Arizona has a not-so-dirty little secret: It’s home to some of the most crisp and spectacular high-elevation wonders in the country. Bed down in the middle of it all with our low-hassle guide to the state’s top camping spots, from glamping in a safari tent to sleeping in a sheep wagon.
Not everyone is a seasoned camping pro. Let’s review the basics before embarking on our weekend wilderness sojourn.
Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a national organization that educates us on how to enjoy wildlands responsibly. Here are the group’s seven principles every outdoor adventurer should know:
- Plan ahead. (i.e. Don’t freestyle it.) Learn everything you can about the area and the regulations for its use.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces. (i.e. Don’t get swept away.) Use established campsites and keep camps small and 200 feet from water. One Arizona-specific rule for setting up camp is to keep out of washes, which are prone to deadly flash floods. How to know if you’re in a wash? “Look around for buildup of grass and branches at the base of trees, which happens when water moves through at high speeds,” says Arizona State Parks and Trails ranger Louis Juers. Another warning sign: smooth, round rocks.
- Dispose of waste properly. (i.e. Poop matters.) Bury waste in a small hole 6-8 inches deep and at least 200 feet away from water.
- Leave what you find. (i.e. No souvenirs.) Don’t damage, deface or remove natural objects or cultural artifacts. Don’t build structures, dig trenches or alter anything.
- Minimize use and impact of fire. (i.e. Be careful when you light up.) Use a lightweight stove instead. If you build a fire, use only small pieces of dead wood found on the ground and existing fire rings, and use three 5-gallon pails of water to douse it.
- Respect wildlife. (i.e. No molestar la fauna.) Watch wildlife from a distance and never approach, feed or follow. Seal food tightly and store out of reach – no food in the tent. “Crumbs will attract animals to your tent, from ants to javelina and bobcats,” Juers says.
- Be considerate of others (i.e. Turn down your Buckshot 2.0 bluetooth.) Preserve the natural quiet. A little R&R is the reason you’re out there in the first place, right?
In addition to following Leave No Trace ethics, keep these helpful tips in mind.
This is true during your camping experience, but it’s also important to hydrate before you head into the great outdoors. “I tell people to pre-hydrate one day before their trip,” Juers says. Drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day, or about two liters. This is plenty when it comes to pre-hydrating, as long as you are sipping slowly and consistently throughout the day.
Pack clothes you can wear – and remove – in layers. Moisture-wicking shorts and tees for sunny days, and long-sleeve shirts, leggings, hoodies and a knit cap for cool evenings. Don’t forget a dry pair of socks (preferably wool) that you can slip on at night for sleeping.
Bring a well-stocked first-aid kit, blister cream, sunscreen, After Bite, flashlight/headlamp, batteries and a Swiss Army knife. Juers suggests a hard-rigid comb and tweezers. Both will come in handy should you encounter jumping cholla cactus and need to extricate yourself from its spiny grasp.
Pack it out.
If you bring it to the wilderness (including trash), take it back out with you. “I tell campers to pack out everything, plus one more item,” Juers says. “So if you see a water bottle or a granola bar wrapper on the trail, pick it up.”
“I don’t own a tent. Or a sleeping bag. Or a backpack.” Instead of digging out worse for wear gear from your Girl Scout days, or fashioning a tent from bed sheets, make it easy on yourself. Arizona Hiking Shack rents everything you’ll need for your excursion. Prices reflect 5-day rental. 3244 E. Thomas Rd., Phoenix, 602-944-7723, hikingshack.com
Rugged yet airy (just 2.6 lbs.), this Osprey internal frame pack is perfect for distance hiking trips. $25
This Western Mountaineering lightweight down bag rolls up tightly for rugged backpacking. $20
Shack manager Rob Blanchard can set you up in a Eureka tent suited for 1-8 people. $20-$65
The compact MSR “pocket rocket” comes with a folding pot and can boil water in 3-4 mins. $10
The Sawyer filter purifies up to 100,000 gallons of water, so you can drink “right from the source.” $10
From Ozark Trail, this electric torch features high, medium and low settings. Bring on the card games! $10
WATER PLAY ALL DAY
Pine trees stretching 100 feet shade Fool Hollow Lake Recreation Area in Show Low, which makes it the ideal beat-the-heat retreat. With 31 tent campsites and 92 RV sites, there’s plenty of room for families to stay and play. Fool Hollow keeps kids entertained with offerings like Junior Ranger activities and an interactive game that teaches children (and adults) about the area’s wildlife. For your indoors-oriented little one, there’s a 16-page water-themed coloring book. During the summer, park store J&T’s Wild-Life Outdoors rents kayaks, canoes and paddleboards to guests. After an active day on the water, you’ll be grateful for the hot showers located along the camping loops.
Tips: Bring closed-toe water shoes to protect your delicate city feet from the lake’s rocky bed.
Fees: $7 per vehicle.
If You Go: 1500 N. Fool Hollow Rd., Show Low, 877-697-2757, azstateparks.com/fool-hollow
Discovering the perfect camp spot takes effort, especially when you have to use an oar and your biceps to access it. But it’s also part of the fun. Jump in your kayak or canoe and set sail for one of Patagonia Lake’s 12 boat-in-only campsites. Located at the Patagonia Lake State Park, 60 miles south of Tucson, each site comes with a picnic table, fire ring and plenty of idyllic peace and quiet. Bring your fishing pole, as the lake is a popular spot for anglers to reel in large-mouth bass, catfish and trout. And don’t forget your hiking boots – downstream of the 250-acre lake is Sonoita Creek State Natural area with 20 miles of trails to satisfy your wanderlust. Average high in July: A not-tortuous 94 degrees F.
Tips: If you plan to fish you’ll need a valid Arizona fishing license, available for purchase at the park store and marina, which also has boat rentals.
Fees: $15 per vehicle.
If You Go: 400 Patagonia Lake Rd., Patagonia, 877-697-2757, azstateparks.com/patagonia-lake
With 10 of Your Friends
When the blazing sun of summer gets you down, head for Lake Powell near Page – it’s the second-largest manmade reservoir in the country. At the lake, Antelope Point Marina lets you choose from eight models of houseboats on which you can eat, sleep and ply the crystal-blue waters. Bringing a big group? Go for the 70-foot Titanium. Four private bedrooms, six queen beds and two sofa beds can sleep 12 people. Looking for a waterslide on board? You got it. How about a hot tub? Done. A wet bar, outdoor grill and surround sound? They’re all aboard, matey. In fact, everything you can think of – and even things you haven’t – are provided for you, from linens and pillows to paper towels and a cheese grater.
Tips: When the sea calls, there’s no time to waste, especially when you need to buy provisions for a large group. Enter Lake Powell Groceries. Tell ’em what you want, and they’ll gather up the goods and deliver everything directly to your boat. You pay the cost of groceries, plus a delivery fee. Info: 928-660-0752, lakepowellgroceries.com
Fees: Prices vary per boat model; for Titanium, cost is from $4,500 for three days.
If You Go: 22 S. Navajo Dr., Page, 800-255-5561, lakepowellhouseboating.com
REMOTE GETAWAY WITHOUT A SOUL IN SIGHT
For sublime seclusion, what could be better than your own alpine-forested swath of land on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim? How about that scenario, plus a luxury campsite? American Safari Camp marries posh lodging with the serenity of a quiet retreat at one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. The property’s canvas tents boast a bohemian vibe and comfy beds, fresh towels, private toilets and hot showers. Did we mention the private chef who will craft locally sourced meals for you? What about the stargazing telescopes that take full advantage of the magic of an Arizona night sky? Later, camp guides will lead you on a tour of the Grand Canyon. The company also offers glamping experiences at Lake Powell (pictured below).
Tips: Bring friends and family – each tent can be set up with queen beds, twin beds, even bunk beds.
Fees: From $450 per night.
If You Go: 858-880-5220, americansafaricamp.com
With Creature Comforts
Flagstaff’s Nordic Village sits squarely in the picturesque Coconino National Forest, but with “village” in the name, you might be wondering how we define “remote getaway.” It’s true that Nordic Village has a cluster of yurts just 100 feet from the parking lot. But for the alone-in-the-wilderness experience you seek, reserve a yurt tucked back about 2-3 miles from the property’s entrance. These blissfully isolated accommodations come equipped with lanterns, sleeping pads, gas grill and wood for the stove. Word of advice: Since you’ll be schlepping in your gear, including bedding and food, pack only the necessities. Once you’re settled in the yurt, enjoy day hikes along the forested trails, or hang a hammock and read a book.
Tips: If you’d rather travel from car to yurt sans pack, opt for Nordic Village’s gear shuttle to the backcountry yurts.
Fees: $50-60 for two people.
If You Go: 16848 U.S. 180, Flagstaff, 928-220-0550, arizonanordicvillage.com
For Rugged Backpackers
The West has the Pacific Crest Trail. The East claims the Appalachian Trail. We have the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile journey that snakes through deserts, forests, mountains and canyons from the Arizona-Mexico border to Utah. A few intrepid hikers and cyclists attempt the entirety of the trail at once, but most complete it in sections. The 28.1-mile Passage 15 of the Arizona Trail is an ideal two-day hike, with camping at the mid-point. Day One starts from Freeman Road Trailhead about 30 miles southeast of Queen Creek and takes you through 13 miles of blessedly unblemished desert, cutting through the Tortilla Mountains, a wonderland of rare bird species, shapely granite outcroppings and flowering cacti. Day Two takes you from the mid-point camp spot to the Kelvin-Riverside Bridge, a 15-mile, mostly downhill trek with plenty of wildlife to spot. Late Flagstaff schoolteacher Dale Shewalter gets credit for dreaming up the border-to-border hiking trail in Arizona.
Tips: Feeling ravenous? Order pizza on the trail. Old Time Pizza in Kearny delivers to backpackers within 2-3 miles of Kelvin-Riverside Bridge. Info: 520-363-5523.
If You Go: Bring two cars. Park one at Freeman Road Trailhead at the southern end of Passage 15. Park the other at your endpoint of Kelvin-Riverside Bridge. For directions, call 602-252-4794 or visit aztrail.org; or contact the Bureau of Land Management’s Tucson office at 520-258-7200.
ECO-FRIENDLY GREEN RETREAT
At Shash Diné Eco-Retreat in Page, give the fam a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sleep in a sheep wagon. Roomier than you might think, the retreat’s two wagons sit in the middle of Navajo Nation. By day, views stretch as far as the eye can see; by night, millions of stars glitter overhead. Kids are free to run wild on this Native American-owned working sheep ranch, and when it comes to amenities, you’ll want for nothing: books, games, snacks, juice, tea, coffee, bedding, candles, lanterns, flashlights and toiletries are all provided. The friendly hosts even set you up with a traditional Diné breakfast of blue corn porridge, fruit and nuts. While the sheep wagon is the lodging option most likely to charm the kiddos, there are seven styles of accommodations at Shash Diné, including bell tents and a traditional, hut-like hogan.
Tips: Buy dinner supplies in town for open-fire cooking, and bring a towel for bathing. And, lastly, it’s pronounced HOY-an.
Fees: From $150 per night.
If You Go: Located near Page, directions given to registered guests only. 928-640-3701, shashdine.com
In a Yurt
Cochise Stronghold Retreat sits near Pearce in the Dragoon Mountains and offers three lodging types, but the secluded Woodland Yurt is what you want. Juniper, oak and pine trees surround the 700-square-foot structure, no doubt the inspiration for the name. Designed in the traditional Mongolian style with tent-like walls made of sturdy architectural fabric, the yurt comes with modern amenities: wood floors, electricity, hot water, ceiling fans, a coffeemaker and microwave, an outdoor fire pit and a hot tub. (Can it even be called glamping if there’s no hot tub?) You’ll find an eco-friendly composting toilet steps from the yurt’s front door, and a shower at the property’s cook shack. Perfect for two people, room for eight.
Tips: Reserve the Woodland Yurt waaay in advance. There’s no fridge, so bring a cooler for beer and wine.
Fees: From $115 per night.
If You Go: Located near Pearce, address given to registered guests only.
To Learn Something
Luxuriating in a chic safari tent and napping in a hammock comes with important nature lessons at Raven’s Nest Nature Sanctuary, in the Sky Islands near Tucson. Here, the Ravens Nature School teaches wilderness skills and sustainable living practices. You can take an ethnobotany workshop, ecological restoration seminar, astronomy lesson or a guided wildlife tracking class. As you bed down on smooth cotton sheets or dine on seasonal delicacies and organic produce from the property’s gardens, you’ll see sustainability practices employed everywhere: biodegradable toiletries in the outdoor showers, retractable stairways to keep wildlife outside and an overall approach to minimal impact and harmony with the 8,000 acres of wilderness that surround the retreat.
Tips: Keep your eye out for rare bird sightings, such as the thick-billed parrot or elegant trogon.
Fees: From $95 per night.
If You Go: Patagonia, 520-425-6425, ravensnatureschool.com/safari-tented-camp
FOUR-COURSE MEALS & 500-THREAD COUNT SHEETS
You heard it here first. From the team behind Cloth & Flame, the company that hosts the insanely popular “desert dinners,” comes Tela Peralta. This soon-to-be-open glamping resort on the edge of Greater Phoenix puts food – gourmet food – first. Sure, the 14 canvas-and-glass safari tents will be appointed with Tuft & Needle beds, fine linens, wood floors and custom Pendleton blankets, but the culinary program will boast an on-site chef, elaborate brunches and Cloth & Flame’s signature long-table dinners. Tela Peralta sits snugly on 200 acres in the Superstitions and offers five hiking trails, including one that links with the scenic Peralta Trail. Pick up a chef-prepared grab-and-go snack and explore the rugged beauty.
Tips: Tela Peralta (rough translation: “cloth slope”) is set to open in the fall of 2018. Follow the resort’s progress on the website.
Fees: From $250 per night.
If You Go: Located near Gold Canyon, address given to registered guests only. telaperalta.com
With Your Dog
Daily housekeeping. Evening cocktails on the lawn. Made-to-order breakfast. When you book a cabin at Sedona’s Orchard Canyon on Oak Creek, you’re in for a swoon-worthy weekend of pampering. An on-site spa offers massages, and a leisurely stroll around the grounds leads you to a vegetable garden, rambling grapevines and a peek at Sedona’s famous red rocks. Each of the 17 cabins is decked out in a woodsy design – knotty pine furniture, quilt-covered beds – and your reservation comes with an elaborate four-course dinner. Many of the cabins are pet-friendly, so bring your pup. He’ll love joining you for afternoon tea or curling up at your feet as you sip a glass of wine on your private porch.
Tips: The only “rustic” thing about this place is that some of the cabins don’t have air conditioning. If this is a deal-breaker for you, double-check before you book.
Fees: From $315.
If You Go: 928-282-3343, enjoyorchardcanyon.com.
When You Don’t Want to Lift a Finger
We get it. You’re yearning to soak up Arizona’s natural beauty, but you’re not really feeling the whole “pitch a tent and build a fire out of twigs” thing. No worries. Arizona Luxury Expeditions will do everything for you. And we mean everything. Not only does this Goodyear-based company offer several excursions to destinations like Sedona, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, it’ll customize a glamping tour of wherever you choose, tailored to your interests. Each luxe outing involves a multi-day trip with a personal guide, modern tents, culinary delights served on candle-lit tables, and a crew that handles all campsite break-down, set-up and meal prep. Arizona Luxury Expeditions will even arrange for horseback riding, hiking, rafting, ranger talks and more – perhaps even nightly turndown service, if you ask politely.
Tips: Most expeditions require several days, so plan to take time off of work.
Fees: From $1,150.
If You Go: 623-242-5420, azluxtours.com
CAMPING ON FOUR WHEELS
In a Train
At the Canyon Motel & RV Park in Williams, you can roll up in your RV, or you can book a stay in one of the motel’s two train rooms. Each room is housed in an authentic 1929 Santa Fe railway car, which has been transformed into adorable sleeping quarters with kitschy Route 66 décor, flat-screen televisions and a refrigerator and coffeemaker. These two cabooses were retired from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, the line that serviced the Southwest during the railroad’s heyday in the late 1800s. Past guests claim Caboose No. 2 is haunted, what with the spooky whispers and random light outages. Other on-site amenities at the park – besides the leafy 13 acres the Canyon Motel calls home – include a general store, laundry facilities and fire pit around which you can meet new friends.
Tips: Wi-Fi is spotty, so come armed with reading materials or get social and mingle with the locals in town.
If You Go: 1900 E. Rodeo Rd., Williams, 800-482-3955, thecanyonmotel.com
In an RV
Maybe RV camping isn’t for the die-hard outdoorswoman, but it sure is convenient. Running water, a soft mattress and air conditioning all conveniently packaged in a mobile transport – what’s not to love? Plus, in Arizona it seems like RV parks are located in the most dramatic of natural settings. At Rancho Sedona, red rock buttes and cottonwood trees dominate the scenery. This shady oasis neighbors Oak Creek in Yavapai County and provides a prime location for year-round fishing in the creek’s waters (trout are especially plentiful). The 10-acre RV park is tranquil in its own right, but it’s also the perfect launch pad for hiking and biking Sedona’s mesas and spires, or signing up for a hot air balloon ride or helicopter tour. If you just want to relax at the park, that’s OK, too. Rancho Sedona has a volleyball court, horseshoe pits and grills, plus views galore.
Tips: Plan for breakfast in the RV, then nosh on comfort food at industrial chic eatery The Hudson, or splurge on an elegant dinner at Cress on Oak Creek.
Fees: $49-$77 per night for two people. For additional guests ages 8-17, $5 per night; ages 18 and older, $10 per night.
If You Go: 135 Bear Wallow Ln., Sedona, 928-282-7255, ranchosedona.com
In Your Car
Car camping may not be glamorous, but its no-frills approach sure is appealing. Simply load up the car (because you’re not backpacking in gear, you get to bring big stuff like a cooler full of drinks or a folding table for eating), find a killer camp spot, then sit back and relax. One of the best camp spots in the state is perched atop Mingus Mountain in Prescott. Aptly named, the Mingus Mountain Campground shows off breathtaking sightlines of the Verde Valley and San Francisco Peaks, views so astonishing that the area is also the launch point for hang gliders and paragliders. The campground blends just the right amount of “roughing it” with welcome amenities. There is no water, but there are five vault toilets, plus picnic tables, fire rings, and even garbage service.
Tips: There are only 11 tent sites. To guarantee yourself a spot, consider a mid-week arrival.
Fees: $10 for a tent campsite, $5 for each additional vehicle.
If You Go: Located off Highway 89A (between Prescott Valley and Jerome). Turn on Forest Road 104 at the Summit Picnic Site. Follow the dirt road 2.5 miles to four-way stop. Turn right. 928-567-4121, fs.usda.gov/recarea/prescott
AN AGRITOURISM OVERNIGHTER
For Would-Be Farmers
In Queen Creek, farm life beckons. Schnepf Farms, known for its popular agri-festivals and family-friendly events, recently restored eight trailers – Airstreams, Spartans and Silver Streaks – to rent to city dwellers looking for a respite from urban life. Together, the trailers constitute the Cozy Peach, an area where you can lodge in comfort amid the farm’s orchards and gardens. Each trailer has a fenced-in yard, big patio, flat-screen television, microwave, bonfire pits and grills. But you won’t need to cook any meals if you opt for the “trailer service,” where farm-fresh breakfast or lunch is delivered right to your door. Book the retro-luxe 1950 Spartan Mansion, perfect for the entire family with bunk beds and full kitchen.
Tips: Explore the 300-acre farm by renting a bicycle on which you can tool around the grounds. Also within biking distance: Old Ellsworth Brewing (4 miles) and Queen Creek Olive Mill (1/4 mile) for classy cheese plates and brunch.
Fees: $125-175 per night, reservations available Wednesday-Sunday.
If You Go: 24610 S. Rittenhouse Rd., Queen Creek, 480-987-3100, schnepffarms.com
For Animal Lovers
The 72-acre Jackpot Ranch in Camp Verde was once a horse-boarding facility. Now it’s a guest ranch where humans hang with the ranch’s four-legged creatures including deer, goats, rabbits, chickens and pigs. Little cowboys and cowgirls can even ride miniature horses and ponies. The ranch offers several accommodations, including a furnished three-bedroom suite and a
sprawling bunkhouse. Skip those, and instead book a teepee for the family’s overnighter. Each teepee sleeps up to six people and is situated along the shore of the property’s swimming pond. The ranch’s non-animal perks include a waterslide into the pond; a barn that’s been converted into a game room; a playground and sport court; nightly marshmallow roasts; and a treehouse with panoramic views.
Tips: Bring your own sleeping bags and pads for the teepee.
Fees: $35 per night.
If You Go: 2025 Reservation Loop Rd., Camp Verde, 928-300-5490, jackpotranch.org
For Vino Fans
Pillsbury Wine Company has earned numerous awards for its Rhône-style wines, taking top honors in regional and national competitions. Locals and visitors head to the winery’s two tasting rooms – one in Cottonwood and one in Willcox – to sample the goods. But many people don’t know this best-kept secret: Pillsbury allows camping at its vineyard in southern Arizona. Owner and winemaker Sam Pillsbury partnered with Harvest Hosts – a company that arranges for lodging at wineries and farms – to allow HH members to spend the night on Pillsbury’s 100-acre vineyard. It’s free to camp, and you’re allowed to set up wherever you’d like. Not part of Harvest Hosts? For $15, nonmembers can camp, too. Keep in mind there are no hook-ups, no water and no amenities. Just a magical night among the vines, by the light of the moon.
Tips: Make sure to phone ahead (no showing up unannounced). Once you arrive, check in at the tasting room for the staff’s advice on the best camping spots and where to catch the sunset. Also: Bring your bike and explore the other wineries on the Willcox Bench, including Sand Reckoner Vineyards and Bodega Pierce.
Fees: Free for Harvest Hosts members; $15 for nonmembers.
If You Go: Pillsbury Wine Company, 310-508-3348, pillsburywine.com; Harvest Hosts, harvesthosts.com