Top Ten U.S. Campgrounds

Reef Townsite Campground: Arizona
By Suzanne Dow

Southbound on State Route 92, mesquite trees dance in the shimmering hot morning sunlight. To the east, a narrow green ribbon marks the San Pedro River. The only year-round water in the San Rafael Valley, the San Pedro offers hiking under a canopy of cottonwood and willows with a wide variety of bird and animal life. On the southern horizon, the Huachuca Mountains, a "sky island" formation, dominates the view. In the middle of this sky island, Carr Peak watches over Reef Townsite, an outstandingly cool campground.

Delightfully unknown, Reef Townsite campground is nestled among fragrant ponderosa pines and red-barked manzanitas. High above the fast-growing town of Sierra Vista, Arizona, the campground is refreshingly cool even when the valley below is experiencing asphalt-melting temperatures. With an interesting history, lots of hiking, glorious vistas, and spacious campsites, Reef Townsite is a campground for more than a weekend.

What Reef Townsite doesn't have is a good access route for recreation vehicles. The 6.7 miles of forest route to the campground is definitely a "white knuckle" experience. It is a narrow dirt roadway with impressive drop-offs and pocketknife-shaped switchbacks. On the positive side, the panoramic views, reaching from the Santa Rita to Mule Mountain ranges, are about 120 degrees.

Initially, the Huachuca Mountains were mined for lumber. Logging began in 1878 to supply the boomtown of Tombstone, stamp mills along the San Pedro River, and nearby Fort Huachuca. Mining, the next affront to the mountains, began with the first claim in 1893. Gold and silver were discovered. However, for the next 60 years, success was limited. The Reef Townsite Historic trail, 0.7-mile-loop trail, points out some remnants of those mining efforts on the mountains, such as mill foundations and piles of broken, milky quartz scattered over the hillsides. A need for tungsten in the mid-20th century brought a secondary flurry of mining to Carr Canyon. But when the government stopped subsidizing the ore's price, this effort was also discontinued and the town died.

Among Tall Trees

Located on the site of the former Reef Townsite and at the edge of the Miller Peak Wilderness, the campground can be a base camp for exploring the wilderness and remains of mines, mills, and cabins. Directly across the road from the campground's entrance is the Old Sawmill Trail trailhead, which accesses Carr Peak trail and over 50 miles of additional trails in and around Miller Peak Wilderness. These trails wind in and through, up and down, over and under the Huachuca Mountains.

Tall, straight trees in southeast Arizona aren't as rare as some might think, but they are generally located atop "sky islands." Sitting atop the sheer walls of Carr Canyon at 7,200 feet, Reef Townsite enjoys a healthy stand of Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and silverleaf oak. The smells from these trees are delightful, and the shade is wonderful.

Constructed in 1988, Reef Townsite campground has two connected loops that follow the contour of the land. This feature provides a fair amount of privacy for each site. Only one small site overlooks the abyss of Carr Canyon and into San Rafael Valley. But what the other sites lack in breathtaking vistas, they make up for with lots of shade and spaciousness.

There are other campgrounds in southern Arizona worthy of a stay, but none offer the link to history, variety of hiking opportunities, or breathtaking views found at Reef Townsite campground. All this and cool summertime temperatures.


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