One of the most popular and least expensive ways Arizona desert dwellers have of escaping the searing summer heat is a visit to the Rim country.
Many of those who escape the sweltering heat head to the cool pines, where a variety of campgrounds await them in the Tonto National Forest.
Forest Service officials recommend visitors make reservations well in advance of the peak season Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Visitors may make reservations for their favorite camp or picnic ground through a computerized system at the National Reservation Center (1-800-280-CAMP).
Not all campgrounds in the forests are on the reservation system. Some operate on a first-come, first-served basis. However, campers who occupy a reserved site without a reservation can be cited and fined.
A complete list of all campgrounds, fees, facilities and reservation requirements is available at the Payson Ranger District Office on Highway 260 in Payson.
Camping facilities in the Rim country referred to as "units" by Forest Service officials are classified as either developed, semi-developed or back country.
Developed campgrounds have water faucets, garbage pickup, toilets, picnic tables and fire grates. Camping at these sites is usually limited to 14 days.
Semi-developed campgrounds usually have toilets and fire-rings but no designated campsites, and no fees are charged.
Back-country camping areas, also known as dispersed, have no facilities.
One of the most popular developed sites is the Ponderosa Campground, located 15 miles east of Payson on the south side of Highway 260 at an elevation of 5,600 feet.
A campground host is in charge of the site through Labor Day.
The area features 61 units and a waste disposal site ($5 fee) is nearby. Recreational vehicles are welcome but no hookups are available.
Fee is $12 per night and there is a seven-day stay limit.
Directly across Highway 260 are the Ponderosa and Black Jack group camps.
Each camp is capable of hosting up to 50 people, six motor homes and 10 vehicles. Campground features include picnic tables, fire pits, barbecue grills, toilets, volleyball stands, horseshoe pits and a loop trail. Fees are $50 per night.
Tonto Creek Campgrounds
Also popular among visitors to the Rim country, especially those who want to camp near a waterway, are the lower and upper Tonto Creek campgrounds.
Both sites are developed and located 17 miles east of Payson off Forest Road 289 near Kohl's Ranch at an elevation of about 5,500 feet.
Activities include hiking the nearby Horton Creek, Derrick and Highline trails as well as visits to the nearby Tonto Fish Hatchery. Fishing and wading in the nearby creek are also popular pastimes.
The East Verde River complex of 10 campgrounds is open year-round and no fees are charged. However, only the East Verde Crossing and Flowing Springs sites have toilets, and campers are asked to "pack-it-in/pack-it-out" there are no garbage or disposal facilities.
Fishing, wading and hiking are activities of choice. At the 5-acre Cold Springs campground, a series of nearby waterfalls provide fun and frolic for campers.
Houston Mesa Campground
The newest recreation area in the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest, the Houston Mesa Campground and Horse Camp, opened in 1996.
The site, at an elevation of about 5,200 feet, is located 1 1/2 miles north of Payson at the junction of Beeline Highway and Houston Mesa Road.
Visitors should turn east on Forest Road 199 for .1 of a mile. The campground is located on the north side of the road and the horse camp on the south.
Both sites are developed and equipped with coin-operated shower facilities, tables, grills, rest rooms and a dump station for recreational vehicles.
Houston Mesa also has a 1/2 mile, self-guided nature trail, and interpretive programs are presented in the amphitheater on weekends during the peak season.
A $12 per night fee is charged and there is a 10-day stay limit.
The horse camp features 29 units, one of which is a group facility capable of hosting up to 75 campers. Horse hitch-lines are located in each unit and 11 have corrals. There is also a water trough and hitching rail.
Near the grounds is a six-mile loop trail to nearby Shoofly Village ruins.
Fees are $10 per night for family units and $65 for the group site.
Reservations are recommended at both Houston Mesa campgrounds.
In addition to the 20-plus campgrounds in the Tonto Forest, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest boasts an almost equal number including the highly popular sites at Woods Canyon and Willow Springs lakes.
At the Christopher Creek Campground, there are 43 sites featuring water and bathrooms.
No reservations are required for the individual sites at Christopher Creek, however, reservations are required for the group site.