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Backpacker Magazine – September 2012

Easy Epics: 17 Drive-up Campsites a Backpacker Will Love

Combine the best of car camping (spacious tents, comfy chairs, frosty margaritas!) and the best of backpacking (deep solitude, outrageous scenery, swimming holes!) with these 17 accessible hideaways.

by: Jim Gorman

Near Gardner Creek (Abraham Karam)
Near Gardner Creek (Abraham Karam)
Crazy Jug Point (Ed Callaert)
Crazy Jug Point (Ed Callaert)
Slicerock Sanctuary, Lake Powell (Justin Bailie)
Slicerock Sanctuary, Lake Powell (Justin Bailie)
Outside of Breckenridge (Andrew Bydlon)
Outside of Breckenridge (Andrew Bydlon)
Falling Water Falls (Superstock/AGE FOTOSTOCK)
Falling Water Falls (Superstock/AGE FOTOSTOCK)
San Rafael Swell (Kennan Harvey)
San Rafael Swell (Kennan Harvey)
Little Rock Pond (Lisa Densmore)
Little Rock Pond (Lisa Densmore)
The Galiuro Mountains (Abraham Karam)
The Galiuro Mountains (Abraham Karam)
Hurricane Creek (Steven McBride)
Hurricane Creek (Steven McBride)

Johnny and I are prowling a glorified goat track near the Galiuro Mountains in southeast Arizona in a Toyota FJ Cruiser. Burdened as we are by a trunk full of iced beverages, fresh eggs and bacon, sinfully thick sleeping pads, and the finest in folding chairs, we are nonetheless seeking the rewards of geography and solitude typically reserved for backpackers.

We’ve come to the Southwest because its vast acres of BLM land offer some of the most remote, scenic, and regulation-free hideaways in the Lower 48—perfect hunting ground in our quest for wilderness-flavored car camping. My partner, guidebook author Johnny Molloy, is like a grizzled bird dog in this pursuit. One of the foremost camping authorities in America, the Johnson City, Tennessee, native logs 180 bag nights and puts 25,000 miles on his car annually researching his growing catalog of books (nearly 20, including eight state-specific camping guides). The guy knows campsites like Robert Parker knows wine. I apply the brakes near a site with potential—a shade tree, a sweeping view, fuel for a fire.

“I’m not feeling it,” says Johnny. “Too exposed, and there’s no water.” Perfection will require patience. It’s unlike backpacking, where the thought process at the end of a wearying day is blissfully simple: If there’s water to drink and reasonably level ground on which to pitch a tent, you’re booked. Campsite selection from behind a windshield is just the opposite. There’s something about having four wheels at your disposal that unleashes an inner Goldilocks: This site’s too sunny, that one’s too windy, the next one’s not as pretty.

There are plenty of options here. We’ve targeted land governed by a recreational use policy summarized in these four glorious words: “primitive, dispersed camping allowed.” That’s land-manager speak for “you’re in the boonies, son, and there ain’t a fee station or ranger for miles.” But loneliness isn’t enough. We forge on to the high aspen groves of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, where the quaking leaves offer a soundtrack rarely disturbed by combustion engines. We find a sweet site, but an old cattle fence mars the view.

“Too much barbed wire,” says Johnny.

We relocate south, to the Chiricahua Mountains. Our sky-island destination is at the end of a 27-mile dirt road, and close to ridge-top trails. It’ll do for a night, but Johnny eliminates it immediately from championship material. “Too tame.”

The next day, we decide we need to do more recon, and stop in the tiny town of Patagonia. Johnny sees some off-duty wildland firefighters and figures they should know the area better than most. He swings into action with his disarming Southern drawl: “Ahm not from around here, and Ah wuz wunderin’…”

“Gardner Canyon is the one,” volunteers a young, stocky member of the crew. “You’ll have nearby hiking and even a running creek.” Gardner Canyon accesses the west side of the Mt. Wrightson Wilderness, a chunk of the Santa Rita Mountains laced by 35 miles of trail and lorded over by the pyramidal 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson. We pause to close a cattle gate at Tunnel Spring, cross the Arizona Trail, then gingerly splash through Gardner Creek. Hard by the creek, I see it: a promising site beneath the outspread arms of a sycamore, with Mt. Wrightson visible through the canopy.

We pitch our tent, string a hammock, and take a short hike on the Arizona Trail where a blanket of tawny grasslands unfurls to the base of the Mustang Mountains. Back at camp, I clean off in the icy stream and crack a cold beer. At dusk, a whippoorwill whistles from the opposite bank. The aroma of burning juniper drifts on a cool breeze.

For the next three days, we’ll be torn between hiking and relaxing, between adventure and siesta, which at the end of our quest brings camping perfection into focus. What we’ve been seeking, I realize, is a yin-yang nirvana, a site with surroundings so magnificent your muscles beg to explore but so peaceful your brain begs to shut down.

Johnny and I will enjoy the push-pull of our paradise beside Gardner Creek until the siren call of something better gets us back in the Toyota. After all, some of the best places in life are just a few miles down that rocky, rutted road.

Get there From Sonoita, take AZ 83 21 miles to Gardner Canyon Rd. Turn west, and drive nine miles to look for campsites just before and after the road crosses Gardner Creek.
Map Green Trails Map Santa Rita Mountains ($12, greentrailsmaps.com)
UTM 12R 0519609E 3507383N
Contact fs.usda.gov/coronado; (520) 378-0311




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Reader Rating: -

ALL READERS COMMENTS

Mark
Aug 11, 2014

We took the suggestion and went to Crazy Jug a couple of weeks ago and it was, hands down, one of the most beautiful places I've ever camped. It's disbursed camping (on FS land, literally a stone's throw from the GCNP border), so no facilities, but the road in is in really good shape and I think almost any truck/RV would do fine. My iPhone GPS got us there just fine. Two great spots (take a look on Google Earth) are 1) N3625'39.15" W11224'13.26" (this was where we stayed) and 2) N3625'56.59 W11224'39.54 The sunrises and sunsets were unbelievable.

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sierracanon
May 08, 2014

Just to clarify... the Mt Ashland campground is not on the Rogue-Siskiyou NF, but in the Klamath NF.

azcamper
Mar 25, 2014

Gardner Canyon is a beautiful area but it was quite busy and lots of quads motorcycles etc. Not the serene place described in the article.

Greg Gilbert
Mar 14, 2014

The lake pond wetland around the Hopkins Prairie campground has big alligators.

AZ Hiker
Mar 07, 2014

Thanks JQ and wyatt, for keeping us on track. Learn how to stay found by paying attention to your surroundings and using a compass. Read "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart" (Amazon). Remember to calibrate your compass to the declination at your camp site or hiking trail (http://magnetic-declination.com). A compass doesn't need satellites, a signal, or batteries and works in all types of weather, day or night, but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Learn how to orient yourself using a compass, a compass and a map, no compass and a map, no compass and no map. The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking and camping. Learn what to pack for a day-hike, trail ethics, what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing (for the car and for the trail) just in case your camping trip extends into more nights than you planned on. Buy it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart".

DUNK
Mar 06, 2014

Potentially a good article but so confused by the pictures not matching the write ups.

metalhead 360
Dec 10, 2013

It would be nice if the pictures matched the locations described.

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Aug 07, 2013


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watson
Jan 08, 2013

thanks for the corrections guys!

wyatt
Dec 07, 2012

JQ 11/24/12 is all over this one, right on, good call! Some of us do read these comments, and unlike BM (the former Backpacker Magazine), most of us can probably read a map. Editing and fact-checking by BM is cost prohibitive maybe? Nah!, dunno. Compass point directions (north, south, east, west) are strictly optional for BM, just drive for hours in the wrong direction, it's OK you'll get there someday, right? Maybe they do it to keep the riff-raff out?, yeah that's it. Similar to this Gardner Canyon location, the directions to the Galiuro Mtns. destination was off by 180 degrees. Page 66 of the AZ DeLorme clearly shows Gardner Canyon Rd. heading WEST into the EAST side of the Mount Wrightson Wilderness. They are celebrating Amendment 64 a little early down in Boulder and now BM just can't be trusted any longer, too bad, they were the bible once. Take the suggestions and recon it yourself.

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JQ
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I'm not sure if anybody reads these comments, but just a few corrections that should be pointed out for the trip to Gardner Canyon in AZ. First, Gardner Canyon is actually on the Side of Mt Wrightson. Second, the directions are not completely accurate. The author states "From Sonoita, take AZ 83 21 miles to Gardner Canyon Rd". The directions should say from Vail, take AZ 83 21 miles south. Gardner canyon road is actually about 9mi north of Sonoita. The reason this is important is because is you take AZ 83 about 25mi south, you will see a road called "Garden Canyon Rd" down by Fort Huachuca which is not where you want to go. This would be an easy mistake for somebody to make if they were not aware.

Overall camping in Gardner Canyon is just as they say. Plenty of hiking, even some places for some pretty good off road driving if your vehicle can handle it. Campsites are awesome, and complete solitude. All the joys of backpacking and car camping put together into one.

JQ
Nov 24, 2012

I'm not sure if anybody reads these comments, but just a few corrections that should be pointed out for the trip to Gardner Canyon in AZ. First, Gardner Canyon is actually on the Side of Mt Wrightson. Second, the directions are not completely accurate. The author states "From Sonoita, take AZ 83 21 miles to Gardner Canyon Rd". The directions should say from Vail, take AZ 83 21 miles south. Gardner canyon road is actually about 9mi north of Sonoita. The reason this is important is because is you take AZ 83 about 25mi south, you will see a road called "Garden Canyon Rd" down by Fort Huachuca which is not where you want to go. This would be an easy mistake for somebody to make if they were not aware.

Overall camping in Gardner Canyon is just as they say. Plenty of hiking, even some places for some pretty good off road driving if your vehicle can handle it. Campsites are awesome, and complete solitude. All the joys of backpacking and car camping put together into one.

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Claudio
Sep 22, 2012

Julia Phfifer Burns State Park in Big Sur California. There is one envirnmental site on an oceon cliff protected by cypress and eucalptus. Only one site and a walk in of 100 yards. Totally isolated and overlooking an oceon of whales, orca, and dolphin pods. Maybe the best camp site in the US. Almost impossible to reserve but worth it.

wyatt
Sep 14, 2012

Yea!! Let's hear it for car camping!! Great as a plan or to start or end a Backpacking trip. 17 = 17 though, not 16. Couldn't help but notice BM dropped #14 (page 71 9/12 issue) Galiuro Mtns. destination. Directions for that spot were only off by 180 degrees. Been there, nice spot from now 'til May. Too bad BM couldn't have included #14 and corrected the directions. Oh well, keeps the non-mapreaders away I guess.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
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Jim Hall
Sep 13, 2012

In the Blue Ridge Wildlife Management area in the Chatt. National Forest in Georgia, there is some great hiking as mentioned in the article. Along Forest Road 42 up top on the mountain are other "car camping" available rustic sites. Be aware however that come first of November that this is a Wildlife Management Area and hunters will be in the woods near the trails. Wearing an orange vest is advised. I hike and I hunt up there the day after Thanksgiving.

Naomi McLain
Sep 13, 2012

Calling any place with water in Florida "gator free" is very risky.... I was at Hidden Pond in the Ocala National forest recently... and there was a 4-5 ft gator living in the pond... we kept an eye on him as we filtered our water. Thats just FL!

matt
Sep 13, 2012

Backpacker...Bring back CAMPER Magazine!!! It was a great idea that wasn't given a chance. More people car camp than backpack and RV combined.

AZ Hiker
Sep 13, 2012

Learn what survival items to keep in your vehicle. Short hikes tend to be the most dangerous because no matter how well they know the trail, many people never consider that they might end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors or waiting for medical help --and so they hike without the essentials. Please read Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon). Learn essential day-hiking skills, items to pack, and how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass, and how to get rescued. Sometimes getting lost can be easier than staying found. A compass doesn't need batteries and works in all types of weather ;-) but you need to know how to use it and this book will teach you. This book is for all ages --parents, friends, and children can learn together how to pay more attention to your surroundings and know where you are. A good skill to master when out in nature and in scenarios we'd rather not think about. It's a fast, easy read that could save your life and will definitely make your hike more safe and enjoyable!

David
Sep 13, 2012

Jim, many thanks for adding the Richland Creek Wilderness in Arkansas to this list. I have been a subscriber of Backpacker magazine for sometime, and have been a bit disappointed that some of the most beautiful spots in Arkansas have been overlooked. The Ozarks and Ouachita mountains offer some of the most beautiful mountain, stream, and forest scenery within an eight-state region. I'd like to see Backpacker give those people in mid-America more information about places that have outdoor enjoyment of that magnitude so readily accessible to them.

Patrick D
Sep 13, 2012

Don't forget Yosemite Creek Campground in California. Drive in, short dirt road, pristine creek flowing through, flat granite campsites, hub to epic hikes, billions of stars at night, fishing, swimming, and almost never full - no reservations needed. A 2-3 hour drive for millions of Californians, in a word epic.

Mark
Sep 13, 2012

This article is tagged with "Washington". Didn't find any Washington State camping suggested here - a couple of Oregon ones... but no Washington. Mis-tagged? Or did I miss it?

Skeptical
Sep 13, 2012

That's not how I remember Hite

Grumpy
Sep 13, 2012

It would be great if you could at least put the State next to the names of these places instead of me having to click each one of these places to figure out how far away they are.

Grandpa
Sep 13, 2012

I love the car camping/backpacking write up but it would be nice if the pictures matched the text.

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