5 Best Places to Explore in Gila County This Memorial Day Weekend!

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

IMPORTANT NOTE: Stage 2 Fire Restrictions are in effect. No fires, charcoal grills, or smoking outside of vehicles or or Shooting are allowed on the Tonto National Forest at the time of publishing this article (May 19, 2020) In some parts of Arizona, you might feel like it’s summer all throughout the year, but alas, Memorial Day is considered to be the unofficial start of the summer season. And that’s still a reason to celebrate! Memorial Day weekend is a great time to be in Arizona because the temperatures are pleasant, there’s usually plenty of sunshine, and there are so many fun road trip destinations nearby. Add in the fact that so many have been cooped-up due to Covid-19 and this Memorial Day weekend has the makings of a mass migration to all things outdoors. Welcome to the gateway to Arizona's wild outdoor playground in Gila County. If you are not familiar with Gila County we are about 90 miles from Phoenix and we offer everything from history packed museums to hundreds of miles of trails, lakes, rivers and access to some of the most wild wilderness areas in all of America. If camping, hiking, canyoneering, kayaking, boating, bird watching, fishing or just about any other outdoor adventure is what you seek, then Gila County is your destination for 2020 Memorial day. Read more about the top 5 destinations for you and your family.


Photo by Cameron Davis

Vacation on the largest lake in central Arizona! Roosevelt Lake has 15,560 surface acres of water that are perfect for boating, water skiing, fishing, or just playing in. This past year due to all the rain and moister, Roosevelt Lake is at 100% capacity and is the perfect place for a Memorial Day Family retreat.

The marina also boasts top-notch accessibility and convenience, featuring a RV Park (full hook ups), store, restaurant and bar, ski boat and pontoon boat rental service, fuel dock, both covered and uncovered dry storage options, wet slip boat storage and executive boat services. The lake is home to a variety of game fish including crappie, carp, Sunfish, flathead and channel catfish, and smallmouth bass and largemouth bass. 

There are several Arizona Trail trailheads in the vicinity. The 800 mile (1,280 km) long hiking trail extending from the Arizona-Mexico border to Utah crosses the Salt River on the State Route 188 bridge that crosses Theodore Roosevelt Lake just northeast of Roosevelt Dam.

PASSES: America the Beautiful Passes are only accepted at the Picnicking Sites. For boating, a Tonto Daily Pass and Watercraft Sticker or Tonto Discovery Pass are required.

Campground fees at various sites around Roosevelt Lake might be separate from the Tonto Daily and Discovery pass. Please call Tonto Basin Ranger District for specific details or visit individual websites. Tonto Basin Ranger District - (602) 225-5395

Some campground and recreation areas are still closed closed: the shoreline at Bachelor Cove remains closed indefinitely to protect public health. It's not just covid-19: in this particular case shoreline access there remains inundanted by the high lake level!

Bermuda Flat Shoreline is also closed.

But what about Windy Hill, Grapevine, Schoolhouse and Cholla? Most are open - and you can verify your favorite Gila County camping or day-use spot using the list and “zoom-in-able” map at https://www.fs.usda.gov/recmain/tonto/recreation.


Roosevelt Lake Visitor Center

Adjacent to the Roosevelt Lake Marina is the Roosevelt Lake Visitor Center. The center is staffed by knowledgeable people who will answer your questions about the area and Arizona. The rear patio presents a spectacular view of the lake. The center has several artifacts from the Salado culture. On exhibit are examples of storage pottery made and used by the people who inhabited this area more than 600 years ago. Tonto National Monument

Tonto National Monument showcases two Salado-style cliff dwellings. Colorful pottery, woven cotton cloth and other artifacts tell a story of people living and using resources from the northern Sonoran Desert from 1250 to 1450 CE. Guided tours are offered to the Upper Cliff Dwellings from November through April, every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Please call (928) 467- 2241 to check availability and to make reservations


Photo by Cameron Davis

With 158 miles of shoreline, San Carlos Lake is one of the largest lakes in Arizona when it’s full – averaging 19,500 acre-feet of water in a good season! One of eight lakes with desert surroundings, you’ll find deep blue waters framed by gaunt, rocky, cactus-speckled mountains – in this case, the foothills of the Gila and Mescal mountain ranges. Make a point of visiting this aquatic oasis.

Formed by Coolidge Dam, San Carlos Lake lies within the 3,000-square-mile San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, located approximately 125 miles east of Phoenix near US 70. It’s one of the larger reservations in the state (after the Navajo reservation) and is subject to tribal regulations – a permit is required for all hiking, fishing, camping, and off-highway driving.  Permit Information

  • Check for latest permit costs at the Recreation & Wildlife Department in San Carlos

  • Permit required for fishing, hunting, or special-use

  • Family permits include parents and children 18 and under

  • Visitors to the Black and Salt Rivers or Bear Wallow Creek must have a special permit

  • No permit is needed for driving through on US 60, US 70, Road 800 to San Carlos, or Road 500 to Coolidge Dam

  • Black and Salt River permit may be used for fishing in those rivers or Bear Wallow Creek; special permit fees per day for ages 12 and up

  • Boat permits are issued on a daily or per calendar year basis; a combined fishing and boat permit can be purchased for a full calendar year

  • Water-skiing/personal watercraft permits are also available for annual access; free if under age 12 with a permit-holding adult

One-day permits are good for 24 hours, from midnight to midnight. We suggest you contact the San Carlos Recreation and Wildlife Department for the latest openings and closures PO Box 97 San Carlos, AZ 85550 (928) 475-2343


Photo by DJ Craig

The Mogollon Rim marks the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau and is thousands of feet high in some areas. The average elevation of the rim is about 7000 feet and the area is known for its ponderosa pine forests that form the largest stands of this tree in the United States. The lakes of the Rim Lakes area were created by damming small canyons that drain northward from the Mogollon Rim. Although modest in size, the lakes occupy a lovely forested setting. Woods Canyon Lake is the most popular and easily accessed. A general store and several campgrounds are near the lake. There is a short nature trail near the Rocky Point Picnic Ground and a trail that goes around Woods Canyon Lake. The Rim Lake Vista Trail (Trail 622) offers great views and lots of rocky sunny exposures for wildflower habitat. This trail is 3.5 miles long and easily accessed from several points. July and August are the best months for wildflower viewing because summer rains freshen-up the vegetation, but you will find some wildflowers anytime from late May to early October.

For Camping options click here: https://www.discovergilacounty.com/woods-canyon-lake

Willow Springs Lake is one of the most accessible of the Rim lakes and has a very scenic setting in a heavily forested area on the edge of the Mogollon Rim. The landscape which includes Ponderosa Pine, Oak and Douglas Fir trees is simply gorgeous and at an elevation of about 7,500 feet, visitors can expect very pleasant temperatures in the spring and summer months. Willow Springs Lake is stocked weekly with catchable size Rainbow trout from May through September annually. When fishing from the shore, try nightcrawlers. Trolling for trout is usually productive. Spinner baits and artificial worm rigs work well for bass around underwater structure. In the summer the fish typically move to deeper depths of between 10 to 20 feet. The lake contains crayfish, so using lures that imitate them is a good way to attract bass. A fishing license with a trout stamp is required for anglers over 13 years old. The daily bag limit is six trout and six bass and bass limits are halved for unlicensed anglers 13 and younger. For camping options click here : https://www.discovergilacounty.com/willow-springs-lake

Chevelon Lake Chevelon Canyon Lake is quite remote and is a deep canyon lake that requires a relatively steep hike 3/4 of a mile to get to the waters edge from the parking area.Generally, only the most avid of anglers that are physically well-conditioned fish Chevelon Lake. However, those that do are rewarded with views of the most scenic trout lake in Arizona. It is simply gorgeous and panoramic with thick forested vegetation and trees that abut the lake. If you're seeking tranquility, this is the lake of choice.

Click here for camping options: https://www.discovergilacounty.com/chevelon-lake

For a complete list of other lakes in Gila County Visit: https://www.discovergilacounty.com/lakes

#4 PINAL MOUNTAINS (Near Globe, Arizona)

The Pinal Mountains are a dramatic southern skyline bordering the nearby city of Globe, the Pinal Mountains offer four-season recreation luring summer and winter hikers, birders, mountain bikers – and photographers.

The Pinals are an easy day-trip, too! Globe-Miami is 90-minutes’ drive from Mesa and East Valley cities. Once you’re here, trailheads that ascend into shaded Ponderosa Pine forests are just another 20 minutes drive from downtown Globe. Or keep driving - right to the 7800 foot mountaintop – via 12 miles of scenic, well-graded dirt road leading to Signal Peak on the East side of the range, or Madera Peak on the West. Pavement ends when you turn onto Forest Road 651 – the main road leading campers, hikers and photographers through chaparral-covered hillsides and up into Ponderosa Pine forests.

Look for camp sites (yes, with rustic Forest Service outhouse toilets) starting at Sulfide del Rey and also at Ferndell. The first of several hiking trails is Kellner Canyon -- then FR651 passes two more trails (Ice House, Six Shooter) before ending at the array of radio towers of Pinal Peak. Located wholly within the Tonto National Forest, the Pinal Recreation Area includes 45,760 acres! Currently the only camp ground that we are aware of that is closed is Timber Camp. For additional information click on these links Trails and Camp Grounds.

#5 TONTO NATURAL BRIDGE STATE PARK IMPORTANT NOTE: All hiking trails will be open Saturday 5/23, Sunday 5/24, and Monday 5/25. To promote effective social distancing, the number of visitors allowed in the park at any given time will be restricted. Arrive early. Visitors can expect long wait times to enter the park.

Photo by Cameron Davis

The Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is a natural arch in Gila County Arizona, that is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. The area surrounding the bridge has been made into a state park called Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, which is located off State Route 87, just 10 miles north of Payson. The Park has 4 main trails that are amazing and give you a different perspective of the bridge. Click here to see information on each trail https://www.discovergilacounty.com/tonto-natural-bridge-hiking-trails

  • Pine Creek Trail is about a half-mile long. About 400 feet of the trail is developed, but the creek bottom is not.

  • Waterfall Trail is about 300 feet long with uneven stairs and ends at a waterfall cave.

  • Gowan Trail is about a half-mile long and descends 200 feet to an observation deck at the creek bottom where you can view the natural bridge. This trail is steep and rough.

  • Anna Mae Trail is about 500 feet long and leads to Pine Creek Trail and the natural bridge.

"The Bridge" is a great place to take families and enjoy the day. The have some ramadas and places to take a lunch and enjoy the views.

Just as a reminder, if you pack in something to any of these locations we would ask that you pack it out. Also, remember that these ares are remote and you will need good footwear, water and food. For good survival tips you can visit our "Staying Alive Guide"

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