Camping in Arizona has a lot to offer, with a multitude of world-class destinations, jaw-dropping scenery and abundant outdoor recreation.
You can wake up in the desert at Lost Dutchman State Park, in one of the seven natural wonders of the world at Grand Canyon, by a sparkling lake in western Arizona or under pine trees in a high-country national forest.
Those hoping to nab a campsite this summer need to know the cold hard facts, however; Coronavirus shutdowns and stay-at-home advice over the past year have triggered a flood of visitors wanting to get out and do something. Reservations at popular campgrounds can be very difficult to come by. They’re often snapped up months — even a year — in advance.
Here’s what you need to know about finding and reserving a campsite in Arizona this summer.
More: These Arizona campgrounds will reserve your spot
How to get started camping in Arizona
Plan ahead: Nabbing a campsite in a popular location like Grand Canyon or Oak Creek Canyon can be difficult because you’re competing with visitors from all over. The farther ahead you can plan, the greater your chances of getting your desired campsite.
Tucked away in scenic Oak Creek Canyon north of Sedona, Cave Spring Campground offers sites close to the shady stream. (Photo: Roger Naylor/Special for the Republic)
Last-minute strategies: If you’re going on short notice, you still have options. Many campgrounds offer sites that are first come, first served. Check the campground’s web page to see which sites are for same-day campers, then arrive early and do a lap. You might catch an early riser packing up. If not, check back shortly before the campground’s check-out time to see who’s leaving.
What’s your camping style? Some campgrounds accept only RVs and camper vans. Others only accommodate car and tent camping, not big rigs.
Be flexible: If you can’t book a campsite inside the park you’re going to, don’t worry. A private or U.S. Forest Service campground might be right nearby. Options range from primitive campsites to full-on glamping experiences with linens and private bathrooms. If Mather Campground at Grand Canyon’s South Rim is full, visitors can try Ten-X Campground in Kaibab National Forest. It’s 4 miles south of the park entrance and sites cost $20 per night. Or splurge on a spacious tent at Under Canvas in Valle, 29 miles south of the park. For $289-$439 per night, amenities include king- and queen-size beds, private decks and bathrooms, wood-burning stoves and USB chargers.
Ten-X Campground is in Kaibab National Forest just south of the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. (Photo: Kaibab National Forest)
Try the BLM: Self-sufficient campers with the right gear and plenty of food and water can look for campsites on Bureau of Land Management land. BLM areas typically have few or no facilities and rarely charge a fee. They may or may not be near any services, so don’t arrive unprepared.
Have a backup plan: Can’t get a campsite at your No. 1 destination? Have a second, third, even fourth option. You’ll experience something new that just might surprise you.
Leave no trace: Unless your campground has trash bins, take your garbage with you. Don’t just assume it’ll be picked up. Start fires only in designated fire rings, and make sure your fire is completely out when you leave. Find out before you arrive if your campground has water. If not, bring plenty for drinking and to douse your fire.
Arizona state parks camping tips
More than a dozen Arizona State Parks have campgrounds, so campers have a lot of options in terms of climate and activities.
“Some of our low desert parks are really popular right now and have been through the past several winter months,” said Michelle Thompson, chief of communications for Arizona State Parks and Trails. “But then as the temperatures rise, they become less popular and people start heading to the higher elevations to do their camping and park visitation.”
Last year, despite some capacity limitations, campsites and cabins were in high demand, Thompson said. This year is no different. With more people getting vaccinated and Arizona State Parks fully open, campsite demand is expected to increase.
“We’ve seen a lot of people coming out to go camping, trying the parks or maybe changing their reservations to one of the state parks, because some of the other places that they typically go have been closed, like regional parks, national parks — and the parks in surrounding states closed down or have had restrictions for the pandemic.”
Camping inspiration: Arizona State Parks for boating, hiking and birding
Popular state parks for summer camping include Lake Havasu, Fool Hollow Lake and Patagonia Lake. These campgrounds book up quickly, so Thompson encourages visitors to consider coming on weekdays.
She also recommended some less-visited alternatives to popular parks such as Lake Havasu.
“We have three other parks right along the Colorado River that get far less attention. We have Buckskin Mountain and River Island state parks,” Thompson said. “And then also just down the road from Lake Havasu State Park is Cattail Cove State Park.
Each cabin at Lyman Lake State Park south of St. Johns, AZ, has a view of the lake and has a covered porch, bunk beds with mattresses, table, chairs, heat and air conditioning. (Photo: Arizona State Parks)
“If you’re planning on going to Fool Hollow and it’s full for camping when you’re looking, maybe shift your focus to Lyman Lake State Park, which is in nearby St. Johns. It’s about an hour away and it’s a different park experience, but it’s still cooler and it’s still got the water and the fishing, everything.”
How to reserve a campsite at an Arizona State Park: Go to azstateparks.com/find-a-park to see campground maps, campsite photos and amenities and a reservations calendar.
Arizona national parks camping tips
Mather Campground at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is a highly coveted destination. It has 327 sites for tents and RVs and is open year-round. Its peak season is March 1-Nov. 1.
Reservations are available during peak season. During the off-season, campers can snag any spot first come, first served. Payment is by credit card; no cash is being accepted.
The Grand Canyon North Rim Campground is open from mid-May to mid-October and is operated by the National Park Service. (Photo: Michael Quinn/NPS)
Maddie Tighe, supervisory use assistant at Grand Canyon National Park, suggests that campers make reservations as soon as they know their travel dates or six months before their intended arrival.
“As people’s travel dates get closer, there are fewer and fewer sites available. By the time their arrival date occurs, we are probably sold out,” Tighe said in an email.
In addition to booking ahead, campers should be aware that COVID-19 precautions are still in place.
“Our large group sites are limited to groups of 10 people,” Tighe said. “The superintendent will determine when we go back to normal based on a variety of factors related to the pandemic, including infection rates, vaccination rates and staffing levels. Also, the showers and laundry at Camper Services remain closed.”
Chiricahua National Monument in southern Arizona also offers cool, high-elevation summer camping. Visitors will experience sweeping views of rock columns and hoodoos. With more than 15 hikes to choose from, it’s worth planning a stay at the park’s Bonita Canyon Campground.
It offers a more rustic experience compared to Mather Campground. The wooded and secluded site has basic amenities like drinking water, flush toilets and a dump station. There are no showers, laundry facilities or RV hookups. The layout of the campground makes it unsuitable for big rigs — 29 feet long is the maximum.
Campgrounds at Canyon de Chelly and Navajo national monuments on the Navajo Reservation are closed indefinitely due to the pandemic.
How to reserve a campsite at an Arizona national park: Call 877-444-6777 or go to recreation.gov to see campground maps, photos and amenities, plus an availability calendar.
Summer fun: Here are the best things to do at Lake Powell. (Yes, you can swim)
Arizona national forest camping tips
Although Arizona is noted for its heat, the state has six national forests that offer great options for cool summer camping. Elevations exceed 11,000 feet in parts of Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests.
Oak Creek Canyon, in Coconino National Forest north of Sedona, has three popular campgrounds that attract visitors looking for red rock vistas, steep canyons and pine forests. Manzanita Campground is open year-round. Cave Springs and Pine Flat campgrounds will be open April 16-Oct. 30, 2021.
Some sites can be reserved online. Others are first come, first served, and these must be paid for in cash.
The Chavez Crossing Group Campground just south of Sedona remains closed as a COVID-19 precaution, and safety measures are still encouraged at the open campgrounds.
“As federal employees working for a federal agency and managing federal land, we adhere to federal guidelines,” said Randi Shaffer, deputy public affairs officer for Coconino National Forest. “So we do encourage forest visitors to wear a mask even if they have been vaccinated or they can’t maintain a distance of six feet from other forest visitors and to follow along with all existing COVID safety protocols until we get the heads-up from the CDC that those restrictions are being lifted.”
How to reserve a campsite at an Arizona national forest: Call 877-444-6777 or go to recreation.gov to see campground maps, photos and amenities, plus an availability calendar.
You can connect with Arizona Republic Culture and Outdoors Reporter Shanti Lerner through email at [email protected] or you can also follow her on Twitter.
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