Long neglected Camp Tontozona will take on a fresh new look when Tonto Creek Camp assumes management on May 1.
The 36-acre campsite located just east of Payson in the Tonto National Forest has been renowned since 1960 as a summer training camp for Arizona State University football teams — two of which went to Rose Bowl games.
Over the years, Tontozona became known as the most scenic and pristine preseason campsite in collegiate football.
But three years ago, Dennis Erickson — then a second-year coach for the Sun Devils — decided the camp no longer fit the needs of the football team and decided to keep the players in Tempe for pre-season training and practices.
That upset Devils disciples to the point some decided to boycott ASU games — but that’s another story.
Since the departure of the Devils, Tontozona has sat alone, receiving only a handful of visitors — other than mountain lions, skunks, deer, elk and snakes, that is.
A pole-vaulting camp has been there, as was a high school football camp and several school science outings.
But Tonto Creek Camp, an organization formed solely for the purpose of managing Tontozona, has taken over supervision of the legendary camp and TCC’s plan is to turn it into a hot spot site for events, camps and retreats. Among those who will have access to the high mountain site are ASU faculty, staff, alumni and retirees and the community, including those in Payson.
Tonto Creek Camp Executive Director Tom Fraker touts the camp as a “perfect setting for groups of all sizes, accommodating those looking for a respite, get-togethers of family and friends or for family reunions and business conferences.”
Among those who’ve already made leasing arrangements are several Valley area high school football and soccer teams, a veterans’ club, an ASU wilderness group, an earth science organization, ASU’s College of Nursing and the university’s art college.
The nursing college will host a camp to treat patients suffering from anxiety and depression, and the veterans’ organization will sponsor a camp for families of deployed military personnel.
Fraker also expects the pole vaulting camp to return this summer and other camps will be held in flag football and lacrosse.
“We are developing different programs for the camp,” says Fraker. “There will be opportunity for tremendous learning experiences.”
In addition, Fraker expects Tonto Creek Camp will soon build at Tontozona new and upgraded amenities and services including a challenge court and sport court, a new event and game room and outdoor sports.
Tontozona also features comfortable lodging in fully furnished cabins, playing fields, classrooms and a meeting hall located in one of the most pristine areas in the state.
The camp is surrounded by majestic ponderosa pine-covered mountains, has a creek running through it and is the starting point for several hiking trails. Horseback riding and fishing can be done nearby.
In taking over management of the camp, Fraker emphasizes ASU will retain ownership and if at some point in the future an ASU football coach decides to return Sun Devils teams to Tontozona for pre-season training, that would be permissible.
Also, allowing Tontozona to be managed by Tonto Creek Camp is expected to provide a bit of financial relief for the cash-strapped university.
At least that’s the opinion of Sam Wheeler, ASU’s Executive Director of Auxiliary Business Services.
“Under these difficult financial times at the university, we’re pleased Tonto Creek Camp was able to come forward and help maintain this special ASU tradition,” Wheeler said. “ASU and Tonto Creek Camp are committed to providing a seamless transition for all the Sun Devils, their family and friends and community organizations who enjoy spending time at Camp T each year.”
For the near future, it doesn’t appear Sun Devil football teams will resume training at the mountain retreat, but the fabled camp should soon be transformed into a beehive of activity befitting the grand lady that was discarded and forsaken after so many years of loyalty and service to ASU teams.