The nearly 3 million acres that make up Tonto National Forest are some of the most beautiful in the Southwest. Elevations range from 1,400 feet to over 7,000 feet creating a wide variety of scenic wildlife communities. Saguaro Cactus and Summer Poppies in the Sonoran Desert give way to rich, lush ponderosa pine forests as you gain altitude. You won’t be alone either. Prairie falcons, Coues’ white-tailed deer and greater roadrunners are just a tiny example of all the wildlife that lives in this region.
In 1906, the General Land Office transferred what is now Tonto National Forest to the Forest Service. The following year, Tonto officially became a National Forest. In 1908, more land was added to the tract, including part of the Pinal Mountains and Black Mesa National Forest. Part of Crook National Forest merged with Tonto in 1953, bringing it to it’s current size.
In June of 2020, the Bush fire burned nearly 200,000 acres in Arizona. This fire started in Tonto National Forest in the Tonto Basin Area.
Wilderness Areas in Tonto National Forest
Tonto is home to eight wilderness areas that total nearly 600,000 acres. Many of these have an extensive network of trails, although trail maintenance is often poor. Salt River Canyon Wilderness is an exception, there are no maintained trails at all. Most visitors to the Salt River Canyon Wilderness are there to raft or kayak the whitewater on Salt River.
Superstition Wilderness Area includes over 160,000 acres and has a well-developed network of trails. As you might have guessed, they aren’t necessarily well-maintained. Interestingly enough, “Rumors still abound concerning lost fold mines, ‘secret maps,’ etc., and are still being sold to the unwary” according to the Forest Service Website.
The Fossil Creek Wild and Scenic River is also located in Tonto, as well as Coconino National Forest. Fossil Creek features a stunning diversity of native fish as well as crystal-clear water. The greenery surrounding the creek is a major contrast to the surrounding desert.
Recreation in Tonto National Forest
Tonto is located relatively close to Phoenix, Arizona. This makes it that much more of an outdoor recreation destination. There are a number of campsites as well as dispersed camping opportunities throughout the forest.
For hikers, bikers and horse-back riders, there are plenty of opportunities. The forest has nearly 900 miles of trails including the difficult, but beautiful Highline National Recreation Trail.
The Forest Service designated two areas within the forest for Off-Highway Vehicles. For those that want to experience Tonto via more conventional travel means, Scenic Byways on State Route 88 and 288 wind through the area.
Within the forest, there are a number of man-made reservoirs on the Salt and Verde Rivers. These offer unlimited water-related recreation such as sailing, boating, skiing, and swimming. There are also stretches of the Salt River that offer world-class white water running through Salt River Canyon. There are a total of six reservoirs — Bartlett Reservoir, Horseshoe Reservoir, Saguaro Lake, Canyon Lake, Apache Lake and Theodore Roosevelt Lake. The first two are on the Verde River, the last four are on the Salt River.
Bartlett Reservoir, the larger of the two reservoirs on the Verde River, is roughly fifty miles from downtown Phoenix. Bartlett covers about 2,800 acres and has many recreation facilities including campgrounds, day-use areas and even a marina. Horseshoe is much smaller, it’s closer to 800 acres. Horseshoe Reservoir is also much more remote and, therefore, much less developed.
The four lakes on the Salt River all have developed facilities, although Roosevelt Lake’s are by far the most extensive. Roosevelt Lake is also by far the largest. It covers more than 20,000 acres and, in some places, is nearly two miles wide. There are remote coves and islands to explore throughout the lake.
Visit Tonto National Forest
There’s something for everyone at Tonto National Forest. It’s easily accessible too, it’s just a short drive from Phoenix. Spend a day on the water, explore the backcountry in one of the wilderness areas or climb a mountain on one of the mountain trails. It doesn’t matter how you enjoy it, just be sure to visit Tonto and experience this beautiful slice of the American Southwest.