Things to Do in Tonto National Forest

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The Tonto National Forest sign in front of the majestic red rock mountains in the background.

Each year Tonto National Forest welcomes almost six million visitors. Only 30 minutes from the Valley of the Sun and 30 minutes outside Phoenix, you’ll find Tonto National Forest in an area you could spend weeks exploring. With numerous hiking trails, camping sites, and fishing lakes, adventurers may love this part of America.

Let’s learn more!

Where Is Tonto National Forest? 

As the largest of the six national forests in Arizona, Tonto National Forest covers over 2.9 million acres in the central part of the state. Because of its various landscapes and range in altitude, this national forest offers outdoor activities year-round, from hiking to fishing and kayaking. 

The Sonoran Desert lies at the lowest point of 1,400 ft, and the Mogollon Rim stands at the highest elevation of 7,400 ft. You’ll also find the Apache Trail and Theodore Roosevelt Lake in this national forest.

Best Time of Year to Visit Tonto National Forest

Because of the varied landscapes and altitudes, each season offers a different experience. The beautiful spring has blossoming flowers and mild weather. The summer gets hot during the day, but the temperature can dip into the 50s at night. 

Fall arrives late in Tonto National Forest. With colors changing in November, it’s a great time to visit during the milder temperatures. Occasionally, you might see snow, though it melts rather quickly even though the low temperature regularly dips below 30 degrees.

This part of Arizona has relatively mild weather most of the year. If you’re flexible, the best time of year to visit Tonto National Forest is spring or fall. But you won’t go wrong if you choose to go in the winter or summer either. Just prepare for more extreme temperatures.

A red and orange sunset over the desert mountains and land of Tonto National Forest.

Things to Do in Tonto National Forest

With great weather conditions comes excellent outdoor opportunities. At Tonto National Forest, you can explore cliff dwellings, observe various wildlife and vegetation, and learn about the Tonto Apache and Yavapai history. Let’s take a look at a few specific things to do.

Kayak on Saguaro Lake

You’ll find Saguaro Lake in the Sonoran Desert. Here you can experience exquisite sunrises and sunsets as the canyon walls reflect beautiful orange, red, and pink hues. On the shoreline, you’ll see the saguaro cactus. It’s a beautiful location and a great place to kayak, paddleboard, or go boating or fishing.

If you don’t have a kayak, you can rent one in the area. Check out Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch or Riverbound Sports. You might even want to schedule a tour.

Saguaro Lake is a beautiful water feature within Tonto National Forest with mountains in the background.

Apache Trail Scenic Drive

The Apache Trail in Tonto National Forest was established in 1998. These 39 miles of byway offer beautiful scenic views of canyons, lakes, and wilderness. 

Take note that this road is very curvy and narrow at times. Towing is strongly discouraged along this route. It’s a beautiful drive, but you want to pay attention. Stop at the overlooks to take in the views instead of trying to look while driving.

Hike Rim Lake Vista Trail

Rim Lake Vista Trail offers amazing views overlooking the Mogollon Rim. This is one of the more highly trafficked areas, so arrive early to avoid crowds. 

July and August have many lightning storms, and the Mogollon Rim is the second most lightning-struck area in the world. Pay attention to the weather forecast before venturing out.

The trail is about three and a half miles at an elevation of 7,500 ft. It’s rated easy to moderate, so most skill levels would feel comfortable hiking it. It’s also mostly paved and easily accessible by wheelchair.

Visit Tonto National Monument

You can see ancient cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument. Here you can learn about the Salado culture, their farming, hunting, and gathering practices. The nearby museum showcases ancient artifacts of pottery and woven textiles. The Superstition Mountains on the edge of the Sonoran desert surround the majestic landscape.

Cliff dwellings that can be found in Tonto National Forest in the Superstition Mountains.

See the Theodore Roosevelt Lake Dam

Northeast of Phoenix on the Salt River is the Theodore Roosevelt Lake Dam. In the late-1890s, farmers wanted to build a dam to protect their agricultural livelihoods. 

The droughts during that time had destroyed their farmland, and they hoped a dam would store water for use during the hot, arid summers. President Roosevelt agreed and campaigned for federal aid.

Today the reservoir provides excellent opportunities for fishing. Conveniences around the lake include marinas, piers, tackle shops, and boat rentals. With 22 miles of fishing and 128 miles of shoreline, the outdoorsman may enjoy Theodore Roosevelt Lake.

Where to Camp in Tonto National Forest

Tonto Basin Ranger District has numerous campsites. You can camp on the shores of Roosevelt Lake or group camp at Frazier Campground. Let’s take a look at one winter campground.

Tortilla Campground

Travelers can stay at the Tortilla Campground from October to April and enjoy the cooler temperatures of Arizona. Located directly across the Apache Trail, this campground offers scenic vistas of the rugged mountains and desert skies of Tonto National Forest. 

They also have a restaurant and general store onsite. Roosevelt Lake lies 25 miles away. However, you should note that your trailer must be under 30 ft, and you can only stay for up to 14 days. It has sewer and water hook-ups but no electricity.

Time to Visit

The beautiful and historical Tonto National Forest has impressive views and varied landscapes. You have seemingly endless outdoor recreational opportunities with options for hiking, kayaking, fishing, birding, biking, horseback riding, and more. 

If you haven’t put Tonto National Forest on your list of places to visit yet, you need to. This area of the United States offers so much learning and historical significance. Travelers of all ages may enjoy a visit. So when will you go?

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