Tonto National Forest is a popular travel destination in Arizona, with three million visitors a year. Located right outside Phoenix, it’s the perfect place to explore the desert and the cool places inside. Whether hiking, camping, boating, or just taking a day trip, the Tonto National Forest is a great place to get out and enjoy the Arizona sun.
Located just 30 minutes outside of Phoenix, the Tonto Forest is the largest national forest in Arizona, covering over 2.9 million acres. Sprawling with Sonoran Desert cacti, the landscape ranges in altitude from 1,300 to 7,900 feet.
We visited at the end of October, and the weather was fantastic! The days were still nice and warm, with the nights cooling off. Spring is also a great time of year to visit with blooming flowers and comfortable weather.
Arizona summers are quite hot, so if you are planning on visiting during the summer, be prepared for extremely high temperatures over 100°F. And the winters can get quite cool, especially at night.
You might think of an Arizona forest as just a bunch of cacti, but believe me – it’s so much more! There are actually quite a few fun things to do amongst those gigantic Sonoran Desert cacti.
If you’re looking for a really unique experience like no other, make a stop at Goldfield Ghost Town. Imagine walking onto a Clint Eastwood movie set because that’s exactly how it feels. The abandoned gold mine town is full of fun family activities as well as educational opportunities, learning about how the mining town used to operate. Goldfield is located 4 miles from Apache Junction. You can’t miss it while driving on Highway 88. Here are some things you can do at Goldfield:
Canyon Lake is such an unexpected surprise deep in the desert. As we were driving through the windy roads of Tonto, we suddenly came upon a gorgeous oasis surrounded by desert mountains and thousands of cacti. Canyon Lake has a variety of activities such as boat rides, scuba diving, jet-skiing, kayaking, wakeboarding, and swimming. There are also hiking trails, camping options, and fishing on the lake.
Have you ever visited a city with a population of 6? Because that’s the actual population of Tortilla Flat. Smack dab in the middle of the Superstition Mountain Range inside the Tonto National Forest, it’s an authentic remnant of an old west town. It dates back to the early 1500s and is known for being an outpost for settlers on their way west in search of gold. It’s a tiny town but leaves a big impression. Here’s what you can do at Tortilla Flat:
TIP: If you order a kid’s meal at the saloon, you’ll get a FREE kids cowboy hat.
Camping in Tonto is a great way to spend time together as a family and see more of the forest. There are many different campgrounds to choose from, including Usery Mountain Regional Park, Lost Dutchman State Park, Tortilla Campground, and Canyon Lake Campground.
We stayed at Usery Mountain during our trip to Tonto and had a great time! This was our final stop on our 10-day Arizona RV Trip, and the best way to end our epic trip. Our site had electric and water hookups, and the site has a dump station nearby. There were lots of hiking trails nearby for hiking families and, of course, a variety of cacti to see.
There are hundreds of hiking trails inside the Tonto Forest ranging from easy to expert level, and finding the ones for you can be overwhelming. Because the forest is huge, the best way to find a trail suitable for your hiking level is to check Alltrails for nearby locations, difficulty levels, and distance.
If you’re looking for hikes with incredible views, try the Rim Lake Vista Trail overlooking the Mogollon Rim, Butcher Jones Trail with gorgeous views of Saguaro Lake, and Horton Creek Trail that passes by waterfalls and pines.
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If you’re just looking for a day trip, the Apache Trail Scenic Drive is a stunning road drive through the forest. The Apache Trail is a 40-mile scenic drive of Arizona Highway 88, consisting of curvy roads, suspension bridges, and views to die for. There are many overlooks throughout the dive to stop and take in the scenery around you.
We drove the Apache Trail on a day trip through the Superstition Mountains and Tonto Forest with stops at Goldfield Ghost Town and Tortilla Flats. The drive was seriously spectacular, with a few one-way suspension bridges thrown in.
TIP: Take it easy as you make the drive through the many curves along the trail. There was a time when our RV swerved a tiny bit, and it was quite scary. Drive slowly and carefully.
The Tonto National Monument was designated as a dark-sky park, making it one of the best places to see the night sky in all its glory. If you want to see the splendid night sky filled with thousands of stars and the Milky Way, head to the Tonto National Monument. The NPS offers various Night Sky programs from November to April and is highly recommended for night sky lovers.
And if you aren’t particularly into stargazing, the Tonto National Monument is a great place to visit during the day, too. Explore the Salado cliff dwellings and learn more about the Native American cultures native to the area. And don’t forget to participate in the Jr. Ranger Program at the park and add that stamp to your National Park passport.
Did you know that the Tonto Forest plays host to the Salt Water Wild Horses? And spotting them in all their glory was a highlight for us. Yes, they are wild (akd, unpredictable), but there are certain spots that you are more likely to spot them than others. We saw the horses at two different locations. First, at Pebble Beach, and second, at Coon Bluff. Both sites are located right off the Bush Highway along the Salt River.
To learn more about where to find the Salt Water Wild Horses, check out our complete guide here.
TIP: The best time to spot the horses is right before sunset when they come down to the river to drink.
We explored the Tonto Forest as part of our 10-day Arizona road trip, where we drove from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon and back. Along with the incredible sights we saw in the Tonto Forest, we also experienced epic places such as Lake Pleasant, Sedona, Walnut Canyon, the Grand Canyon, and more.
If you’d like to learn more about our trip, check out our 10-day Arizona Road Trip Itinerary that includes information such as prices, distances, campgrounds, and lots more.
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