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Camping in Arizona

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Arizona is an awesome state for camping, it is truly awesome. I am still amazed to go out into the back country and see evidence of modern campsites — fire rings — all over the place. The people in this state are free to roam the deserts and forests and mountains, and to sleep and make a camp where they please.

You can set up a tent pretty much anywhere on state land in Arizona for free. The camping regulations are slim: put out your fires all the way and only stay in one site for 14 days.

“But how the hell are they going to know how long you were there for?” a friend of mine who once lived out on a mountain for three months said when I asked how the forest service regulates the two week camping restriction. “If a ranger comes up and asks how long you have been there, you just say that you arrived yesterday.”

Basically, the 14 day rule is just to have the legal grounds to evict forest tramps who may otherwise try to claim squatter’s rights . . . or to give the forest service a reason to get rid of anyone they don’t want in camping in the forest anymore.

“Basically, if you keep your site clean, you are not destroying the area, and you don’t make a nuisance of yourself, nobody really cares how long you camp for.”

The ability to drop trow and make camp just about anywhere on state land makes Arizona a beacon for travelers. This state becomes the vagabond capital of the USA in winter.

Primitive camp in forest of Arizona

Primitive camp in forest of Arizona

If you navigate the primitive roads of the Arizona back country, you will find a scattered menagerie of campsites liberally spread out through the forests. If you want to camp for the night, just pull off the road and set up your tent.

For the first two weeks of this archaeology project in the Tonto Forest the crew camped. The first week was at a primitive site in the forest. We drove in one day, set up camp at a well established site with a nice fire ring already made, stayed for the week, and then departed as freely as we came. It did not cost a penny.

The second week of camping was at a formal campgrounds. The cost was incredible: $20 per site per night, $2 to take a six minute shower. The company booted a bill, so I could not gripe.

Camp fire ring at a primitive site in Arizona

Camp fire ring at a primitive site in Arizona

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But Thursday soon reared its head, and the chair was taken out from under my ass: I had to fend for my own accommodation for the next four nights.

I worked a full day on Thursday and was dirty. I wanted to bath. The weather was cold. I began aimlessly driving north.

I went to Sedona in hopes to find a friend that I wanted to stay with. I tried and failed to make contact with her during the week. I wanted to stay in her house, but I needed to tell her first. So I just drove to Sedona hoping for one of those gracious swings of coincidence that Providence keeps stashed away for travelers on rainy days.

I was hoping for a rainy day. I drove into Sedona in hopes that an email from my friend — and an invitation to crash — would me sitting in my inbox. I swung into a Best Western parking lot and opened my laptop. I got on the WIFI.

No email from friend.

I knew that this friend has a tendency to go off on long spiritual quests in the mountains or in some oddball exto-hippie retreats where everyone wears white robes and pretends that speaking is a spiritual blockade of irreverent magnitude.

It became apparent that she may not be checking her email these days.

Shit. How am I going to find a person who has “retreated?” How am I going to stay with this girl if I can’t let her know about it first?

I had no idea where she lived. Somewhere in Sedona. I looked around Sedona, no friend. But, then again, looking for anyone in Sedona is an extremely painful occupation, and I cannot say that I kept up for very long.

All I saw were old fat ladies in white khaki tourist garb, big cameras hanging from otherwise scrawny necks, stuff for sale for tourists to remember shopping, and souvenir stalls with the word “UFO” written all over them and a big blown up alien or two.

Oh yeah, and native American caricatures were painted everywhere with feathers and rock shops and all sorts of commercial curios that say simply, “you are not at home any more, amigo, buy me.”

No, Sedona was not a place to find a friend in.

I moved on.

I wiped at the cake of dirt and sunscreen on my face. I wiggled around inside of a shirt now sticky with the dried up remnants of a  sweaty day of work. I thought about just turning on to a forest service road and picking out a primitive camp for the night.

But I had been camping all week. Deep down I wanted to reward myself with a good shower and a roof for putting another 40 hour work week into the books.

I drove quickly out of Sedona and, lured in by the prospect of quick warm shower, I haphazardly checked out a campground.

$20 for a site, $3.50 for a shower.

Were these people mad? $20 to sleep outside and freeze all night long? The cost of a full meal just to get clean?

In disgust I drove to Flagstaff. I found a bed under a roof for $20, a free, warm shower, and a free breakfast.

Fees for camping in Arizona

Fees for camping in Arizona

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Camping in Arizona is a pursuit of extremes. If you don’t need running water, free primitive sites are in abundance, and give the sense that this part of the world can be traveled well and cheap, but if you want the mere privilege of washing or a toilet, the otherwise no frill organized campgrounds will suck every last penny out of you. $23.50 to freeze all night long.

I will be a desert rat before this Arizona binge is up.

Vagabond Journey series on back country living
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Filed under: Accommodation, Camping, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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