Prescott National Forest

Prescott National Forest is 1.25 million acres of natural beauty. It’s a land of desert and scrubland, cold lakes, and winding rivers set against a backdrop of sandstone mountains. If you want outdoor recreation in a naturally beautiful setting, Prescott is an easy sell. The forest is also quite accessible, it basically begins on the outskirts of Prescott, Arizona.

The rugged mountains of Prescott National Forest.
The rugged mountains of Prescott National Forest – Photo by Stephanie Klepacki on Unsplash

At it’s lowest altitudes, Prescott’s terrain is very similar to that of the Sonoran Desert. As you climb higher, Chaparral, then juniper and piñon pine occur more often. Above that, Ponderosa pine covers the majority of the landscape. Part of the forest’s landscape includes the Verde River, a perennial river that provides valuable wildlife habitat and abundant recreation opportunities

History of Prescott National Forest

As it often is, the path to becoming a national forest was indirect. In 1898, the General Land Office established the Prescott Forest Reserve. It was transferred to the Forest Service in 1906, and designated as a National Forest the following year. In 1908, Prescott absorbed Verde National Forest. In 1934, it merged with Tusayan.

Ranger Districts in Prescott National Forest

Chino Valley Ranger District

The Chino Valley Ranger District is just 20 miles north of the city of Prescott. Elevations are between 3,000 feet and 8,000 feet. This spread in elevation means there are a number of different types of wildlife habitat. One of the most important is the Upper Verde River Area, a home for several sensitive and endangered species.

Located within this district is the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, and within it, the popular Sycamore Trail. Although there are no developed recreation sites within this district, the Forest Service permits camping throughout the forest, unless otherwise posted. In the Chino Valley District, the headwaters of the Verde River are a fantastic site for camping.

Bradshaw Ranger District

The Bradshaw mountains are located within the Bradshaw Ranger District. These mountains are one of the most mineralized ranges in the world. In fact, miners targeted the Bradshaw Mountains as early as the 1850s.

The Bradshaw Mountains offer a stark contrast to the surrounding desert. This rugged terrain is more heavily forested and much cooler. For some wildlife (and humans), this provides a welcome sanctuary in the heat of the summer.

Verde Ranger District

Verde is possibly the most recreation-dense districts in the forest. There a number of access areas to the Verde River itself, miles of hiking trails, several campgrounds and three wilderness areas.

There is an abundance of history here too. Near the town of Camp Verde is a site from an old salt mine. You can also follow General Crook’s military supply route on the General Crook Trail.

Wilderness areas in Prescott National Forest

Wilderness areas are wild sanctuary where Mother Nature is still in charge. The Forest Service protects these areas to conserve valuable habitat, and give the public a valuable glimpse of wilderness as it once was.

“…I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)

Prescott National Forest has eight of these wilderness. In total, they encompass more than 100,000 acres. Many are only accessible via unpaved roads.

Apache Creek Wilderness

Apache Creek Wilderness is a very remote 5,666 acres on the western edge of the Chino Valley Ranger District. Granite rock formations scattered among pinyon and juniper forests define the wilderness. There are two maintained trails in the wilderness

Castle Creek Wilderness

This wilderness lies within the Bradshaw Ranger District and covers 25,517 acres. It’s spread across the eastern slopes of the rugged Bradshaw Mountains. There are roughly 30 miles of trails within the wilderness.

Cedar Bench Wilderness

Cedar bench itself is a prominent ridge that offers spectacular views of the desert. This “bench” divides the Agua Fria and Verde river drainages. The Cedar Bench Wilderness lies within the Verde Ranger District and has over 30 miles of trails.

Granite Mountain Wilderness

Granite Mountain Wilderness is probably the most popular wilderness area. It is near the city of Prescott, and easy to access via Granite Basin Recreation Area and the Williamson Valley Trailhead. Evidently, it received it’s name from the massive granite boulders scattered across the landscape, many stacked on top of each other. Granite Mountain Wilderness is in the Bradshaw Ranger District.

Juniper Mesa Wilderness

Juniper Mesa Wilderness lies on the western edge of the Chino Valley District. It is defined by it’s name-sake, a massive, flat topped mesa. Despite there being no perennial water sources, it is rich in wildlife. For example, bobcat, Albert’s squirrel and black bear roam the wilderness. There are 7 trails covering about 15 miles.

Pine Mountain Wilderness

Most of Pine Mountain Wilderness actually lies within Tonto National Forest. The part that falls within Prescott’s boundaries however, is located in the Verde Ranger District near Cedar Bench Wilderness. It is also the southern-most wilderness in Prescott. The wilderness covers over 20,00 acres and offers over 35 miles of trails.

Sycamore Canyon Wilderness

This wilderness area is in the Chino Valley Ranger District although parts of it lie within Coconino and Kaibab National Forests. Sycamore Canyon is the largest wilderness area in the forest. It features a special canyon-land setting comprised of red and white sandstone and brown lava. Camping in the wilderness is limited and water sources are unreliable.

Woodchute Wilderness

Woodchute Wilderness is easily accessible via Mingus Mountain Scenic Route or Forest Road 106. This wilderness offers fantastic views of Sycamore Canyon, Sedona and the San Francisco Peaks. When mining was booming in the nearby town of Jerome, this area supplied wood for the mining operations, hence the name. Woodchute Wilderness lies within Verde Ranger District and offers a lone hiking trail, trail #102.

Recreation in Prescott National Forest

The year-round mild climate makes Prescott a great forest for outdoor adventures. There are over 400 miles of trails including a National Recreation Trail — Granite Mountain Trail and a National Historic Study Trail — General Crook Trail.

There are a number of developed recreation areas throughout the forest. Lynx Lake—a recreation area built around a 55-acre lake—is one of the most popular. There is boating access, campgrounds and several archaeological sites. Swimming is permitted, but there are no active lifeguards. Some of the other popular recreation areas include Granite Basin Recreation Area, Groom Creek Area, and Mingus Mountain.

In addition to the many campgrounds, Arizona’s “Rooms with a View” cabin rental program offers some cabins. There are three cabins within Prescott National Forest—Groom Creek Schoolhouse, Horsethief Cabin and Sycamore Cabin. Sycamore Cabin is open year-round, but the other two are closed over the winter.

Visit Prescott National Forest

Come spend some time in the natural beauty of Prescott National Forest. You’re sure to have a fantastic time. Backpack in one of the many wilderness areas or have a picnic and catch some trout at the Lynx Lake Recreation Area. Be sure to be respectful, leave no trace and, above all, enjoy yourself.

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