Complete Guide to Dispersed Camping Near Phoenix, AZ

In this guide, I will talk about the best free dispersed camping areas near Phoenix. This is one of the sunniest, most unique parts of the United States. As you will see, the broader region around Phoenix offers some of the most gorgeous desert (and, to a lesser extent, mountain) campgrounds in North America, if not the world. 

Do you like large cities with vibrant cultures but also Old West-looking vast expanses of desert, complete with Saguaro cacti, tumbleweeds, and gorgeous sunsets in the distance? 

Fancy pitching a tent or parking your RV beside a lonesome dirt road, with the backdrop of a major US city that welcomes over 22 million visitors annually? 

If the answer is ‘yes’ to both of these, dispersed camping near Phoenix, Arizona, will become your new favorite activity (if you are a golfing fan, consider moving to Phoenix, too). 

Overview of Free Camping Near Phoenix

Free camping area near Phoenix

Phoenix, Arizona, is a state capital with some gorgeous desert terrain surrounding it, and the local officials know it. 

Arizonians cherish their cacti almost as much as they do their fellow Arizonians. For example, it is illegal to cut down a Saguaro, and if you harm one of these iconic and rare desert flowers, you can face felony charges. So, this plant has arms like a human, rights like a human, and is made mainly out of water – just like a human. 

Joking aside, Phoenix is where a lot of commerce, technological advancement, and tourism-related business occurs. For this reason, the authorities and locals view nature through a particular lens and treat it with the respect it undoubtedly deserves.

There are plenty of fantastic dispersed campgrounds around Phoenix. Some sit on camping land of BLM Arizona, some are part of a broader Tonto National Forest USFS jurisdiction, and more rarely – some even expand over Arizona State Land Trust. This organization allows primitive camping on its territory but requires a permit first (the fees for this permit are reasonably inexpensive, in all fairness). 

Best Dispersed Camping Spots Near Phoenix 

For the most part, the best that the general area around Phoenix offers regarding camping potential comes down to the desert. 

If you like being surrounded by cacti with a little flower on it in season, tumbleweeds, a vast open expanse of red and yellow dirt, and clear blue skies – the Arizona desert and the Sierra Ancha Mountains will not disappoint. 

Here are my favorite campgrounds near the desert city of Phoenix. 

Stewart Campground 

Table and benches at Stewart campground near Phoenix
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no 
  • Visitor frequency: medium 

Sitting within a broad wilderness area just northeast of Phoenix, Stewart Campground is a central OHV hub with a steady stream of visitors during the summerIf you like dirt-biking or off-roading, this place can serve as a fantastic base camp from where you can explore this area. The visitor frequency at this campground means you will only enjoy a little privacy around these parts. 

What makes Stewart’s Camp so attractive to both off-roading folks and campers alike is its fantastic location. Close to Phoenix and sitting at an elevation with a couple of pieces of flat land, Stewart’s Camp is a place you can reach with a wide variety of vehicles – including RVs. 

The road does get bumpy if you attempt to reach some of the campgrounds higher up the mountain, so if you’re visiting in a large vehicle, proceed with caution. Once you reach one of the many mesas, you can park and camp that way.

Alternatively, you can find a spot with a shady spot to pitch your tent. There is more than enough space for both types of camping, as the clearings are large and reasonably flat. 

In terms of amenities, you won’t find any at Stewart’s Camp, so you must bring everything you need with you. 

Hewitt Canyon Road 

Cacti and ruins in Tonto National Forest near Phoenix Arizona
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no
  • Toilets: no 
  • Visitor frequency: medium 

To the south of Phoenix, you will find a roadside campground that you have to check out if you’re interested in exploring the scenic Tonto National Forest. Hewitt Canyon Road gives you some ten miles of dirt road, with excellent pullout-style sites that disperse along both sides. 

These pullouts are smaller, so they are best suited for one to two cars and a tent. The road gets progressively rougher the farther you progress, so you need to take extra caution if you’re driving a larger vehicle.

Larger sites are rarer, but they do exist, so you can attempt to tackle this road even if you plan to visit this place in an RV. 

This place is so popular because of its superb surroundings, including gorgeous desert-like landscapes with cacti, tumbleweeds, and craggy cliffs in the distance, as well as canyon valleys and the wide-open, bright blue skies above. 

Amenity-wise, you’ll find nothing here, so bringing everything with you is crucial, especially water. There is also an option to filter some water from the nearby creek, but this small stream is only available seasonally. 

Oak Flat Campground 

Oak Flat Campground near Phoenix
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: vault toilets 
  • Visitor frequency: high 

Immensely popular among local campers and hikers, Oak Flat Campground is a place that you want to take advantage of if you appreciate well-kempt campgrounds in the middle of a gorgeous forest. You will find this campground sitting on the eastern flank of the Tonto National Forest. 

Other than camping, the reason for the popularity of this campground would be the proximity of climbing and hiking trails. Relatively close to the famous Upper Devils Canyon Trailhead, setting up a basecamp at Oak Flat Campground can give you a primary upper hand when conquering the local cliffs and challenging rocks. 

This rather beautiful place offers no source of potable water. Bringing your supply in the shape of bottled water or canisters is a must – especially if you want to try your hand at hiking or climbing, too. 

The campsites themselves feature fire rings and vault toilets, however. 

Last but not least, a word of warning – given the massive popularity of this place as a base camp for hikers and climbers, the visitor frequency tends to be relatively high. If you’re looking for more of a peaceful camping experience, you will be better off in a different part of this forest.

The Sonoran Desert National Monument Dispersed Campground 

Night sky over the Sonoran Desert National Monument Dispersed Campground
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no 
  • Visitor frequency: medium 

When you veer off the I-8 Highway and enter the so-called Vekol Valley Road, just south of Phoenix, you will eventually reach Sonoran Desert National Monument, a place with many beautiful and unique campsites. This remarkable place offers a unique desert terrain with a biodiversity that few deserts worldwide can match. 

This cacti-filled expanse represents a unique opportunity for camping and many additional exciting outdoor activities. For example, at this place, you can enjoy horseback riding, wildlife viewing, driving, biking, and off-roading in general. If you are a history fan, this place also offers plenty of fantastic archaeological findings and excavation spots where ancient relics were discovered and retrieved. 

The Sonoran Desert National Monument campground represents a mixture of BLM land and some privately owned patches of territory. For the most part, plenty of signs suggest which parts of this area are private property. Double-checking with the local BLM branch before visiting is still a good idea. It is essential to pay attention to where you pitch your tent or park your RV. 

Looking at this map, you can get a general idea of what’s in this area. 

Both RV and tent camping are available at this place. The road leading to this region is solid, so even if you venture to visit this place onboard a large RV, you will have an easy time both driving up to the campground and finding a site to park on once you’re there. 

In terms of amenities, this patch of the desert offers none, so it comes fully self-sufficient.

For a change of scenery from the distinct cacti-filled expanse of the Sonoran Desert, primitive camping near the Grand Canyon can offer another awe-inspiring experience.

With its towering cliffs, panoramic vistas, and the mesmerizing Colorado River winding its way through the canyon floor, the area around the Grand Canyon presents a truly unforgettable camping backdrop.

Hackamore Road 

Bulldog Canyon near Hackamore Road near Phoenix
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no 
  • Visitor frequency: low 

About one hour from Phoenix, Arizona, you will find a curious place called the Bulldog Canyon, where both motorized and non-motorized off-roading enthusiasts flock to try their hand at conquering some of the local 20 miles of wide-open routes and roads. While camping along these roads can be a rather noisy and dusty experience, there are a couple of excellent roadside campgrounds just outside of Bulldog Canyon. 

Hackamore Road represents a fantastic dispersed camping solution. Whether you plan to visit the area and use this road as a sort of basecamp, or you want to avoid the hassle and bustle of entering the Bulldog Canyon, Hackamore Road will give you everything that a dispersed campground can offer.  

You will get cozy roadside impromptu’ parking spots where you can park your vehicle or pitch your tent. The road can get a bit bumpy, but it is otherwise easy to reach for larger vehicles.

Lastly, the Hackamore Road campground offers fantastic views of the surrounding desert, with the gorgeous Superstition Mountains as a backdrop. Legend has it there is a lost treasure somewhere in the cliffs and crags of this mountain, hidden by an ancient Dutchman who used to mine for gold in these parts.

This campsite has no amenities, so come fully prepared.

Mesquite Flats 

Mesquite campground near Phoenix
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no 
  • Visitor frequency: medium 

Just past the curiously-named Tortilla Pass, you will find a scenic boondocking area called Mesquite Flats – a relatively small campground with around five sites. These sites disperse on either side of scenic Route 88, so be prepared to tackle some dirt roads if you want to visit this place. 

This campground has few amenities, as the area is somewhat remote and consists of a dirt road with some pullouts. What this campground lacks in fire rings and other amenities; however, it makes up for the fantastic views you can have of the entire region when you park up on one or more of the pullouts.

Heading to this campground onboard a larger RV or towing a trailer means you must negotiate a road that tends to be quite tricky. Scouting ahead on foot or in a car can be a great workaround solution. The road is passable for the most part, but you should still be cautious of the road conditions. 

You can check in at the nearby developed Tortilla campground if you need access to drinking water and toilets. If you want to stay at this campground, there is a fee, and you need to book a spot ahead of time, by the way.

Wildcat Staging Area 

  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no (available at Desert Vista OHV seasonally) 
  • Visitor frequency: high 

Representing the gateway to the Desert Vista OHV area, Wildcat Staging Area is a place you do not want to miss out on – especially if you’re an off-roading enthusiast. This campground is located within the scenic Tonto National Forest, allowing you to access cool-looking woodland forest service road pullout-style campsites. 

The area is rather scenic and offers some excellent views of nature. That said, a downside to this trail would be the visitor frequency, which is usually relatively high – especially during the summer.

The OHV season starts somewhere from September 15th and lasts through to May 1st. During this period, you can expect to find quite a few outdoors enthusiasts towing dirt bikes behind their campervans, people on motorcycles, and a variety of other off-roading vehicles. 

Appearance-wise, this place gives off a desert-like atmosphere that will make you think you’re somewhere in the middle of Africa.

The red and beige desert terrain, combined with the tumbleweeds and the mountains in the distance, creates an excellent setup for riding your quad or dirt bike or simply setting up a tent and taking it all in from the comfort of your foldable chair.  

Peralta Canyon 

Peralta Canyon camping area near Phoenix
Photo by Andrew Z. Colvin via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no (there are toilets at Peralta trailhead, though) 
  • Visitor frequency: high 

A mixture of private and public land, Peralta Canyon is a fantastic place to pitch your tent amidst a beautiful desert landscape. Peralta sits east of Phoenix, and it’s also close to Gilbert, in case you want to fetch some supplies quickly or visit the place to see what it’s like. 

The local authorities require you to obtain a recreational license. However, these licenses are easy to get and typically don’t cost more than $15 a year. License fees for groups and other purposes are different. The exciting thing about this campground is that it sits on Arizona State Land Trust, representing a governing body unique to Arizona.

That said, if you want to avoid staying on Arizona State Land Trust land but like the canyon environment and atmosphere, there is a workaround. Head farther down the Peralta road and past the part of Peralta under the trust jurisdiction. 

As you enter the Tonto National Forest from this direction, you will find a small dispersed camping area where you can pitch your tent. This part of the forest is close to the Peralta trailhead, so that you can add some hiking to your dispersed camping expedition. For the record, this part of Peralta is USFS land, so USFS camping rules apply. There are also no fees involved here.

There are no water or toilets in the dispersed camping areas, but there are restrooms at the Peralta trailhead. 

Saddle Mountain BLM 

  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no 
  • Visitor frequency: medium 

Dispersing for a stretch along the I-10, Saddle Mountain BLM represents an excellent primitive campground west of Phoenix. You will find the individual campsites on the side of roads that lead to Saddle Mountain (by the way, a small network of dirt roads leads to this high place).

If you’re looking for a quintessential Arizona campground where you need no reservations, no papers, show up and enjoy some Old West atmosphere like the ancient peoples of this region did – you’ll struggle to find a better place than Saddle Mountain BLM campground. 

You will discover cacti, vast open space with tumbleweeds jaywalking (or rather, ‘jayrolling’) across dirt roads, and some of the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises you will ever see. 

Spending a night over a campfire, beer in your hand, chatting with your friends in this campground is a particular sort of event that’s tough to replicate elsewhere. The starry skies and the tranquil, flat, and dry expanse of land that stretches as far as the eye can see will make you think you were in one of those flotation chambers Joe Rogan can’t stop talking about. 

Amenities-wise, there are no toilets nor water at Saddle Mountain BLM, so total self-sufficiency is necessary. 

A word of warning: Occasional fly infestations tend to bug some of the sites on this campground. The local chicken processing plant is the culprit. The situation is reportedly at its worst during midday and in the spots closest to the factory.

And if the raw, wild beauty of Saddle Mountain BLM stirs your sense of adventure, imagine extending your journey to the mesmerizing landscapes surrounding Sedona.

Renowned for its magnificent red rocks, towering sandstone formations, and vibrant arts scene, Sedona is another dispersed camping jewel in Arizona’s crown. It offers numerous free camping options nestled among the stunning red rocks, providing a chance to wake up to one of the most breathtaking sunrises in the Southwest.

Sawmill Flats 

Cloudy sky over Grantham near Sawmill Flats
Photo by Brandon.wiggins via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no 
  • Visitor frequency: low

Suppose you’re looking for a mountainous territory at an elevation in the middle of an otherwise desert-dominated US state. In that case, Sawmill Flats is a campground in the majestic Sierra Ancha Mountains

In contrast to the desert below, this high-altitude piece of Arizona offers plenty of tall, shade-providing trees, small and clear cascading waterfalls, creeks with cold water, and woodland mesas with some of the most breathtaking views of the distant desert you can get in this part of US. 

During the winter, these parts see heavy snowfall. The temperatures during the winter get pretty low around Sawmill Flats, so bring warm clothing. If you plan to visit this remote mountain campground during the cold weather season, coming in a 4×4 vehicle and equipping your car or RV wheels with chains is a must. 

No trash services around these parts, toilets, or secure potable water sources exist. The USFS authorities recommend adopting a pack-in and pack-out camping approach to avoid running out of supplies during an otherwise pleasant camping trip. Fetching new supplies means driving back to the closest settlements of Young or Payson. 

Catfish Point Dispersed Camping Area

Catfish Point Dispersed Camping Area near Phoenix
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no 
  • Visitor frequency: low

Sitting on the shores of a quiet, remote lake within the scenic Horseshoe Reservoir in the Tonto National Forest, Catfish Point is a perfect place for an avid angler looking for some alone time in the wilderness of rural Arizona. 

Lake and pond fishing in this area is a favorite activity of many visitors, as the cool lakeside fishing spots and excellent mountain vistas make for a unique camping experience.

Fish species such as crappie, carp, and bluegill, as well as several variations of bass and Channel and flathead catfish (the species this place got named after), are some of the animals you can catch with your fishing rod. 

Other water-based activities in this patch of Tonto include boating, although, at Catfish Point, only non-motorized boating is allowed.

There are no amenities at Catfish Point, and the USFS officials recommend adopting a simple pack-in, pack-out strategy when visiting this place. 

To get directions to this relatively remote campground, you can visit this USFS page.

Where to Next?

Overall, camping around Phoenix is a unique experience you would need help replicating elsewhere. 

Its status as a major US city surrounded by a vast desert with some of the most breathtaking views of mountains in the distance is a must-visit for anyone interested in the desert climate, atmosphere, and nature in this part of North America. 

But don’t stop at Phoenix. There’s so much more to see and experience in the state of Arizona. As thrilling as Phoenix’s desert camping can be, Arizona offers more diverse experiences waiting to be explored. Consider going free camping near Flagstaff, a stark contrast to Phoenix’s landscape, renowned for its verdant pine forests and cooler climate.

Imagine the excitement of dispersed camping amidst its tranquil wilderness, selecting your unique spot amidst the lush greenery of the Coconino National Forest. 

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