The Tonto National Forest encompasses approximately 2.8 million acres ranging in elevation from 1300 feet near the lower Salt River to over 7,700 feet at Aztec Peak. The forest contains a variety of habitats that include coniferous forests and woodlands, chaparral, grassland, desert scrub, riparian and aquatic. This diversity supports complex assemblages of wildlife and plants.
The Tonto National Forest is a mecca for wildlife viewing. There are hundreds of different species that call this forest home. From its towering wooded pine forest and its sprawling deserts, Gila County offers many different wildlife viewing opportunities. Below are several areas that have been documented as excellent wildlife viewing habitats.
Green Valley Park Wildlife Viewing
Each year the migratory pattern happens just like the last and all the “Snowbirds” return to roost at Payson’s Green Valley Park.
Here you can see hordes of Canadian Geese as they seemingly take ownership of the park and its 3 lakes that are managed by the Town of Payson Parks and Recreation Department in coordination with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. In addition to the Canadian Geese, wildlife viewers will see coots, ducks and the majestic national bird, the bald eagle as he swoops down for a fishy meal. His impressive eight-foot wingspan is truly amazing. Blue heron’s can also be seen standing on the pier stalking their next meal and mallard ducks playfully float on the water without a care in the world. Many of the birds that visit Green Valley park are seasonal residents and they start to arrive in late October. Once the weather heats up they will be off to Canada and Alaska. In addition to birds you will often find an elk or two or a Couse deer coming down out of the mountains for a cool drink of water or a blade of fresh green grass. On your next trip head on down to Green Valley Park and bring your binoculars and maybe a fishing pole. You never know just who or what might show up to say hello.
Mogollon Rim District Wildlife Viewing
Elk are commonly seen on the Mogollon Rim District. They are seen along mountain roads in the forest, and particularly in meadow openings. Be sure to stay alert and use caution when driving in the forest, particularly at dusk and evening hours to avoid an unpleasant encounter between your vehicle and a large elk!
Black bear can be observed in the canyons and drainages, or in ponderosa pine where oaks have produced good acorn crops that foraging bears feast on. Bald eagles can be seen throughout the District in the winter months in areas like Green Valley Park (in Payson, AZ), Woods Canyon Lake, Tonto Creek and the Salt River Canyon Wilderness. Peregrine falcons can be seen along the Mogollon rim flying, soaring, or diving at prey at speeds up towards 200 miles per hour!
Pinal Mountains Wildlife Viewing
Bird watchers and wild animal enthusiasts have discovered the holy grail when it comes to watchable wildlife. These animal loving tourists are looking for their next photography subject or they just want to relax and admire mother nature’s creations. The Pinal Mountains in southern Arizona provides them with opportunity to do both.
The Pinal's (what the locals call them) just south of Globe, Arizona have a variety of plant and animal life. Species of flora include Ponderosa pine, White fir, Juniper, Gambel oak, and Senecio neomexicanus toumeyi (also known as Toumey Groundsel ). Fauna found in the mountains include Javelina, White-tailed deer, Mule deer, Cottontail rabbit, Tree squirrel, Quail, Little brown bat; smaller populations of Elk, American black bear, and Mountain Lion. Some birders know that this is the farthest north you can find the Yellow-eyed Junco and the Chihuahuan Raven. Perhaps the highest concentration of wintering Fox Sparrows in the state are on the slopes above Globe. Other birds like the Olive Warbler, Crissal Thrasher, Red Crossbill and Spotted Owl are easier to find here in the winter than almost anywhere else. To find 50 to 60 species of birds in a single winter day is not hard. Visitors also might encounter Coati, Abert’s Squirrel, and an occasional bobcat. If you pay attention and look very closely you might event spot their tracks in the mud…not quite the same but almost as exciting because you have to figure out what type of animal made “that” track. For more about birding in the Pinal Mountain area click here. As you drive up Russell Road and FS road 651 on the north slope or Ice House Canyon Road and FS road 112 on the east slope, you start out in gullies with mesquites, sycamores and habitats that are hot in the summer and cool in the winter. Then a little higher the habitat breaks out into low bushes with tough small leaves called chaparral. A little higher near Sulfide del Rey picnic area, Madera Peak Road and Pioneer Pass you find junipers and then Ponderosa pines mixed in with oaks. Above 7000 feet near Signal Peak the aspens, maples, white pines, Douglas firs and other conifers that do well in cool summers and frigid winters are common. Because each band of different vegetation is the home to a different set of animals that are adapted to eating the food, escaping enemies, and finding shelter in their particular habitat type, you can see several different communities of animal species in a short drive or hike. The forest service roads in the higher elevations can be closed all winter (December to March) because of snow, but they are also great for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. If you are looking for a wonderful outdoor experience and don’t want to share it with a lot of other people, the Pinals in the fall and winter are waiting for you.
Roosevelt Lake Wildlife Viewing
Roosevelt Lake Wildlife Area encompasses much of the west end of Theodore Roosevelt Lake. The wildlife area extends from the northwest portion of the lake southward to where Tonto Creek enters to Cottonwood Creek on the southwest portion of the lake. Due to its size, the habitat in the wildlife area is quite diverse and consists of lush upper Sonoran Desert, marsh, open water and, depending on flows, inundated vegetation.
As a result of the diversity of habitat types, a visitor can expect to see a wide array of wildlife during all seasons. In addition, this end of the lake is surrounded by Four Peaks, Superstition, Mazatzal, and Sierra Ancha wilderness areas, making it a picturesque place to view wildlife. A visitor can expect sweltering summer temperatures to regularly exceed 100 degrees F while winter temperatures may drop below freezing. Wildlife to Watch: Roosevelt Lake and the Wildlife Area are the winter home for a flock of Canada geese, one of the largest groups to winter in Arizona. Hundreds of wild geese can sometimes be seen in the Bermuda Flat area, where they graze on grass and forbs. In the spring, they begin their long migration back to their nesting grounds in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and as far away as Alberta, Canada. The water also attracts snow geese and a great variety of other waterfowl and grebes during migration and winter. Large numbers of western grebes and fewer numbers of Clark’s grebes have recently become permanent residents on the lake. Herons, cormorants, willow flycatchers, bald eagles, and ospreys are just a few of the numerous species that live and nest in the Wildlife Area. A well-developed cottonwood willow riparian forest borders Tonto Creek just before it enters the lake near the A cross road. Look in this area for yellow-billed cuckoo, hooded oriole, summer tanager, and other highly sought-after riparian species. For more birding information click here. Deer, black bear, javelina, coatimundi, coyote, gray fox, bobcat, mountain lion, ringtail, and numerous varieties of ground squirrels, snakes, and lizards inhabit the area. Near the wetlands visitors may encounter a variety of amphibians and reptiles, including common kingsnake, black-necked gartersnake, Sonoran mud turtle, Woodhouse’s toad, desert spiny and ornate tree lizards. The uplands are home to diamond-backed rattlesnake, eastern collared, common side-blotched, and greater earless lizards.
Tonto National Monument Wildlife Viewing
Although Tonto National Monument was established to preserve the cliff dwellings, it also protects a great diversity of plants and animals. The Monument covers less than two square miles in area, but is home to at least 160 species of birds, 6 species of amphibians, 32 species of reptiles, 40 species of mammals, and countless species of insects, spiders, centipedes, and millipedes.
The Monument's great diversity can be explained in part by its location on the edge of two very different landforms: the Superstition Mountains to the southwest, and the valley formed by the Salt River and Tonto Creek to the north and east. Between the valley and mountains lies an apron, or bajada, of eroded sediments, bisected by dry washes. As the bajada slopes north towards the river (now Roosevelt Lake), conditions become drier and warmer, and the vegetation is more open and desert-like. Not surprisingly, the short distance from the mountains to the valley brings many changes in wildlife. One other feature of great significance to animals is Cave Creek Canyon, which runs below the Upper Cliff Dwelling, through the Visitor Center area, and north to Roosevelt Lake. North of the Visitor Center, Cave Creek Canyon is dry for most of the year. To the south, however, it contains a perennial spring and tall trees, including Arizona walnuts and sycamores. This small shaded riparian area is visited by many species of wildlife, and was no doubt heavily used by the Salado, who built their dwellings overlooking the spring.
Woods Canyon Lake Wildlife Viewing
Woods Canyon Lake is surrounded by a dense forest of pine, fir, oak and aspen, and sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet. Wildlife viewers who venture onto nearby trails are afforded expansive views of the land beneath the Mogollon Rim.
The Mogollon Rim, pronounced by locals as "muggy-own," is a 200-mile long cliff in northern Arizona that ranges between 5,000 and 7,000 feet in elevation and serves as the geographical dividing line between the cool high country above and the hot, dry desert below. Summer temperatures can be very pleasant because of the elevation. However, the rainy season often brings afternoon thunderstorms from late June through August. Visitors should come prepared for rain and cool nighttime temperatures. Wildlife viewing includes birds, squirrels, deer, raccoons, elk, fox, coyotes and more . Deer, skunks and bears are common campground visitors.
We invite you to come and EXPLORE THE WILD here in Gila County. When you are exploring the terrain and viewing the local wildlife don't forget to tag us on social media by using the hashtag #DiscoverGilaCounty
For more adventure opportunities visit www.discovergilacounty.com