Tonto National Forest Overview
|Tonto National Forest (Purestock/Purestock/Getty)|
Near the heart of Arizona, the Tonto National Forest is a cauldron of colliding ecosystemsit is here that desert meets mountain, saguaro cactus succumbs to ponderosa pine, and the earth touches the sky. Slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, Tonto's nearly three million acres make it the fifth largest national forest in America. The vertical-walled canyons, steep Technicolor cliffs, and scrub-covered hills have changed little since Zane Grey wrote Under the Tonto Rim in 1926. Yucca, cholla cactus, barrel cactus, and agave thrive in the semi-arid hillsides and mesas, while floodplains along the rivers nourish stands of mesquite, black walnut, and sycamore. Here, in the rugged country along the Mogollon Rim, Geronimo led the Apache into several violent clashes with the U.S. Army.
Hike the Dead Man Mesa Trail
For a taste of this rugged country, take a short day hike along the four-mile Dead Man Mesa Trail. Elevation along the trail ranges from 2,600 feet to 4,880 feet, and parts of it are extremely steep and rocky. More than 1,000 miles of trails wind their way through the forest.
Explore the Superstition Wilderness
If you hear the call of the wild—Superstition Wilderness can help you answer it. Located in the Mazatlal mountain range, the wilderness is a rolling landscape of desert scrub, chaparral, and saguaro cacti that can be explored by foot or on horseback. Surrounded by vertical terrain, the Superstitions are home to Weaver's Needle, a 4,553-foot volcanic plug where, according to legend, Dutchman Jakob Walz shot two Mexican miners and took over their gold mine. In the 1870s, Walz showed up in Phoenix periodically with bags of gold nuggets. On his deathbed, he revealed that the mine was somewhere on Weaver's Needle, which launched a crazed treasure hunt that continues to this day. The Lost Dutchman Gold Mine has never been found.
Kayak through the Desert
The Verde River flows through the Sonoran Desert like a mirage, but its turbulent waters are real—the 200-mile water snake wriggles its way from Flagstaff to Phoenix through three national forests including the Tonto. The Verde is the only Wild and Scenic River in Arizona—it boasts Class I, II, III, and IV whitewater that flows through cactus-covered cliffs and grassy banks peppered with striking desert wildflowers.
Take a Drive along the Apache Trail
The Apache Trail National Forest Scenic Byway snakes its way through the Sonoran Desert and along the Mogollon Rim. The origins of the Apache Trail can be traced back for centuries to an aboriginal highway that traversed the Superstitious Mountains. Today, the Apache Trail is a 78-mile stretch of State Highway 88 that astonishes visitors with its surrounding beauty as it penetrates the raw desert.
Mountain Bike the Mogollon Rim
Mountain bikers on the warpath can traverse the steep, rocky trails on the edge of the Mogollon Rim. Apache warriors effectively used this intricate labyrinth of cliffs and canyons to elude the U.S. Army. Trails also penetrate the forest's meadows, grasslands, juniper woodlands, and lush riparian vegetation. For a more challenging ride, try the Buzzard Roost Canyon Route, Slate Creek Divide Loop, New River Mesa Route, Three Bar Route, and White Hills Route. Mountain biking is year-round—during the winter, desert routes offer an excellent biking alternative to the cold temperatures in the high country.
More on biking in Tonto National Forest
Battle Catfish and Trout on the Verde
Anglers along the Verde River reel in channel and flathead catfish of enormous sizes—sometimes weighing over 50 pounds. Other popular catches include smallmouth and bigmouth bass, rainbow trout, and carp. If you're after carp, however, be prepared for some competition—the bald eagle preys on carp and comprises the largest part of the eagle's food supply.
Observe Raptors Take Their Prey
In the cottonwood stands on the banks of the Verde River, witness the bald eagle, black hawk, and osprey drop from the sky and pull fish from the river with razor-sharp talons. The peregrine falcon preys on violet-green swallows and white-throated swifts. Along the river's edge, you may also come across river otters playfully chasing one another and raccoons foraging for food.
Camp in the Arizona Desert
Most of the forest is open to campers who are willing to forgo the perks of civilization—you can even camp among the Gila monsters in the Sonoran Desert. The Salado people survived by supplementing their cultivated food with the edible stalks and buds of yucca, fruit from the prickly pear and saguaro, and beans from the mesquite tree. If subsistence isn't your cup of tea, there are numerous developed campgrounds that offer year-round camping.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication