Tonto National Forest is the largest national forest in Arizona and the seventh largest in the United States. It lies northeast of Phoenix. This national forest covering more than 2.8 million acres has regional offices in Globe, Mesa, Payson, Roosevelt, Scottsdale, and Young. The Salt River creates two large reservoirs, and there are four others in this forest. Part of the Verde Wild and Scenic River runs through it. You may want to visit some of the eight wilderness areas that are located in the Tonto National Forest.
The Rim Lakes Vista Hiking Trail starts at the Mogollon Rim Campground and runs to the Rim Lakes Recreation Area. The first mile of this trail is paved while the remainder is a well-maintained natural surface. This trail offers breathtaking views where you can see over 100 miles on a clear day.
Length: 4.4 miles
This trail starts near the Upper Tonto Creek Campground. While it may leave you often gasping for air because it gains over 1,000 feet in elevation across its 8-mile length, you will love seeing the sycamore trees along its course. When there is enough rain, there are also beautiful waterfalls to see.
Length: 8 miles
The Fools Loop starts in downtown Phoenix and runs through saguaro forests, rugged canyons, and rolling desert plains before returning to its starting point 234 miles later. It uses old Forest Service roads in the Tonto National Forest, crosses the New River, and runs through the urban landscape in Tempe. There are great places to camp all along its way.
Length: 234 miles
Flanked on the west by the Bradshaw Mountains, the Black Canyon Trail is an 80-mile path through the Sonoran Desert landscape. This National Recreation Trail that runs uphill over most of its course starts near the Agua Fria River and runs north to the Crabtree Highway.
Length: 80 miles
The Hell’s Gate Trail 37 runs through the Hellsgate Wilderness area. While many call this area inaccessible, the brave hiker will love hiking from about 3,000 feet in elevation along the lower end of Tonto Creek to over 6,400 feet on Horse Mountain. You can hike this out-and-back in either direction.
Length: 11 miles
There are almost endless fishing opportunities in and near Tonto National Forest as this location has over 500 miles of streams and 27,000 acres of reservoirs. Some of the best are in the Rim Country near Payson. Some of the most accessible are the Green Valley Lakes, which are stocked with rainbow trout from mid-October to mid-May. This can also be a fantastic place to catch bluegill, crappie, and bass. Chevelon Lake often yields trophy-size brown and rainbow trout to anglers who fish from a boat or kayak. The Verde River is a fantastic place to fish for Gila trout. The area near Christopher Creek Campground is a great place to catch wild brown and rainbow trout.
There are many geocaches in and around Tonto National Forest. Consider seeing if you can find the ammunition box near Christopher Creek, about 23 miles east of Payson. There is another cache near Deer Creek Trail off Highway 87 south of Payson. This one is in a green ammunition box. The oldest cache in Arizona is in the Salt River Recreation Area off Bush Highway, and is stashed in an ammunition can.
Rangers and visitors have spotted over 92 species of mammals in Tonto National Forest. It is common to see dusky shrews, kit and gray foxes, grizzly and black bears, raccoons, hooded skunks, and pronghorn sheep throughout the forest. One animal that you will want to pay particular attention to is the Salt River wild horse. The herds have likely been roaming this forest since 1687 when there was a mission in the area. This forest is home to many different birds. A particularly fascinating place to go birdwatching is in the Pinal Mountain Wilderness because of the proximity to diverse ecosystems.
At least once a month, park rangers at Tonto National Monument lead special nighttime activities that often include stargazing, interpretive astronomy programs, and children’s activities. Retrofitted lights provide minimal light pollution.
Address: Payson Ranger Station, Tonto National Forest, 1009 Arizona 260, Payson, Arizona 85541
Fee: Entry fee $0
Tonto National Forest is one of the largest national forests in the United States, and you can find lots to do within its borders and nearby. Bring your RV when you visit this forest just north of Phoenix. If you do not have one, renting one with RVshare is fast and convenient.