The BEST Tucson, AZ Dispersed Camping

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Tucson is a perfect base for exploring some of the best wild places in the southwest. From snowy mountain ranges to vast deserts, you can experience a huge diversity of landscapes all within a short drive from town. And since Tucson is surrounded by millions of acres of public lands, the opportunities for dispersed camping are virtually endless.

In this post, we’re sharing all of the need-to-know information about dispersed camping near Tucson as well as our recommendations for the best campsites in the area. Let’s get started.

In This Post …

Download Our FREE Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet

Our free printable cheat sheet outlines how to find the perfect dispersed campsite for your next trip.

The Basics

To start, we’re covering the basic things you’ll need to think about when planning a Tucson dispersed camping trip. This includes all of the must-know information about when to camp, what to bring, and how to minimize your impacts.

When to Dispersed Camp Near Tucson

Tucson can be a year-round camping destination, depending on where you go. It’s best to head to the mountain destinations during the summer months when they are clear of snow and when the lower elevations are prohibitively hot. On the flip side, the desert areas are perfect in the cooler months, although the nights can still get quite chilly!

What to Bring

You shouldn’t expect any amenities when dispersed camping near Tucson so you’ll need to come prepared to be self-sufficient.

While we’re sure you’ll already have the essentials like a great tentsleeping bags, and camp chairs,  below are some of our favorite items specifically for Tucson, Arizona dispersed camping:

  • Coleman Camping Stove – This classic piece of gear is perfect for cooking up deluxe campsite dinners.
  • Portable water container – None of the camping areas included in this guide have a reliable 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.
  • Portable Toilet and Privacy Tent – Camping in the desert provides wide open views, but not much privacy for doing your business. This set-up is convenient and helps you minimize your impacts on the environment.
Dispersed Camping Checklist

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, Fees, and Campfires

Many dispersed camping opportunities near Tucson are located in Coronado National Forest which allows dispersed camping as long as you follow a few rules and regulations (no permit needed). Other dispersed campsites can be found on BLM and Arizona State Trust lands. Permits are required for camping on Arizona State Trust lands, and you can purchase them here.

Generally speaking, these rules apply for all of the dispersed camping areas near Tucson:

  • There is a 14-day limit for all campsites.
  • Keep your campsite small.
  • Use existing sites and fire rings when available.
  • Check for current fire restrictions and fully extinguish all fires.
  • Pick a site where vegetation is absent.
  • Do not camp within 200 feet of a water source.
  • Practice Leave No Trace principles – more on that below!

Given the devastation that wildfires have had in Arizona in recent years, it is extremely important that we all recreate responsibly. Click here to learn more about how to safely make a campfire while dispersed camping.

Leave No Trace Dispersed Camping

One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping in the Tucson region is to follow Leave No Trace principles. The wilderness here is fragile and it is our responsibility to minimize our impact and keep the forest 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.

You can read more about the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping here.

View of mountains and scrubland in Coronado National Forest.

Dispersed Camping Near Tucson, Arizona

The following section includes an overview of the top dispersed campsites located near Tucson, Arizona.

We’ve also created the map below to give you a sense of each campsite’s 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:

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.

Enjoy!

Coronado National Forest Dispersed Camping

Located about an hour’s drive from Tucson, Coronado National Forest offers an easy escape into true wilderness. From its 15 “sky island” mountain ranges, to its diverse ecosystems, there’s no shortage of beautiful places to pitch your tent! Be sure to check with the ranger and refer to the Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) to see where dispersed camping is permitted. Here are our three favorites:

Redington Pass

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds: 
Busy
Map

This dispersed camping area is perched along the iconic Redington Road, near the pass between the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountains. Campers can enjoy phenomenal views of Tucson, as well miles and miles of rugged saguaro-dotted terrain. Camping here gives you easy proximity to the beautiful Tanque Verde Falls and Saguaro National Park.

There’s typically quite a bit of traffic from cars and OHVs on the road, so those seeking peace and quiet might want to look elsewhere. The road is a bit rough in places but generally wide and well-maintained, making it accessible for most vehicles. However, larger RVs and trailers might have a difficult time finding enough level space to set up camp. It is important to note that free camping is only permitted on the Coronado National Forest land on the west side of the pass. Those wanting to camp on the east side of the pass will need to obtain a permit from the Arizona State Land Department.

Gardner Canyon Road

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds: Busy
Map

This is an excellent dispersed camping area south of Tucson. The Gardner Canyon dispersed campsites are located west of Highway 83 along Gardner Canyon Road as it winds its way towards Gardner Canyon and the Gardner Trail.

The main dispersed camping area is located on the south side of the road and has a few large pullouts to accommodate trailers, RVs, and tent campers alike. There are no services here, but there are a few makeshift fire rings. Just be sure to check the current fire restrictions with the Nogales Ranger District before having a fire.

The road to Gardner Canyon dispersed camping is passable for most vehicles, so this makes a good campsite for those in low clearance cars or with larger rigs.

Harshaw Road

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds: Moderate
Map

There are several great campsites to be found in this historic mining district. Sycamores and oak trees provide plenty of shade and add the beauty of the canyon. Harshaw Creek runs through the area as well, although it is dry for many months of the year. You can access the Arizona Trail from here, which provides great hiking opportunities close to your campsite.

To find a campsite, you’ll start in the friendly town of Patagonia and head south on Harshaw Ave. The road is mostly paved, and it climbs steadily uphill. You’ll begin to see potential campsites a little under four miles in, and you’ll continue to see sites all the way past the old Harshaw townsite to the top of the hill.

During the daytime, expect to experience a good deal of traffic from mining and border patrol activities. You’ll also likely be visited by some of the local cows who graze the area. There are no facilities or water nearby, and the town of Patagonia has limited services, so plan accordingly and come prepared.

Bigelow Road

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds: Busy
Map

Dispersed camping along Bigelow Road is a perfect way to escape the summer heat. Located near the summit of Mt. Lemmon, this is a high elevation area surrounded by pine trees, crisp air, and beautiful mountain views. There are lots of great recreational activities nearby, including excellent hiking trails, picnic areas, and scenic drives.

There are about a dozen sites along Bigelow Road, most only suitable for tents and smaller vehicles. The road, or sections of it, is frequently closed due to snow, prescribed burns, or other land management activities. It is important to check with the Santa Catalina Ranger District before heading out to learn about potential closures and/or fire restrictions.

The video below gives you a good sense of what Bigelow Road is like:

BLM Camping Near Tucson

Southern Arizona has over 2 million acres of Bureau of Land Management open space, managed by the Gila District Office. This area includes several special conservation areas, like the scenic Ironwood Forest National Monument. Dispersed camping is generally permitted on BLM lands, which you can find using this interactive map. Below we’ve shared our favorite BLM dispersed camping areas near Tucson:

West Manville Road

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds: Low
Map

This is a great option for tent and RV campers who want to feel away from it all. The wide open desert landscape allows for stunning views of the nearby mountains. Given its proximity to Saguaro National Park, it serves as a great basecamp for exploring the area. There is a large gravel parking area that can accommodate several RVs.

The camping area is located within the Ironwood Forest National Monument, but no special permits are required to spend the night. However, make sure that are within the boundaries of Ironwood Forest before setting up camp (there is a gate at the entrance), as the area to the east is private property. The road can be a bit rugged and sandy in places, so drive carefully.

Pump Station Road

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds: Moderate
Map

This is another quiet dispersed camping area in the Ironwood Forest National Monument. It is just a few minutes from shops and services, but it feels very remote. It’s also just a short drive from lots of great recreational opportunities in Picacho Peak State Park. The area enjoys big views and gorgeous sunsets, and there’s plenty of room for campers to spread out.

There are two ways to access the Pump Station Road dispersed camping area, either via El Tiro Road or Silverbell Road. Larger rigs should plan to take El Tiro Road, as the bridge on Silverbell Road has a 6,000 lb weight limit. Either road is typically accessible for all vehicles, but caution should be used after a heavy rainfall. Many sites have fire rings, but be sure to check for current fire restrictions before making a campfire.

Golder Ranch Road (AZ State Trust Land)

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds: Moderate
Map

The final dispersed camping area on our list is located on Arizona State Trust land. This means that you’re welcome to camp and recreate in these areas, but a permit is required for all activities. Permits typically cost $15-20 per year and can be purchased here.

The Golder Ranch Road dispersed camping area is located near residential neighborhoods, providing easy access to shops and services. There are great views of the Catalina Mountains, as well as the surrounding desert landscape. Because of its proximity to an excellent trail system, this is a popular place for mountain biking and horseback riding.

This dispersed camping area is not too busy, although you can expect some traffic noise and OHV activity. Vehicles will need to pass through a relatively narrow cattle guard to access the site, so it is not recommended for larger rigs.

Cacti and scrubland at sunset.

Have a Great Trip!

We hope you’re feeling prepared and excited for your next dispersed camping trip near Tucson! There are tons many great places to spend a night under the stars in southern Arizona, and you really can’t go wrong with any of the areas we’ve recommended. Happy camping and remember to Leave No Trace!

If you’re looking for more Arizona dispersed camping, be sure to check out these posts:

Download Our FREE Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet

Our free printable cheat sheet outlines how to find the perfect dispersed campsite for your next trip.

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