Pitch A Tent, Stay A While

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Eager to escape the searing desert heat, Valley residents flock each summer to the cool respite of the Mogollon Rim.

In the high country, many of the visitors take advantage of the multitude of campgrounds that are inexpensive, accessible and often come complete with picnic tables, grills, drinking water, toilets and sewage dumps.

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In just about every corner of the Tonto National Forest, campers can find a place to pitch their tent. Rim country boasts a number of improved campgrounds, but there also are countless other sites for those who like roughing it.

For most visitors, the campgrounds located near hiking trails, fishing streams and in stands of majestic ponderosa pines and oaks are especially appealing.

Thankfully, there are many that fit that description.

Among the most popular are the lower and upper Tonto Creek campgrounds, 17 miles east of Payson off Forest Road 289 near Kohl's Ranch at an elevation of about 5,500 feet. Both sites are developed, which means they have most amenities to help make a visitor's stay comfortable.

The sites are open year-round, but there is no water or garbage pickup from Labor Day until Memorial Day.

Campground hosts will be on hand to greet you and there is a $5 fee per unit, per night.

Nearby activities including hiking the Horton Creek, Derrick and Highline trails as well as visits to the Tonto Fish Hatchery. Fishing and wading in the nearby creek are also popular pastimes.

For those who leave home without some of the essentials, there is a country store located in Christopher Creek.

It's difficult to think that campers could grow weary of meals cooked on an outdoor fire. If such a rarity does occur, hunger pangs can be satisfied at the nearby Creekside and Landmark restaurants, both offering some of the best cooking on the Rim.

Another Payson Ranger District campground popular with visitors is the Ponderosa site, 15 miles east of Payson on the south side of Highway 260 at an elevation of 5,600 feet.

Like the Tonto campgrounds, a host is in charge Memorial Day through Labor Day. The area features 81 units (that's what the Forest Service officials call individual campgrounds) and a waste disposal site is nearby. Recreational vehicles are welcome, but no hookups are available.

The 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 50 people, six motor homes and 10 vehicles. The sites are extremely popular for family reunions and church group gatherings. Campground features include fire pits, picnic tables, grills and toilets.

For the sports-minded, there are volleyball stands, horseshoe pits and a loop trail.

The newest recreation site in the Payson Ranger District is the Houston Mesa Campground and Horse Camp that opened in 1996. The site is 1 1/2 miles north of Payson at the junction of the Beeline Highway and Houston Mesa Road.

Visitors can find the site by turning east on Forest Service Road 199 for one-tenth of a mile. The campground is 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 RVs.

The camp also has a self-guided nature trail. Interpretive programs are presented in the amphitheater on weekends during the peak season.

Near the grounds is a six-mile loop trail to nearby Shoofly Village.

Forest Service officials recommend that visitors make reservations for their favorite camp or picnic grounds well in advance of their stay

However, not all campgrounds in the forest are on the Forest Service's computerized National Reservation Center (1-800-280-CAMP).

Some camps operate on a first-come, first-served basis.

A complete list of all campgrounds, fees, facilities and reservation requirements is available at the Payson Ranger District office on Highway 260 in Payson. For information and forest restrictions, call (928) 474-7900.

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