Camping for Free in Arizona – Top Ten Best Spots in the AZ National Forests

 

There are so many beautiful places to go camping in Arizona! Some require fees and some don’t.  I put together a list of ten free (dispersed) campgrounds and a summary of each located within the Arizona National Forests.

The USDA Forest Service defines Dispersed camping as a term “used for camping anywhere in the National Forest outside of a developed campground”. This type of camping is more primitive, and generally has fewer or no amenities such as trash collection, water or toilets.   In my humble opinion, I would much rather have more solitude than features like a picnic table or trash cans.   There tends to be less people at primitive sites because there are not as many amenities.

 

Arivaca Lake Campground

This remote and tranquil campsite is located in the Coronado National Forest.  Picture this-  rolling grasslands, beautiful rocky buffs,a serene lake and distant mountains.  If you really want peace and quiet during your camping stay, then this place is a good fit.  The only amenities here include a toilet and a primitive boat ramp.   At Arivaca Lake, you can fish for blue gill, catfish, or largemouth bass.   This dispersed campsite is open year round.  Be sure to bring your own water and a valid fishing license is required.

I think the name Arivaca is pretty cool so I decided to look up it’s meaning.  “Ari” (Ali) means “little,” “vaca” (wahia) refers to a place where water comes up.  Early Spaniards recorded the name as Aribac.

For more information, contact Region V-Tucson 520-628-5376

 

Blue Crossing Campground

Hiking trail in the Blue Range Primitive Area, AZ

 

The Blue Crossing Campground is located in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, and is at an elevation of 6200 ft. This no fee campsite is remote, serene, and off the beaten path.  With a 14 day stay limit, you will be at a spot that makes a great base camp for exploring the Blue Range Primitive Area.  Amenities include 4 campsites, (2 with Adirondack-style shelters) camping trailer (up to 16 ft), picnic table and vault toilets.  The best season to go is spring and fall, but this also aligns with the hunting season which is busy.  Have a great time checking out nearby petroglyphs, fishing for trout, or hiking the Tutt Creek Trail #105.

For more information, call the Alpine Ranger District:  928-339-5000.

Chevelon Canyon Lake Campground

Image Courtesy of AZ Highways

 

This campsite is also located in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.  This is the National Forest where we hold our youth camps so of course I love this entire area.  You can’t go wrong with this campsite. Awaken your senses with the smell of ponderosa pine, juniper and pinyon pine and incredible views.  With a fairly short hike, you can catch some rainbow & brown trout at Chevelon Canyon Lake.  Amenities include tent camping, camping trailer, picnic tables, vault toilets.  If you would rather skip the vault toilets and have your own, check out my article on unique camping gifts.

Best season to camp here is between May through October.  For more information, call the Black Mesa Ranger District:  928-535-7300.

 

Childs Dispersed Campground

 

This campsite is located in the Coconino National Forest and is a very popular dispersed camping area.  It is close to what used to be an operational power plant building on the Verde River.  Here is where you can access the ruins of the Verde Hot Springs (once famous resort) with a short hike upstream.  There are no amenities in this camping area- and no fees.  The Fossil Creek in general pulls in a lot of visitors, so don’t expect to have this campsite all to yourself.

For more information, contact the Red Rock Ranger District:  928-203-2900

 

Cinder Hills OHV Area Campground

 

This campsite is also in the Coconino National Forest and is best for those who have OHV’s. This place is know as one of the best places in Arizona to ride.  With the volcanic cinder cones, craters and  ponderosa pine trees; it is definitely a unique area to camp.  It is free to camp here- but there are no amenities either.  Please abide by the Leave No Trace principles- pack it in, pack it out.  Be careful as you are pulling in with your vehicles/RV’s because some of the trees have little dug out tracks around them (like the one in the image above).  I would not recommend this place for families- unless you go there specifically to ride.  It is known that locals party here too so consider this as you are planning where you want to go.

The Cinder Hills OHV Area is managed by the Forest Service- 928-526-0866.

 

 

Indian Hollow Campground

This campground located in the Kaibab National Forest is open year round, and the 3 sites are on a first come first serve basis.  Not great for RV’s or large groups of people.  There is a vault toilet but water is not available.  Things to do include sightseeing, wildlife viewing, and hiking. This campsite provides access to a network of trails within the Kanab Creek Wilderness area.

For more information, call the North Kaibab Ranger District at 928-643-7395 or the Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center at 928-643-7298.

 

Prescott Basin Dispersed Campgrounds

Bradshaw Mountains

 

These dispersed campgrounds are located in the beautiful Prescott National Forest within the Bradshaw Ranger District.  With 59,000 acres, this land makes up 4% of the PNF.  You can stay in these dispersed campsites for up to 7 days within a 30 day time frame. This is to keep people from actually “living” in the woods.  These rugged and majestic campsites are closer to town so you could get away at a moments notice.

Look for the marked vertical poles that read, “Dispersed Campsite”.  Some of the sites have a fire ring, a place to park and an area to set up your tent.   The Prescott National Forest is a great place for  wildlife viewing, hiking, and horseback riding.

Here is a map of the entire Prescott Basin- you will see there are many campsites to choose from.

 

Sawmill Flats Campground

Sierra Ancha Mountains

 

If you enjoy being active while you camp, then this is a great choice!  This campground is located in the Tonto National Forest (Sierra Ancha Mountains); sitting at 5400 foot elevation, there are numerous opportunities for camping and other various types of outdoor recreation.  The summer is a popular time due to folks wanting to cool down from the hot AZ sun.

Situated along Rose Creek, this site is between the Salome Wilderness and the Sierra Ancho Wilderness.  You have access to a trailhead for hiking located just a few miles away.  Go on a picnic,  watch birds and other various wildlife including hawks, eagles, javalina, white tail deer and coyotes.  You can also go white water rafting on the Verde River, mountain biking or horseback riding on the rugged terrain.

There are 5 primitive campsites in the pines with tables and grills, no passes or fees required (exception is if you have over 75 people).  You can park a trailer at this campground if it’s under 16ft, and there is a 14 day stay limit.  There are no trash receptacles so be prepared to pack out what you packed in.

For more information:  Payson Ranger District (928) 474-7900

 

 

Sheeps Bridge Campground

 

Located in the Tonto National Forest, Sheeps Bridge was constructed in 1943-44 for- you guessed it, so sheep could cross!  The bridge cost $7,277 to build and in 1978 the bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places.  You do need a four wheel drive & high clearance vehicle to get into this campsite.  It is very remote so there are no amenities- you must bring your own water and abide by the pack it in, pack it out rule.  There are zero fees and a permit is not required to camp here.  You literally can camp right next to the river- but be cautious of the fact that the water levels can fluctuate greatly depending on the season.  There is also a hidden hotsprings near the river – people get naked here so be careful if you have kids!

Cave Creek Ranger District (480)-595-3300

Sycamore Campground

 

Located in the Coronado National Forest, Sycamore Campground has 7 dispersed campgrounds that sit on the banks of West Turkey Creek. With the nearby stream, you can unwind from a stressful week. Sycamore and oak trees provide nice shady spots to just relax and read.  If you would rather hike, then you’ll be pleased with the variety of trails that you can choose from that start from the campsite. Amenities include tent camping, camping trailers (16’), picnic tables, toilets, and parking.   Water is not available so you will need to bring your own.

For more information, call the Douglas Ranger District: 520-364-3468.

 

Summary

Arizona has an array of free campgrounds throughout the National Forests.  I like to share this type of information in case you didn’t know about one of the places I’ve mentioned.  We have amazing National Forests and parks that are for us to enjoy.

Do you have another amazing free campground that you’d like to share?  Please leave a comment below!

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