Cave Creek Canyon Paradise

One of the most biodiverse areas in North America is in Southeast Arizona

Cave Creek Canyon is a birder paradise 150 miles east of Tucson. Over 300 species have been sighted in the canyon in the eastern slope of the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona. But there’s so much more than birds. Dubbed The Secret Yosemite of the Southwest, it is one of the most biodiverse regions in North America.

Neon green and yellow lichen drape sheer cliffs rich with stories and adventures.

Nature’s Disney World

The rock formations create mythical murals of extraordinary faces, gasping caves, and soaring structures devouring the sky.

Personally, I find this part of the Coronado National Forest to be far more spectacular than Yosemite. In March there was almost no traffic or crowds compared to Yosemite. Birders often walk rather than drive through the canyon road to savor the silence of civilization and the symphony of nature. Drivers, including myself, are known to stop in the road, gaping at the dramatic vistas.

Dramatic vistas and scenic drives are hallmarks of the Coronado National Forest.

It’s like Nature’s Disney World on steroids. This region is home to 1,200 species of plants alone! The diverse cohabitation is my favorite example of how to adapt and thrive.

How long did it take for those roots to crawl over the ledges and through the forest? Sometimes seems like a blink. There is a magical, fairytale landscape perfect for an active and vivid imagination.

The Tug is the Drug

I was drawn to Cave Creek Canyon by the irresistible, insistent tug in my gut. At first, it feels like the bump on your fishing line before line begins ripping off the reel. I try not to ignore those delicious tummy flips.

Later while hiding out from March storms across the southwest, I opened a map daydreaming about destinations when the small Cave Creek Canyon called insistently like a Baltimore Oriole HERE! HERE! Come right here! Dear!

The call of the Baltimore Oriole sounds like “Here. Come here dear. Here.
Visit the caverns during a storm if you can.

On my way to the Canyon, storms stopped my travel once again. I ducked into Carlsbad Cavern to ride it out and contemplate alternative destinations. I found refuge at Roosevelt Lake, Arizona.

Tonto Basin National Forest east of Phoenix is home to the gorgeous Roosevelt Lake near Globe, Arizona.

Spring in the Tonto Basin

Spring is a spectacular experience at Roosevelt Lake.

My heart hurt leaving the gorgeous basin and lake region bursting with spring.

The Tonto Basin satisfied even the resource management nerd in me. How could a little canyon in Southeast Arizona compare?

But there’s no denying the tug in this nomad life. When the weather cleared we headed southeast.

More Than One Way Around Those Mountains

I entered the region via Wilcox on state highway 186 at the Chiricahua National Monument. Some folks advised avoiding the route to Cave Canyon from the Monument and others said there wasn’t a road. My heart followed the tummy tug urging me to go through the forest rather than around it.

Coronado National Forest borders Chiricahua National Monument sky island scenic drive.
A good map showing forest and fire roads, hiking trails, as well as topography, is a must before striking out in the Chiricahua Mountains outback.

Fortunately, I had snagged a Coronado National Forest Douglas District topo map at the Tonto Basin Ranger Headquarters.

The map was the key to the gateway of Nature’s cornucopia in the Chiricahuas. The route was Forest Road 42 from Monument to Canyon.

Forest Road 42 is also called Piney Canyon Road and traverses four ecozones through the Chiricahua Mountains in far southeast Arizona.
My tiny home away from home is a Subaru Outback 3.6R Touring affectionately dubbed Beverly. She is pulling Hillbilly, a NuCamp T@G XL Outback Edition teardrop trailer.

I took four long, slow days camping through this section of the Coronado National Forest before I reached Cave Creek Canyon. It’s just too amazing to rush through.

Spectacular FR 42 vistas illustrate the diverse ecozones in this region of Arizona.

Biodiversity Bonanza

Four ecosystems meet in this region. FOUR! I was so delighted I felt like a kid. Are ferns and cactus really living next to each other in a lush pine forest? Signs of recovery from devastating fires included plants and trees I’d never witnessed growing together! I had to hunt for field guides to verify what I was seeing!

The gift shop at the Southwest Research Center has local, regional, and national field guides as well as beautiful jewelry, pottery, photos, paintings, and poetry by local artists. There was a Folk Dancing Workshop in progress when I visited. Great prices and fun in a perfect setting of field research.

This region may have more Ph.D’s per capita than most due to the scientists of all types conducting research at the Southwest Research Center at Cave Creek Canyon.

Northern slopes resemble the Rocky Mountains with ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Sunnier southern slopes have Apache pine and Border pine from Mexico’s Sierra Madre range. Yuccas from the Chiricahua Desert thrive beside agaves and prickly pear cactus from the Sonoran Desert. Lush ferns are abundant in shady areas.

The region is filled with creeks and streams, especially in spring.

Almost neon-yellow and green lichen drape ancient boulders, pinnacles, and hoodoos creating a surreal landscape that glows like Broadway in the sunset.

Cave Creek Canyon

Colorful, soaring cliffs dotted with caves and pinnacles shoot up from the canyon base. Portal and Silver Peak Mountains tower over the cliffs. Nature’s majesty is reflected in the range of color and texture of the rocks, mountains, and lichens throughout each day. Even the range of color in the deciduous trees was stunning!

Two branches of the perennial Cave Creek run through the Canyon, joining near the Portal Cafe and Lodge. Other than this business there is a post office. No other services, cell, or gas are available so make sure you arrive with a full tank of gas and supplies.


The “holy grail” of birding, the Elegant Trogon can be sighted in southeast Arizona, including Cave Creek Canyon.

Birds Galore!

Birders flock to the canyon home of the Elegant Trogon. Other birds to check off your life list include the rose-breasted becard, red-faced– and olive-faced warblers, magnificent- and blue-throated hummingbirds, Montezuma quail, and Mexican chickadee.

Our Wilderness Guide and Camp Mascot

Coronado Morning Dance began with my partner dancing solo.

This tiny Chiricahua Wilderness Ambassador quickly learned my morning routine. First, leave the bed, then sit at the altar, followed by the power source check, and finally prepare food by chanting and chopping with tiny bits of fruit and veggie flying through the air, much to the delight of our bird guest and Rocky.

I would pop open the trailer door in the morning to this avian greeting mimicking my routine and repeated over and over like a dance until I rolled out of bed and we continued the routine together. I called it “Coronado Morning Dance”.


Rocky was quite cautious, respectful, and content with a small territory to monitor in this forest full of animals and birds. He pranced like a boss when we were hiking.

Apache fox squirrel and coatimundis inhabit the forest. We observed mother javelina with a baby and Coues white-tailed deer at camp in the bottoms where we never saw another human. Rocky collected limbs from deer kills but I couldn’t determine if the predator was animal or human. We saw large hoof tracks with baby hoof prints intermingled.

With years of training and many insect stings, a snakebite, deer kick, and a wild boar experience, Rocky learned to freeze and watch or he might be hurt. Even worse, if he doesn’t I won’t invite him on my solo visits into nature throughout each day. Although, without his warnings to me, I’m not sure I could continue solo adventures. We make a great team!

Surprisingly most wildlife were more curious than scared especially when we were in the deeper parts of the forest. The ever-vigilant Sgt. Rocky was cautious and would immediately sit statuesque, tail wagging endlessly, observing Nature’s parade through the forest and camp.


Developed Campgrounds

Sunny Flat Campground has open prairie with natural and man-made shade.

Cave Creek Canyon is a paradise for tent and small rig campers. Vehicles over 41 feet aren’t even allowed in the canyon and on most of the forest roads in the region. Rigs up to 16 feet are permitted in Sunny Flat campground.

Idlewild and Spencer Campgrounds parallel Cave Creek, have plenty of cool shade, and facilitate tents and smaller rigs.

Three developed national forest campgrounds offer tables and vault toilets. Some have shade shelters. There are no electric or water hookups, but community water spigots are available between April and October.

Sunny Flat Campground is the most open campground in the canyon and accepts rigs up to 16 feet.

Campgrounds are evacuated due to flooding if there is a forecast of 1.5 inches of rain or greater.


There are ample dispersed camping areas just outside of Cave Creek Canyon and in the surrounding Coronado National Forest.

During the week there were no other visitors in March so I had a multi-level site along Cave Creek at John Hands Campground. The trailer was an ideal hideout to observe wildlife and birds drinking at the river, unaware of our presence.

These prime camping spots away from any development showcase abundant wildlife and birding, especially in the bottoms of the region where springs and creeks flow with meltwater.

I camped all along FR 42 from the entrance of the Coronado National Forest by the Chiricahua National Monument to Cave Creek Canyon outside Portal.

In the Canyon area, I preferred the sites along Cave Creek close to John Hands and Herb Martyr Camps. If I was visiting in a busier season I would camp higher up past Onion Saddle on FR 42, also known as Piney Canyon Road.

John Hands primitive camping area parallels Cave Creek and has a waterfall. This larger area has multiple sites with fire rings that would work well for family reunions and larger group camping.

In fact, when I return, and boy will I ever, I’ll stay deeper in the national forest on FR 42. The wildlife and birds were not only abundant but also social! Maybe it was spring fever. It made me feel like Snow White singing in the forest which amped up that Nature’s Disney World sensation.


Beautiful and dramatic vistas await hikers of all skill levels.

Silver Peak Trail begins in desert vegetation and climbs 3,000 feet to the Douglas fir forests at the summit of Silver Peak at 7,975 feet.

South Fork Trail has five distinct segments from the trailhead to the Crest Trail covering seven miles and 3600 feet elevation gain. The first segment to Maple Creek Camp offers a gorgeous vista.

Cave Creek Road (FR 42 and FR 42B) is a paved scenic drive or walk in spectacular scenery with world-class birdwatching and listening.

There are many more trails of all skill levels throughout the national forest area. Maps are available at the Visitor’s Center if it’s open or at the Southwest Research Center.

Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument includes a delightful eight-mile sky island scenic drive through landscapes of spires, hoodoos, and forest.

Sky islands are an isolated mountain range rising from vast grasslands. Arizona takes the prize for its abundant sky island vistas and scenic drives.

A Note About Vehicles

Like most of the areas I write about, this adventure on FR 42 from the Monument to the Canyon requires high clearance, offroad vehicle. The road through Cave Creek Canyon is paved, but the surrounding forest roads (FR 42 and branches) are quite rough with steep grades and tight, narrow curves. There are many water crossings in the spring and monsoon seasons.

My Subaru Outback 3.6R and NuCamp T@G Outback handled the rough roads and steep grades once again.

My teardrop was designed for offroad with reinforced axle, higher clearance and rugged tires.

Standard vehicles can easily access the Canyon on paved highways leading to Portal.

Something for Everyone at Roosevelt Lake, Arizona

Tonto Basin National Forest is home to gorgeous Roosevelt Lake in the Sonoran Desert in central Arizona. It is in my top five-boondocking areas in the western United States because of the spectacular biodiversity, natural beauty, and collaborative management of the area that is respectful of the land and people. There is something for every type of recreational user.

Spring is Show Time in the Desert

February, March, and April the Sonoran Desert springs to life. Hills and canyon walls are carpeted with bright yellow California poppies and soothing purple lupines. Saguaro cacti tower over cholla, prickly pear, agave, and jojoba. Higher up oak, juniper, pinion, and ponderosa create a lush landscape.

Tonto Basin encompasses 300 miles of big sky and dramatic mountain ranges surrounding a placid lake in wilderness areas where hiking and horseback are the only mode of transportation. Peaceful, primitive, and developed camping sites offer inspiring views and miles of hiking for every level.

From Ancient Cliff Dwellings to Modern Dam Engineering

This area has been home to people since prehistoric hunter-gatherer nomads. Between 100-600 the Salado people built cliff dwellings in a more settled farming life. For unknown reasons they disappeared, leaving no evidence of human activity in the basin for 150 years.

Hohokam farmers settled in 750 growing to a peak in the 1100’s. Catastrophic flooding of the Salt River forced migration in the 1300’s-1400’s but the area remained Apache land until forced evacuation by the US army in the mid- to late-1800’s.

The native wisdom of a lifestyle integrated in nature seems to seep from the ground and swirl in the breeze. Perspective on your own blink of life clarifies in a land where many tribes and civilizations have flourished and vanished.

There is a deep, grounded peace that nurtures an expansive, open awareness and curiosity. Problems I wrestled myself into knots over like unpredictable weather suddenly unraveled, revealing ample possibilities and easy acceptance.

My Best Forest Service Management Experience

In true national forest service style most needs of outdoors adventurers have been accommodated while also protecting important natural resources. Tonto Basin Forest Service Management has balanced the needs of ATV and motorcycle enthusiasts with those who prefer quieter vehicles, less traffic, and more hiking adventures by limiting OHV trails to sections rather than all of the prime primitive camping and hiking land.

Camping Options for All

It is possible to get far enough from civilization’s noise to truly reset and restore the mind, body, and spirit. Or select a different area to suit up, strap on and conquer the canyons on motorbikes. Take an ATV scenic drive to vistas not accessible by highway vehicles. Roosevelt Lake has something for everyone.

Full information at Tonto Basin Forest Service Website

The forest service maintains a great website for information about all camping options, including dispersed camping, a.k.a. boondocking.


Boondockers like me who have small, off road rigs can primitive camp free along canyon and ridge forest and fire roads as well as at Salt River rafting take out points. Dispersed camping sites for vehicles are larger than most and strategically located to offer breath-taking distant vistas or shelter in trees by water.


Backpackers have two amazing wilderness units to choose from: Superstition and Four Peaks Wilderness.

Developed Camping

Tonto Basin’s nine campgrounds, each with multiple loops, are still operated by the forest service and the attention to detail and service, as well as maintenance and upkeep of facilities are spectacular.

Rather than jumble all together, there are separate areas for tent campers, smaller units like mine, and larger RV’s. Generator hours are limited. Two of the campgrounds have showers, Windy Hill and Cholula Bay. All have access to shared water spigots and flushing toilets. None have individual water and electric hook ups.

My Favorite Boondocking Site – So Far

After the first mile off the highway on dirt road, you’ll need a higher clearance vehicle with at least all-wheel drive, like a Subaru, due to water crossings, rutting, and uneven road.

Travel north on state highway 188 from the Tonto Basin National Forest Ranger District Headquarters and Visitors Center. At Bermuda Flat Campground turn west on 3-Bar Road (Forest Road 445). Dispersed camping sites begin close to the intersection of HW 188 and FR 445 and are dotted along 14 miles of road that dead end in a bottomland of oak, birch, and cottonwood trees.

This is where Four Peaks Wilderness area begins with trailhead access to the Oak Flat and Lone Pine Trails. FR 445 provides limited motorized vehicle access to set up base camp. From here, miles of hiking- and horseback-only trails in protected wilderness provide for all skill levels.

I set up camp on the ridge above Rock Creek because of the awesome vistas at top and easy access to the lower creek trail lined with trees and home to abundant wildlife. Bird viewing is supreme. Simple cross Rock Creek and go over another ridge to Oak Flat for wilderness trail access.

An Unexpected Surprise

Most surprising and appreciated was the cooperation and collaboration evident between so many local, county, state, and national governments.  The list is longer than most. While each maintains its own philosophy and approach there was not the sense of rigid territory, but rather many partnerships to insure the daily and long-term future of the Tonto Basin.

There is a pride of place and service permeating the work culture. Employees tend to be long-term veterans, passionate, knowledgeable, and accessible. Volunteers are ample and evident. Every day I met someone working in the wilderness that shared valuable information unique to the area.

I’ve never had this experience in my boondocking adventures and it was rare in my professional work with nonprofit organizations.  Perhaps it is also tied to the energy of this area I experienced that promotes a foundation of grounded peace and open awareness.

You Get What You Pay For

It’s also about the bottom line goal: public tax dollars vs. private profit. Tonto Basin is the largest campground operated by the federal, publically funded national forest service instead of contracted, corporate-owned concessionaires. The difference is quite apparent.

The federally funded forest service is driven by service to the public and protection of natural resources by employees of the public. This is a very different mission than profit for a private corporation.

Fees and Passes

Remember, Fourth Grade, Senior, and National Park and Forest Service “Access” pass holders have free admission to all parks and national forests and only pay half of Day Fees and Camping Fees. The Access pass is $80/year.

Full price for Roosevelt Lake Day Pass is $12 or $18 with watercraft. Camping ranges from $12 to $20 nightly.


The Marina grocery store has very limited groceries and water with an adjacent bar. There is one small restaurant with gas closer to Roosevelt. Cell service is very limited.

Boondocking Sedona

Arizona’s Red Rock Country Oak Creek River parallels HW 89A curving through miles of breathtaking canyon vistas and shady oak forests between Flagstaff on the North and Sedona on the South.

But on Sunday Oak Creek Canyon reminds me of ants at a summer picnic. Sedona tourism has tripled in the last decade with over two million annual visitors. On any given weekend thousands pack the roadway, parking lots overflow both sides of the highway, and bumper-to-bumper one-lane traffic inches through the gridlock. The highway flows into downtown Sedona and every artery is an organized bottleneck thanks to abundant roundabouts.

Yet even here you can camp alone for free with spectacular views of colorful cliffs, soaring pinnacles, juniper and pinion forests, and abundant wildlife.

If you’re willing to take the roads less traveled.

It’s 20-30 minute drive from town to campsite. The road is part gravel with some wash boarding, but is very passable. (In a rain the mud becomes goo so plan to settle in and wait for things to dry out rather than bog your rig in headache and heartbreak.)

Take HW 89A west from Sedona to mile marker 365. Turn right on Forest Rd 525 – Red Canyon Road. From entry to Palatki Ruins are many clearly marked pullouts. Some can accommodate numerous rigs while others are perfect for a small tent.

I prefer the area north of the Boynton Pass Road between the Honanki and Palatki Heritage Sites. Nestled in Lincoln Canyon of Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness you are encircled by the Mongollon Rim with Secret, Bear, and Lost Mountains on the east and Black, Sugarloaf, and Casner Mountains on the north and west. Like all of Sedona it can get crowded and it’s worth venturing past the first spots. The area has many OHV trails so the biggest drawback is abundant Jeep and ATV traffic during business hours.

But sunrise and sunset offer gorgeous slivers of solitude and silence in stunning natural beauty and fragile desert wilderness. The dark night skies envelop you in a velvet blanket of dazzling stars, planets, and galaxies that seem close enough to touch.

There are other dispersed camping sites closer to town, but like the private RV parks they appear to remain crowded. Veteran boondockers say many of these sites are in the process of being temporarily/permanently closed. Even the dispersed camping sites on forest roads are becoming sparse as forest officials try to balance human access with protection of natural resources.

Motor Vehicle Use maps show dispersed camping options in Coconino National Forest. Be sure to get a new map as many areas have closed. These are available at any of the three visitor centers – Red Rock Visitor Center, the Sedona Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, and Oak Creek Canyon Visitor Center. Also look for the free recreations guides for area maps, hiking trails, plant and wildlife guides. The Sedona Outdoor Recreation Map by Beartooth Publishing is an excellent waterproof, topo shaded relief map. (Oak Creek Visitor Center has copies for  $11.95. Amazon is $17.95)

Other Camping Options

The Forest Service operates Pine Flat,  Cave Springs,  and Manzanita Campgrounds along Hwy 89A north of Sedona in Oak Creek Canyon. Pine Flat and Cave Springs are open seasonally, and Manzanita is open year round for tent camping only.

South of Sedona are Arizona State Park Dead Horse Ranch and National Forest Service camps Clear Creek and Chavez. These are all open year round.

National Forest campsites are larger than the private RV parks, but remain booked solid. National Forest camps are reservable at (877) 444-6777 or Dead Horse can be reserved at (520) 586-2283 or sites are walk up reservations. Best time to secure those is early on Sunday through Wednesday.

The best private camping option I’ve found is Camp Avalon. Once an organic farm Camp Avalon is now a nonprofit spiritual retreat center with private, “dry” camping options by Oak Creek. There are fire vaults and portable toilets. It can accommodate small RV’s and tent campers on acres of open pasture and forested shade. Rates range from $20-$35/day. Camp Avalon is located at 91 Loy Lane in West Sedona off of 89A. Reservations available at


The hiking trails of Sedona are some of the nations best so it’s worth the realities of camping in a heavy tourist area. The Red Rock Pass is required in most trailhead parking lots. A one-day pass is $5.00, a weekly pass is $15.00, and an annual pass is $20.00. The Coconino National Forest Recreation Guide also lists the few areas where the pass is not valid and an additional $9.00 per-vehicle parking fee is required.

The Federal Interagency Recreation Passes are honored. These annual passes are honored at most federal forest fee areas and many other federal fee sites. The annual pass is $80, or $10 for seniors (62 and up), free for any US citizen who is disabled and any active duty military and/or dependents. The “Every Kid in a Park Pass” is free to any us 4thgrader and accompanying passengers in a private vehicle.