12 Campsites for an Unforgettable Arizona Wilderness Experience
Sometimes, “Great Outdoors” is an understatement.
It'd be an understatement to say that the Great Outdoors has become a welcome respite over the past year. Biking is on the rise. RVs became mobile motels for a new generation of travelers. Camping (and glamping) is now a go-to weekend activity for backcountry aficionados and newbies alike. And with fall in full swing, Arizona might just be the ideal camping destination.
With its wildly diverse wilderness, the state is a massive playground for campers of all walks, whether you’re seeking a trip to one of the country’s most celebrated national parks or one of its most underrated. Here, jaw-dropping vistas can be discovered after a long hike or by simply pulling off the road. You’ll find red-rock deserts and dense forests, waterfalls and dry basins… and much of it’s all-seasons. Whether you’re looking to flee Phoenix or stop off for a while in the middle of a monthlong voyage, these are the Arizona campsites you need to hit.
This wonderland of rocks is nestled within Southern Arizona’s Chiricahuas Mountains, where incredible towering geologic formations encompass the alien landscape around Bonita Campground. There are gobs of accessible hiking trails, caves, and rhyolite rock pinnacles to explore here. But the incredibly dark skies steal the show, according to Amy C. Oliver, a public affairs officer for the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory and NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.
"Stepping out of the tent into the dark in the Chiricahuas, I was certain that I was stepping directly into the night sky,” says Oliver. “The thickness of the stars and the Milky Way was almost palpable. Here, the Milky Way and Zodiacal light are known to both grace the skies, and it's one of the few places that remains at the very bottom of the light pollution scale, meaning that the darkness you experience is the truest dark of all. You can't get much more perfect night sky viewing, unless you have a rocket."
Petrified Forest National Park, Homolovi State Park
Want to get away? Like, really get away? This standalone backcountry cabin located just outside of the boundaries of Petrified Forest National Park—renowned for its colorful badlands and awe-inspiring nighttime stargazing ops—is about as far away as you can get. Outfitted with just the right amount of amenities, the remote escape offers an idyllic experience for seasoned backcountry campers seeking some solitude. Getting there is an adventure in itself: The cabin is accessible by off-road capable vehicles or by hiking from the neighboring park.
Leave your camping gear at home: Under Canvas Grand Canyon has all of the camp-ready amenities you’ll need, down to the organic bath products and s’mores supplies. Located just outside of Arizona’s incredibly scenic Grand Canyon National Park, this glampground is set on 160 acres of juniper and piñon forest and offers a variety of upscale accommodations including suites outfitted with a king-size bed and safari-style tents equipped with wood-burning stoves. Its remote location is optimal for nighttime stargazing, and since you’ll be well-rested from sleeping on a plush bed, you’ll wake up ready to conquer that rim-to-rim hike.
Mogollon Rim, Coconino National Forest
“The Mogollon Rim is great for any type of camper,” says former Arizona resident, van lifer, and travel blogger Kate Moore. “The road to The Rim is paved and not very curvy, so you can easily get an RV to the top. There’s a paved hiking path along the rim that has some fantastic views. It’s relatively flat and easy for anyone to walk. The best part about the rim is the weather: You get a fresh breeze because of the geography so it stays fairly cool year-round. And the lack of humidity means there are hardly any bugs.”
Dreamed up by Italian architect Palo Soleroi, Arcosanti—easily one of Arizona's coolest small towns—began as an experimental project: a model of sorts for utopian sustainable living. Today, that 1970s mission still rings true. Situated in Arizona’s high-desert some 70 miles north of Phoenix, Arcosanti serves as a 24/7 urban laboratory, assuming a significant role in conversation surrounding environmental stewardship and inspiring research and fostering education for cultural transformation.
Arcosanti’s small resident population practices urban farming and arcology (the fusion of architecture and ecology) and teaches a series of unique workshops and public programs to curious visitors. Feeling curious? Book a campsite in the Minds Garden and see what’s happening at this urban lab for yourself. During your stay you’ll have full access to all of the public spaces (hello, pool!) and the opportunity to participate in community events, too.
Located just minutes from Phoenix and positioned on Schnepf Farms’ peach grove, the Cozy Peach offers nearby city-dwellers and wanderlusters from all-over the chance to get outside and connect with nature, without leaving too many of the comforts of modern life behind. The renovated retro Airstreams are equipped with an air-conditioning unit (because, Arizona), plush bedding, nice bathrooms, a flatscreen tv, and everything you need to make coffee in the morning. Each “campsite” has its own real grass front yard, brick patio, and individual firepit and bbq propane grill. In addition to the sweeping panoramic views of the San Tan Mountains, you can find freshly-baked goodies, like the best peach pie you’ll ever have, just around the corner.
Lake Havasu City
If you’re looking to enjoy the Great Outdoors without all this “peace and quiet” nonsense people keep going on about, pitch your tent on the lively shores of Lake Havasu. Not far from one of America’s greatest lake towns, this is one of the best party spots in Arizona.
Spend days floating around with friends or hopping from boat to boat before parking it at one of the park's campsites for the evening, each of which comes with a fire pit, a picnic table, and (usually) a shade ramada. Starting at $35 for a standard site (and $40 for beachfront sites), it’s definitely on the pricier side. But when you start to think of it as less of a campground fee and more of a cover charge, things will start to make a little more sense.
An advocate for both craft beer and conservation, Jonathan Buford of Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. is no stranger to Arizona’s outdoor spaces. When asked, Jonathan enthusiastically shared his favorite places to camp around The Grand Canyon State, one of which is just a short drive from Arizona Wilderness’ Downtown Phoenix beer garden.
“Head into Garden Valley via the First Water Trail in the Superstition Wilderness,” he says. “Chollas and Saguaros are so plentiful here and the wildflowers will dazzle. Remember, Leave No Trace isn't a hashtag. It's a lifestyle. Be a guest and merely observe. It is our duty to protect what is wonderful!”
Itching to explore the Superstition Wilderness without forgoing flush toilets and running water? Reserve a campsite at Lost Dutchman Campground. The developed campground, located within the boundaries of Lost Dutchman State Park, is car camping and RV-friendly and offers easy access to the area's most popular trail systems.
Monument Valley is basically the image that comes to mind when anyone who’s not from Arizona thinks of Arizona. It’s undeniably the picture of the American Southwest. And not only can you visit the iconic sandstone buttes, you can also camp just outside of the park limits. The View Campground certainly lives up to its name: Equipped with both RV sites and wilderness campsites, it’s positioned on the cliffside of the park, which undoubtedly makes for some impeccable sunrise views to enjoy with your instant camp coffee.
Tucson Mountain Park
There’s nothing so quintessentially Arizona as the magnificent Saguaro cactus—and at Gilbert Ray Campground, just miles down the road from Tuscon and Saguaro National Park, you can sleep amongst the desert-dwelling giants for as little as $10 a night. In the shadow of the Tuscon Mountains, you’ll find 130 RV sites plus 5 standard sites made specifically for tents, as well as centrally-located water, modern restrooms, and picnic tables. From there, you can climb up to the scenic Gates Pass Overlook for spectacular views out across the wilderness.
Coconino National Forest
Just outside Flagstaff and minutes away from Sunset Crater Volcano, this campground—named for the Bonito Lava Flow—is peppered with cinder cones, lava caves, and petrified rock bubbles that give it a seemingly otherworldly appearance. And according to Coconino Astronomical Society (CAS) member Klaus Brasch, the area is also prime for incredible nighttime stargazing thanks in large part to nearby Flagstaff’s designation as the first International Dark Skies City.
“You can enjoy spectacular naked-eye views of the Milky Way, something most big cities these days can't see at all," Brasch says. “Telescopically you can see many of the gems of astronomy, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. You can also enjoy meteor showers and great views of the moon. The area is also a haven for astrophotographers, as you can imagine.”
“When you come here, avoid any time near or around the full moon which washes out many other fainter objects,” he adds.
Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona
Sedona’s impressive lineup of scenic lookouts, hiking trails, and unbeatable all-season scenery are prime for a little campfire action. Enter Pine Flat, a postcard-perfect campground located along Oak Creek Canyon that’s set against a backdrop of orangey, red-hued rocks, and towering ponderosa pines all a scant 12 miles from Sedona’s city limits. This well-frequented destination is also just a stone's throw from Slide Rock State Park. Here, adventure seekers will find a popular swimming hole and an incredible natural waterslide that offers a thrilling, white-knuckle ride that spans 80-feet across a smooth sandstone surface.