake, which means you may be tempted to stay past your fourteen-day limit. The Verde River Trail is comprised of many different sections that include the Midnight Mesa Loop, Highwater-Verde, and Twin Buttes. You can reach any of them from your camping site but be prepared to get wet when traversing the river in some locations.
Colcord Ridge Dispersed Camping Area
This free dispersed camping site is only five miles from the Canyon Creek Fish Hatchery, which is perfect if you want to do a little fishing in between hikes. There are many bears living near these campsites, as well as mountain lions, elk, and other animals, so make sure you keep your food in a safe place. The Colcord Road Trail is twelve and a half miles long, but you can easily do part of it and divert to another trail you find along the way.
Bulldog Canyon OHV Camping Area
Bulldog Canyon is a popular camping destination for off-roading, but that doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy it in between your hikes. You can enter Bulldog Canyon from either the north or south entrance on FR 10 or from the western entrance on FR 3554. The Bulldog Canyon trail is just over ten miles, but there is an option that is almost fifteen miles as well. While off-roaders need a permit before they can hit the trails, it is important to note that you do not need a permit to hike this trail or any of the others in Bulldog. As you are hiking, you might come across an open gate. If this happens, you must close the gate and lock it. This is necessary to keep everyone using this area safe.
Diversion Dam’s Camping Area
There are five dispersed camping areas within the Diversion Dam area, and they include Rafter Take-Out, HZ Wash, Diversion Dam, EADS Wash, and the Eucalyptus Access Points. While I prefer Diversion Dam, each one of these offers excellent camping sites. The Salt River Overlook Trail is only a half-mile, but it allows you to look out over the Salt River. Another hiking option involves hiking along the Salt River until you reach the Lower Salt River Nature Trail, which is two and a half miles long. This trail is not marked as well as it could be, but numerous paths will get you to the same spot at the end.
Juniper Dispersed Camping Area
There are many trees in this dispersed camping spot, and you can spend your nights camping near the small creek. The Cave Creek Trail is a wonderful hiking option when camping in this location. This ten-mile hike can be combined with hikes on the numerous trails that connect to it. This trail will have you beginning at the Spur Cross Trailhead and climbing into Chalk Canyon until you reach the Skunk Basin area. Then you will follow Cave Creek. If you have the time, I recommend trying out the Quien Sabe, Skull Mesa, or Cottonwood Trails.
Upper Canyon Creek Dispersed Camping Area
The Canyon Creek Fish Hatchery is also near this dispersed camping spot, which means you will need to be prepared for wildlife during your trip. There are ten campsites in all, but only campsite number nine is large enough for a bigger group. There are two popular trailheads located here and they are the Horton Creek Trail 285 and Derrick Trail 33. The Horton Creek Trail follows the Horton Creek and you will see numerous waterfalls along the way. The Derrick Trail will take you an entire day if you choose to combine it with the Highline Trail. If you don’t, you can easily start at the eastern end of the campground and follow the trail until you reach the junction and turn around to return to your site.
Airplane Flat Dispersed Camping Area
There are quite a few dispersed camping spots at Airplane Flat, but you must use caution with campfires at all of them, as fire restrictions are common in this area. There is a swimming hole nearby at Canyon Creek, which is half a mile from the entrance of the campground. Mogollon Rim views can be seen during a hike on the See Canyon Hiking Trail, but I recommend the Mogollon Rim Vista Loop instead. You can easily combine the Vista Loop with the Sinkhole, Rim Vista, Drew Canyon, and parts of the Highline Trail. This is one of the best hikes in Arizona, so keep your focus and keep hiking until you have completed it all.
The Tonto National Forest hosts some great free dispersed camping sites and spots- you just need to work for them a little bit! They might be a little out in the boonies, but everyone loves saving money on camping. So get out there this season and enjoy some free camping in the beautiful Tonto National Forest in Arizona.
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.