Skip to Content

The Tonto National Forest Road Trip Guide

The Tonto National Forest Road Trip Guide

You may be surprised to know that Arizona is home to the 7th largest national forest in the country – Tonto National Forest.

Arizona is a place that many people look forward to exploring, and for good reasons. There are certainly many excellent places to see and experience in this magnificent state.

When you think of Arizona, though, you may not find yourself thinking of vast forests. However, the Tonto National Forest is impressive and has much to offer its visitors.

Let’s explore!

Where Is Tonto National Forest? 

Tonto National Forest, in central Arizona, spans from the northeast of Phoenix to the Mogollon Rim on the west and San Carlos to Fort Apache Indian Reservation on the east. The 61-mile drive across takes approximately two hours to complete.

History of Tonto National Forest

Tonto National Forest is a vast 2.9 million acres. It’s the largest national forest in Arizona and the 7th largest national forest out of the 154 USDA national forests. The forest was established on March 4th, 1907.

Then, in 1908, both the Pinal Mountains National Forest and Black Mesa National Forests were added. Finally, on July 1st, 1953, part of Crook National Forest was added, completing the forest boundaries.  

Scenic Drives in Tonto National Forest

Those who visit will enjoy the cacti in the Sonoran Desert found at a low 1,300 feet in elevation. If you prefer higher elevations, head to the highlands of the Mogollon Rim at 7,900 feet.

One of the best ways to see the variety of landscapes this forest offers is by taking a scenic drive. 

Apache Trail Scenic Byway

Apache Trail Scenic Byway is a 39-mile loop, part of which is along State Route 88. This scenic byway takes you through the beautiful Superstition Mountains, Theodore Roosevelt Lake, Apache lakes, and the Tonto National Forest. The Trail is mostly paved and in excellent driving condition.

The views are unforgettable, making the drive worth it as long as caution drivers use caution. Those who choose to drive this road should take extra care. The NFS recommends not attempting the route in RVs or even large vehicles. The roads are very narrow, with several significant drop-offs and extremely steep grades.

Pro Tip: Be sure to check road conditions before starting your drive. The NFS sometimes closes portions of the road, including near State Route 88, due to poor road conditions. 

From the Desert to the Tall Pines Scenic Byway

Visitors looking for an even more adventurous scenic drive will enjoy the From The Desert to the Tall Pines Scenic Byway. Drivers should take the 67-mile scenic drive slowly as they traverse rough terrain through ponderosa pines, grasslands, and the famous saguaros. Indeed, much of this byway features winding unpaved roads with no guardrails.

Around mile 41, you’ll find yourself at McFadden Peak, which is about 7,135 feet in elevation. Here you’ll experience amazing views before heading down towards the desert below. 

Again, be cautious when you’re on this road. Stay aware, so you can ensure to remain on the correct roads as it can be easy to get off track if not paying attention.

Do I Need a Tonto Pass?

Tonto National Forest visitors need to obtain a Tonto Pass. You can choose to purchase a daily pass at $8 or buy an annual pass for $80. While in the forest, you hang the tag from your car’s mirror. The NFS also offers senior passes and stickers for open-top cars.

Best Hikes Near Tonto National Forest 

With such amazing scenery found in Tonto National Forest, it’s no surprise that there’s some fantastic hiking. You’ll see some stunning views on the scenic drives, but there’s something special about getting out on the dirt paths and going places only your feet can take you. 

Bob Bear Trail (Formerly Fossil Springs Trail)

Bob Bear Trail is an 8.3-mile out-and-back trail near Strawberry, Arizona. AllTrails rates the trail as moderate, with an elevation change of 1,505 feet throughout the trail. Hikers enjoy views of the Arizona desert as they make their way to Fossil Springs. Be sure to bring plenty of water, especially in summer, as there isn’t much shade. Leashed dogs are permitted.

Know Before You Go: From April 1st to October 1st, you need to have a permit to hike the Bob Bear Trail. Be sure to obtain your permit in advance to ensure you don’t miss out! 

Blue Wash Trail

Those looking for a trail near Scottsdale, Arizona, will enjoy the Blue Wash Trail. This is a 2.8-mile out-and-back trail rated as moderate. The elevation gain is around 400 feet. Hikers are rewarded with awe-inspiring rock formations as well as plenty of large cacti.

The highlight is a rare low elevation waterfall, and you might even catch a glimpse of some wildflowers! This trail has high sun exposure, so bring plenty of water. Leashed dogs are permitted. 

Best Campgrounds Near Tonto National Forest 

Spend a night under the stars to immerse yourself in the beauty of the Tonto National Forest. Camping at Tonto National Forest is a great way to keep the adventure going even after the sun goes down. 

Tortilla Campground

Tortilla Campground is located just outside Pheonix and has 76 nonelectric sites in the heart of the desert. Campers will enjoy beautiful mountain views and plentiful wildlife such as bighorn sheep and deer.

In the summer months, the area is scorching, and water can be scarce. However, winter brings pleasant cool temperatures. Campers who like to hike are in luck as there’s a great established trail system. 

Each site has access to water and can accommodate RVs up to 30 feet in length. However, all sites are nonelectric. There’s also a dump station within the campground, and campfires are allowed. 

Schoolhouse Campground

Located 11 miles south of the Roosevelt Dam is Schoolhouse Campground. This campground features 40 primitive sites and endless water recreation activities such as kayaking, boating, and fishing. It also provides excellent hiking opportunities as well as fantastic Jeep trails. 

Campers have access to drinking water and vault toilets throughout the campground. Sites are large and certainly provide a great spot to call home for the night while enjoying a campfire.

Is a Tonto National Forest Road Trip Worth It? 

Arizona is known for its red rocks and the Grand Canyon. But Tonto National Forest is also worth putting on your trip itinerary. Exploring Tonto National Forest will give you a look at a lesser-known area of Arizona.

If you enjoy an adventure that takes you off the beaten path, a trip to Tonto National Forest is surely worth it. There are excellent hikes to trek, wildlife to see, and views to take in. 

Poster of Tonto National Forest on Etsy

Discover the Best Free Camping Across the USA

To be honest with you, we hate paying for camping. There are so many free campsites in America (with complete privacy).

You should give it a try!

As a matter of fact, these free campsites are yours. Every time you pay federal taxes, you’re contributing to these lands.

Become a FREE CAMPING INSIDER and join the 100,000 campers who love to score the best site! 

We’ll send you the 50 Best Free Campsites in the USA (one per state). Access the list by submitting your email below:

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *