Where To Go Car Camping In Arizona (Best Spots)
So you're dying for a little fresh air and a change of pace but don't know where to go this weekend. Maybe the weather is too hot in the valley or you don't have all of your ducks in a row to pull the trigger on a big backpacking trip. Don't worry. There's still hope for adventure. Enter car camping. I've got another helpful post all about how to go car camping, but this one here will focus on where to camp in your car, why and how to get there. So buckle up, do a little digging and then get out there.
Where to go car camping in Arizona?
For starters, let me just explain some of my rationale for this list. I'm making the healthy assumption that some of my readers (if not most of you) may not own a lifted 4x4 vehicle capable of off road excursions all over Arizona backroads. I'm also assuming many of you have jobs, families, boyfriends/girlfriends, pets and a ton of other responsibilities that may only give you a couple-day window to get out once in a while, so I'm dialing the list down to spots roughly 2-3 hours outside downtown Phoenix or closer. Finally, as I know camping experiences differ greatly between everyone, these spots are what I'd consider very diverse and approachable to most everyone around Arizona.
So where should you go car camping? Well, if you ask me, there should be:
- a fun drive
- a good view
- the option to have a fire
- a change in temperature
- a little space between you and other campers
That said, here's my list of top spots and how to get there.
Disclaimer: These are public lands, meaning they are to be enjoyed and respected by all in the fine state of Arizona. I am sharing these with the ask and expectation that you cherish each backdrop, leave it better than you found it, and that you steward its safety and reverence for the collective enjoyment of future generations. If you agree to those terms, I am absolutely excited to share this blog. If you do not agree to those terms, I humbly ask that you stop reading, immediately. These places hold a special place in my heart, family memory and aspirations for the future - as I'm sure they do countless others.
Munds Park Camping. Flagstaff, Arizona
Directions to camp:
I-17 North toward Flagstaff. Exit right onto Pinewood Blvd and continue past golf course, through neighborhoods and onto Forest Road 240 (dirt road). After passing the trailhead parking lot on your left, you'll begin noticing dispersed campgrounds with rudimentary fire pits and plenty of room to back in your vehicle.
Downtown to camping in roughly 2 hours.
GPS Coordinates (exact): 34°56'12.1"N 111°36'04.5"W
What to expect at the campsite:
Gentle winds and plenty of shade from the surrounding pines. Flagstaff is typically much cooler than Phoenix and a great summer getaway. Monsoons do come and go so be sure you've got rain gear. On a clear night the view of the stars are incredible. Just a half mile or so up the road is a large lake bed that's great for watching for wildlife. All the while you're only about a 20-25 minute drive from the heart of downtown Flagstaff so food, drink and other needs are easily accessible.
Learn more about dispersed camping in Coconino National Forest here.
Dispersed Camping Mt. Lemmon. Tucson, Arizona
Directions to the campgrounds:
I-10 South toward Tucson. Exit east onto Grant Rd. and continue until it merges with Tanque Verde. Hang a subtle left onto Catalina Highway and continue as it merges onto Mt. Lemmon Highway. Onward and upward from there. The "highway" is a two lane road shared by cyclists and vehicles alike so pay attention and yield right of way. You'll pass through many different micro climates and backdrops spanning lowland desert, high desert, rock spires and eventually forest. While there are many public campgrounds all along the route, I highly recommend some dispersed camping just beyond the Palisades Ranger Station off Bigelow Road.
To get there, simply turn right on a sneaky little dirt road called East Whitetail Road (32°24'46.7"N 110°43'52.5"W) and head up the hill until you spot the University of Arizona Observatory. Hang a right onto E. Bigelow Road and continue until you're nearly to the radio towers. There are dispersed camp sites throughout, perfect for car camping, but 32°24'48.9"N 110°43'10.6"W on the right hand side takes the cake.
Downtown to camping in roughly 3 hours.
GPS Coordinates (exact): 32°24'48.9"N 110°43'10.6"W
What to expect at the campsite:
This particular campground is wide enough to park vehicles, hang hammocks, set up tents, play frisbee and ride bikes. But the kicker is its proximity to the nearby cliffs and panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, city lights and epic sunsets. Simply walk down the camp a ways until the trees clear and everything opens up before you. There's a particular rock "patio" on the right where 8-10 people can sit and enjoy a meal or the night sky. Mt Lemmon is subject to tons of weather at 8,000+ feet, so the trees around the campsite offer a little windbreak and reprieve from the elements. Be sure to check fire and weather restrictions before setting out.
Learn more about camping on this part of Mt. Lemmon here.
Mogollon Rim Camping. Mogollon Rim/Payson, Arizona
Directions to the campsite:
Beeline Highway (87) out of Phoenix toward Payson. Continue Northbound onto the 260 toward Pine and Strawberry. Stay on this route past the cinder pits that will come up on your right. Keep an eye out on your right hand side for a clearing and Forest Road 300 sign (34°27'19.5"N 111°23'47.6"W). Turn right onto the dirt road, over the small cattle guard and continue straight until a small fork in the road. Go left onto Milk Ranch Point Road. Again, there are many dispersed campgrounds along this stretch, but there's a series of spots right at the cliff's edge, near 34°27'19.5"N 111°23'47.6"W, that are unrivaled. Post up wherever you'd like, but do hold out for any spots with a front row view of the Mogollon Rim.
Downtown to camping in about 2.5 hours.
GPS Coordinates (rough): 34°27'19.5"N 111°23'47.6"W
What to expect:
You'll likely see deer and maybe elk on your drive in (especially in the early morning/evening hours). You might spot black bear and wild berries depending on the time of year. But what never changes is the incredible view off of the Rim. It's an Arizona gem that few take the time to appreciate. Watch far off lightening storms and vibrant sunsets paint the horizon. Heat up coffee and dangle your legs over the edge for a morning wakeup unlike any other. Be advised though, Rim Road is not highly maintained and snowstorms do shut it down quite often. If you're using a car instead of an SUV or truck, go slow and steady and avoid any jetting rocks or road blocks. And do mind your fires as the wind picks up from time to time.
Learn more about camping on the Mogollon Rim here.
This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as camping and car camping goes in the great state of Arizona. I can't tell you how many people I've heard who have the notion that Arizona is nothing more than cactus and tumbleweeds. Outside of an ocean, we really have it all if you just know where to look. From deserts to forests, mountains to valleys, canyons, rivers and streams, Arizona is an adventurers dream.
Try out these spots and report back. Im confident you'll love them. And once you get your feet wet, the next natural evolution in the process is to kick the car to the side, strap on a bag and try something a little bolder. If you're prepared to do that, there are nooks and crannies, hidden gems and tucked away waterfalls all around Arizona that are calling your name and I'd love share some of my favorites.
Until then, pack the car, hit the road and embrace a little freedom through car camping!