For many, autumn is the perfect season in Arizona. Our mild fall weather tames the summer heat without the extreme temperature drops of the winter months. The fall is a great time to spend some time outdoors. For those in the Phoenix area, why not plan a weekend trip to Tonto National Forest?
The vast terrain of Tonto National Forest spans over 2,900,000 acres and spreads across low desert terrain into dramatic mountain elevations. Striking in its beauty, the forest includes areas of the Sonoran Desert, the Superstition Mountains and runs up to the Mogollon Rim. Just a short drive from Phoenix, much of Tonto National Forest is close enough for a great day trip for those with limited time.
Apache Trail Scenic Drive
Even if the great outdoors isn’t your cup of tea, you can still experience the diversity of terrain and the regional history of Tonto National Forest by driving the Apache Trail Scenic Drive. This loop route offers visitors a 120-mile course through some of the towns and notable spots in Tonto National Forest. Beginning in Apache Junction, travelling the trail heads north to Tortilla Flat and Roosevelt Lake, east to Globe and back south and west through Superior and Queen Valley.
Motorists on the Apache Trail should note that the northern half of the trail to the east of Tortilla Flat includes many narrow, steep roads and switchbacks. While offering incredible views and scenery, these roads shouldn’t be accessed by those in RVs, boat tows and other oversized vehicles. Instead, travel the Apache Trail along the 60 to Globe, and use Arizona Highway 188 to access Roosevelt Lake.
Plan a Hike
Whether hiking the cactus-covered low desert or the upland pine woods, Tonto National Forest encompasses a vast swath of natural beauty and adventure. The forest boasts over 900 miles of hiking trails ranging from gorgeous canyons to exquisite scenic viewpoints.
One caveat: some wilderness parts of Tonto National Forest are extremely rugged, with poorly marked and maintained trails, weekend hikers should stick to established trail areas. We advise hikers to plan their routes in advance and come prepared with enough water and supplies for their adventure.
Hiking in Tonto National Forest also means understanding the elevation changes of a hike. Hikes in this region can include steep and challenging ascents and drops. Some outstanding hikes in the area that aren’t difficult include the Fossil Springs Trail, Horton Creek Trail and the Treasure Loop Trail (which is an easier alternative near the trickier Flatiron Trail). Fossil Springs is a beautiful autumn hike that features a lovely waterfall. Exploring the superstition mountains, Boulder Canyon delivers great views and exceptional scenery, all in a route that is easy to navigate without steep ascents.
Set Up Camp
Tonto National Forest includes copious opportunities for overnight camping including established campsites and wilderness areas. The lakes and rivers of the area create lush riparian settings for camping, with many sites available for tent camping and RV set up around Roosevelt Lake and along the Salt River.
Hearty travelers may want to plan a camping trip in Tonto National Forest’s wilderness areas. Wilderness camping requires greater skill and has far less amenities than camping at established campsites. It offers campers sights that are off the beaten track, including exceptional star gazing. All campers should make note of Tonto National Forest’s fire restrictions. These restrictions help prevent devastating wildfires like the Cave Creek Complex that burned nearly 250,000 acres. As a result of fires like Cave Creek, some regional recreation, like fishing, is limited.
Like much of the Southwest, ghost towns often sit just off the beaten path. Explorers can find traces of history in ghost towns like the abandoned grounds of McMillanville, the crumbling resort project of Seneca Lake or by visiting the restored ghost town of Goldfield. For those in search of living history, stopping in Jerome and Globe off of highway 60 give you a scenic glimpse of old mining towns with a very-much-alive culture. From strolling historic main streets to fine dining to shopping for souvenirs (such as some of the area’s world-renowned gems and minerals), these old mining towns have a lot for today’s visitors.
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