The cool mountain evenings and clear sunny days bring campers from around the state and around the corner to enjoy the largest stand of ponderosa pines in the nation.
In the early morning hours, quiet campers may see an elk grazing in a meadow or a flock of wild turkey.
You can pull over and camp anywhere but, because of dry conditions, campers may not have a fire, target shoot or smoke outside their vehicles in the Tonto National Forest (governed by Pleasant Valley and Tonto Ranger Districts.) These restrictions are valid and enforced even in developed campgrounds.
Cooking on propane stoves is fine.
The fire restrictions are likely to remain in effect until monsoons begin in July.
It is a good idea to contact the Forest Service office at (602) 225-5200 or (928) 474-7900 for current fire restrictions before you plan to camp.
Remember to pack out what you pack in.
Here is a summary of popular campgrounds within about 45 minutes of Payson:
- Houston Mesa Campground is located on Houston Mesa Road, a 10th of a mile east of the Beeline Highway.
HMC has single-family camping units and sites with no hook-ups.
HMC provides rest rooms and showers.
Interpretive trails are nearby.
Fees are $16 or $18 per night for single sites between Feb. 1 and Nov. 29.
Horse camping facilities are located just across the road, south of the family campgrounds.
Equestrian sites range between $14 and $75 per night.
There is a 14-day stay limit within any 30-day period, and reservations must be made four days in advance.
Call (928) 468-7135 for more information.
- Ponderosa Campground is located 15 miles east of Payson on Highway 260, near Christopher Creek.
Look for the campground sign on the south side of the state highway.
PC has single and group campsites with drinking water, barbecue grills and group cooking facilities.
During the peak season, March 28 to Nov. 2, single sites are $15 per night and group sites are $65. A rest room is available.
The fish hatchery is nearby, as well as hiking trails and horseback riding.
First come, first served sites are available. Reservations must be made three days in advance.
Phone the project office for more information at (928) 468-5021.
Tall Pines Market in Christopher Creek carries a variety of sundries, food and fishing equipment. If you get tired of cooking your own meals, Creekside Restaurant or the Zane Grey Steakhouse and Saloon at Kohl's Ranch serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- Camping at in the heavily pine and aspen wooded area near Woods Canyon Lake will cost your group $163.95 to $175.
There are many single campsites available.
Contact Recreation Resource Management of America at (928) 537-8888 for more information.
- Sink Hole is a primitive campground near Willow Springs Lake. The fee is $14 per night. Reservations may be made by calling (928) 535-4481.
- The campground at Sharp Creek in the Tonto National Forest has 18 standard and three group campsites. The fee is $17 per night. Reservations may be made online at www.recreation.gov.
- Ox Bow Estates, (928) 474-2042. Turn your RV west off the Beeline just south of Payson onto Oxbow Road. Follow the road to the RV campground at the end on the right-hand side. There are a few spaces for tents, but it is mostly a place to hook up your RV to cable TV and other amenities.
- Payson Campground, (928) 472-2267. This campground at 808 E. Highway 260 offers campers and RVers beautiful views and the sound of wind through huge ponderosa pines.
Tent sites cost $2 a night, RV sites cost $3. Discounts are available. Stay six nights and the seventh is free.
For those who like a little less roughness to their camping experience, there are a swimming pool, a playground and barbecue facilities. A pool table, games and Internet access can be found in the clubhouse.
- Happy Jack Lodge at the turnoff to Flagstaff has roomy suites, full RV hookups and a restaurant. Call (928) 477-3805 for details.
Campsites along the Upper Tonto Creek, the East Verde, Flowing Springs and Clint's Well do not require reservations. They provide no amenities.
For further information about Woods Canyon Recreation Area, Apache-Sitgreaves Ranger District and Willow Springs Lake, call (928) 535-4481.
The Payson Ranger District Station is located at 1009 E. Highway 260, Payson. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, (928) 474-7900; online visit www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto.
Editor's note: The fire danger is already at a high level throughout the mountains of Arizona. Weather will dictate the status of the forests' accessibility. The fire danger may become too elevated for the forests of the Rim Country to remain open for recreational use. Contact the numbers above before making plans to camp out in the Rim Country as the summer progresses.