Tonto National Forest is a huge expanse of public land located east of the Phoenix metro area. The 9th largest national forest in the country, Tonto NF has tons of opportunities for dispersed camping within its boundaries. However, given the sheer size of the forest, you’ll want to have a good sense of where you’d like to camp, and the opportunities available.
This Tonto National Forest dispersed camping guide was created to do just that: help you find the best campsite for your needs!
Tonto National Forest Dispersed Camping Guide
- The Basics
- Dispersed Camping in Tonto National Forest
Download Our FREE Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet
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As with most National Forests, dispersed camping is permitted throughout Tonto National Forest unless expressly forbidden and as long as you are following the general guidelines put in place by the Forest Service.
We’ve covered the essential info to prepare you for your next camping trip in Tonto National Forest below.
What to Bring
You shouldn’t expect any amenities when dispersed camping in Tonto National Forest so you’ll need to come prepared to be self-sufficient.
- Coleman Camping Stove – This classic piece of gear is perfect for cooking up deluxe campsite dinners.
- Portable water container – Most of the camping areas included in this guide do not have a potable water source. As such, a portable water container is essential.
- Cooler – Keeping food and drinks cool is critical when camping. We can’t recommend Yeti enough!
- Map – We prefer downloadable GPS maps via the Gaia GPS app. You can get 20% off your annual membership here.
Our dispersed camping checklist has everything you need.
Want to know the essentials for your next camping trip?
Our dispersed camping checklist has all the camping essentials plus specific items for dispersed camping.
Permits, Rules, and Campfires
Tonto National Forest cover a vast area of wilderness and is broken into distinct ranger districts:
- Cave Creek Ranger District
- Globe Ranger District
- Mesa Ranger District
- Payson Ranger District
- Pleasant Valley Ranger District
- Tonto Basic Ranger District
Each area has specific dispersed camping rules, so it is best to contact the relevant ranger district where you’re planning to camp prior to setting out. Find more information on dispersed camping in each Ranger District at the link below:
Generally speaking, all of these ranger districts impose similar basic regulations on dispersed camping. This includes how long you can stay at a particular site (generally 14-days), the maximum size of your group, and how far from trails or established facilities you must be to camp.
In addition to these standard rules, it is a good idea to consult the Tonto National Forest Alerts & Notices page for the most up-to-date information on closures, fire restrictions, and other pertinent info.
Other helpful dispersed camping rules that broadly apply include:
- Keep your campsite small.
- Use existing sites and fire rings when available.
- Pick a site where vegetation is absent.
- Do not camp within 200 feet of a water source.
- Only have a campfire if it is permitted, and always be sure it is completely extinguished.
- Practice Leave No Trace principles – more on that below!
Additionally, given some of the bad fire seasons Arizona and the West have experienced in recent years, it is critical to check current fire restrictions before having a campfire. You can check the most recent notices and fire restrictions for Tonto National Forest here before heading out.
We can’t stress this enough as being a responsible forest user is essential to preventing wildfires and preserving our incredible forests!
Leave No Trace Dispersed Camping
One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping in Tonto National Forest is to follow Leave No Trace principles. The wilderness here is fragile and it is our responsibility to minimize our impact and keep these areas open to future campers.
Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping:
- Plan Ahead & Prepare: Have an idea of where you’d like to camp and always be sure you are camping in an area that permits dispersed camping.
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: Never camp on fragile ground or create a new campsite.
- Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all of your trash and bury human waste away from water sources. Ideally, carry out human waste or use a portable toilet.
- Leave what you find: Never take anything from your campsite. Other than trash of course!
- Minimize campfire impacts: Never create new fire rings and only have fires if permitted.
- Respect Wildlife: Properly store food at all times and be aware of the area’s wildlife.
- Be considerate of Other Visitors: Pack out your trash, don’t be loud, and leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.
Dispersed Camping in Tonto National Forest
The following section includes an overview of the top dispersed campsites in Tonto National Forest.
We’ve also created the map below to give you a sense of each campsites’ location.
If you’re looking for other dispersed camping in the region, we recommend starting with our Arizona Dispersed Camping guide. Then, check out some of our other camping guides in area:
- Sedona Dispersed Camping
- Prescott Dispersed Camping
- Flagstaff Dispersed Camping
- Dispersed Camping near the Grand Canyon
- Tucson Dispersed Camping
- Phoenix Dispersed Camping
Finally, if you’re interested in finding more dispersed campsites in the area, check out our guide to the best dispersed camping apps to help you find your next campsite.
Restrooms: No (toilets are available at the Peralta Trailhead)
Peralta Canyon and Peralta Road both offer excellent dispersed camping just inside of Tonto National Forest and within a short drive from Phoenix and Gilbert, AZ. The public land here can be a bit confusing, so it’s important to know the various regulations for camping in the area.
When turning off Highway 60 onto Peralta Road you’ll first pass through a new subdivision. As you continue along further along the road you will cross onto public land managed by the Arizona State Land Trust. Camping is permitted once you are on this public land, but the State Land Trust does require you have a recreational permit to do so. These are very affordable (about $15/year) and the area is patrolled so having a permit is essential.
Further up along Peralta Road you will cross into Tonto National Forest & the Superstition Wilderness Area. There is a small area for dispersed camping here just before the Peralta Trailhead. No permits are required here as you are on USFS managed land.
Regardless of which area you choose, this is a beautiful region with great access to hiking and OHV areas. It does tend to get a bit crowded, so be sure to show up early on busy weekends.
Hewitt Canyon Road
Hewitt Canyon Road is located in Tonto National Forest southeast of Phoenix and north of Highway 60. The road runs deep into the national forest, with the more secluded sites further back. You’ll find many pull outs along the length of this 10 mile road, with a larger area for just over 1 mile in that can accommodate larger setups.
As with many Forest Service roads, the first few miles are passable by most vehicles, but then it quickly becomes much rougher the further back you get.
There are no services along Hewitt Canyon Road and you’ll rarely be able to pull any water from the seasonal stream that parallels the road. Given that, it is best to plan on dry camping here.
Restrooms: Vault toilets
If you want to camp in Tonto National Forest but don’t necessarily want the difficulty that can come with finding a dispersed campsite, be sure to check out the Oak Flat Campground. Located east of Phoenix, this is an excellent free USFS campsite.
There is excellent climbing and hiking in close proximity to the site, and there are a few sites that can accommodate RVs/trailers.
This is a relatively popular campsite, so if you’re after peace and quiet, you might look elsewhere. However, you’ll get access to a vault toilet and fire rings which may makeup for the fact that you’ll likely be sharing the campground with others.
There is no water available at Oak Flat, so be sure to pack all that you’ll need.
Restrooms: Available at Wildcat Staging Area seasonally
There are several OHV staging areas within Tonto National Forest that are popular for dispersed camping. These areas are best for those looking to do a bit of off-roading or dirt biking, as campers who aren’t into that will find the area noisy and congested.
One of the best for this is the Wildcat Staging Area, which is the gateway into the Desert Vista OHV area.
Access is straightforward, but the camping area can get quite crowded with folks towing dirt bikes and similar off road vehicles. One upside is that there are restroom facilities at the staging area available seasonally from approximately September 15th through May 1st.
Barnhardt Road/FS 419
South of Payson and very near the small town of Rye you’ll find Barnhardt Road (aka FS 419) which has several good dispersed campsites along its length. The road leads to the Barnhardt Trailhead and is generally passable by most vehicles. You’ll be on National Forest land almost immediately after turning off of the main highway, but we recommend heading a bit further back for a quieter site.
A nice feature of Barnhardt Road is that the sites are well spaced out so you can get a bit of privacy. A bonus is the excellent hiking available at the trailhead at the end of the road.
There are no services along the road and there isn’t much in Rye either. Best to come prepared to be self-sufficient here!
The Diversion Dam area on the Salt River offers five designated dispersed campsites within Tonto National Forest. These sites sit just below Roosevelt Lake and offer a good option if you’re looking to enjoy any recreation on the lake. A 4WD or high clearance vehicles is recommended as the road can be rough and tight in several areas.
There are five designated dispersed areas to choose from, all right along the Salt River:
- EADS Wash Dispersed
- Eucalyptus Dispersed
- HZ Wash Dispersed
- Diversion Dam Dispersed
- Rafter Take Out Dispersed
Most of the parking/camping areas have pit toilets, although drinking water is not available. This is a popular spot for rafters/boaters, but all are welcome to camp here.
Little Green Valley/405A
Little Green Valley is a popular dispersed camping area in Tonto National Forest near the town of Payson. Also known as Forest Service Road 405A, there are tons of great campsites along the length of the road.
For those with lower clearance or 2WD vehicles, we recommend snagging a site closer to the main highway, as the road does get a bit rougher the further back you go.
This area is very popular with OHVs/ATVs, so you can expect some noise during the day and for it to be busy on weekends. However, there is generally enough space to spread out so you should be able to maintain some privacy while camping here.
There are no services at Little Green Valley, so please bring everything you need and practice Leave No Trace principles.
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Have a great trip!
That’s it! We hope we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a great dispersed camping trip in Tonto National Forest.
Be sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your trip!