Coronado National Forest: The Complete Guide

Scenic view of rocky mountains against sky,Coronado National Forest,Arizona,United States,USA

Michael Murphy / Getty Images

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Coronado National Forest

Address
Coronado National Forest, Arizona 85619, USA

The Coronado National Forest consists of 15 mountain ranges and eight separate wilderness districts, separated by a 100-mile stretch (or more) of desert. Because these mountain ranges are spread throughout southeastern Arizona, they have been nicknamed the Sky Islands. They offer year-round recreational opportunities, including hiking, mountain biking, camping, fishing, and more. Mt. Lemmon even boasts the southernmost ski area in the continental U.S.

The forest covers 1.78 million acres, ranging from the Sonoran desert to subalpine forests that climb up to 10,000 feet. Since there's so much to see, plan to visit specific areas during your visit, such as the Chiricahua Mountains, and combine your adventures—hiking one day, taking a scenic drive the next, camping throughout your stay—to make the most of your visit.

The Opening of Cave Creek, Chiricahua Mountains
drferry / Getty Images

Things to Do

Visitors come primarily to hike, camp, and enjoy scenic drives through the Coronado National Forest. While you can do these things in any of the eight wilderness districts, Sabino Canyon, Mt. Lemmon, and Madera Canyon are the most popular destinations.

Coronado National Forest is also known for its fishing. Either from the shore or small boats on the forest's manufactured lakes, anglers cast their rods for rainbow trout, largemouth bass, catfish, and bluegill. Wildlife lovers also gravitate to the lakes where more than 400 species of birds, some found only in the Coronado National Forest, can be spotted. 

Seasonal activities also attract visitors. Off-highway vehicles (OHVs) can explore the 25-mile Red Spring Trail designed primarily for single-track motorbikes when the track isn't too muddy. During the winter, skiers make their way to Ski Valley on Mt. Lemmon.

Madera Canyon Trail
ca2hill / Getty Images 

Best Hikes & Trails

The Coronado National Forest has more than 1,000 miles of shared-use trails ranging from short, paved nature walks to epic hikes through the wilderness. Before you hit the trails, check the weather, and bring plenty of water, even in the winter.

  • Sabino Canyon: There are more than 30 miles of trails within Sabino Canyon, but the most popular is the 7.4-mile, out-and-back tram route. While you can hike the entire way, most visitors take the shuttle to one of nine stops and walk to the other stops. The tram route is paved, and the shuttle is accessible.
  • Madera Canyon Nature Trail: This 2.4-mile loop south of Tucson crosses the Madera Creek and winds through woodlands of pinyon, oak, and juniper, leading to a scenic view of Mt. Livermore. Along the way, watch for some of the more than 240 species of birds that live here.
  • Chiricahua Mountains: Although Chiricahua National Monument is technically its own entity, it’s the most straightforward point to explore the Chiricahua Mountains and has more than 17 miles of hiking trails. The 9.5-mile Big Loop is one of the most popular trails with experienced hikers. It includes Echo Canyon, Upper Rhyolite Canyon, Heart of Rocks, Balanced Rock, and more.
Women walking on road below saguaro cacti, Sabino Canyon
 Barry Winiker / Getty Images

Scenic Drives

The Coronado National Forest lists 18 designated scenic drives within its boundaries. None will disappoint, but these rank among the most popular.

  • Catalina Scenic Highway: Also known as “Mt. Lemmon Highway,” this road is the only paved route to the top of the Santa Catalina Range on the outskirts of Tucson. It’s famous for its dramatic changes in scenery, from the Sonoran Desert to the Canadian zone's high forests and its views of the city below.
  • Pinery Canyon Road: You’ll need a high-clearance vehicle and preferably a four-wheel-drive vehicle to tackle this road, but it’s worth it for rugged views of the Chiricahua Mountains. Watch for Cochise Stronghold, once the hideout for Apache chief, Cochise, and his people.
  • Box Canyon Road: In the Santa Rita Mountains, Box Canyon Road (Forest Road 62) traverses grasslands shaded by mesquite trees, then climbs the range’s northern shoulder. During the spring, watch for flowers along the way.
  • Harshaw Road: This loop through the Canelo Hills begins in Patagonia and follows Harshaw Creek, where miners once panned for gold, before ending at AZ-82, two miles north of Nogales. Highlights include ghost towns, scenic canyons, and wildlife.
The Road to Mt. Lemmon
Christopher A. Jones / Getty Images 

Where to Camp

Because Coronado National Forest is so vast, it offers diverse camping experiences, from RV camping on paved surfaces to undeveloped tent camping at heights up to 9,000 feet. Dispersed camping—overnighting in undeveloped areas with no potable water or restrooms—is available if you feel up to roughing it.

Bog Springs Campground: One of the most scenic campgrounds in the Coronado National Forest, Bog Springs is best suited for tent camping since it doesn't have RV hookups. It's an ideal campground for exploring Madera Canyon and the Santa Rita Mountains.  

Rustler Park Campground: Located in the Chiricahua Mountains, this campground sits at an elevation of 8,500 feet and provides access to several of the area's best trails. It's popular in the spring when the surrounding meadow is carpeted with wildflowers.

Molino Basin Campground: Unlike other campgrounds in the area that close in the winter, Molino Basin opens late in the fall and closes late in the spring. The desert campground can accommodate trailers and RVs under 22 feet but has no hookups.

Mt. Lemmon
climber28 / Getty Images

Where to Stay

Tucson is a good base if you want to explore the more popular areas of the Coronado National Forest. Accommodations range from luxury resorts to budget hotels, with chains offering an excellent middle-of-the-road option. If you plan to explore the Chiricahua or Dragoon mountains, overnight instead in one of the chain hotels in Willcox.

Loews Ventana Canyon Resort: One of Tucson’s iconic resorts, Lowes Ventana Canyon, is a 15-minute drive to Sabino Canyon and approximately a 40-mile drive to the start of the Catalina Scenic Highway.

The Downtown Clifton Hotel Tucson: A few minutes from I-10 and downtown Tucson, this reasonably-priced hotel is a good starting point for day trips to various wilderness areas in the Coronado National Forest.

Sabino Canyon after Sunset
 Cay-Uwe / Getty Images

How to Get There

Tucson is the best starting point if you're taking a trip into the Coronado National Forest. However, directions will vary depending on what part of the forest you want to visit. Below are directions to some of the more popular destinations.

Sabino Canyon: From I-10, take Exit 248 for Ina Road, and head east into Tucson approximately 15 miles. Ina Road will become Skyline Drive, which then becomes Sunrise Drive. Turn left at Sabino Canyon Road. Drive a half-mile to Forest Road 805, and turn right. Five hundred feet later, turn right again at Upper Sabino Canyon Road, and continue to the parking lot.

Mt. Lemmon: From I-10, take Exit 256 for Grant Road, and head east into Tucson. Drive roughly 8 miles to Tanque Verde Road, and turn left. Go another 3 miles and turn left onto the Catalina Highway. This runs about 28 miles to the top of Mt. Lemmon.

Chiricahua Mountains: From Tucson, take 1-10 East nearly 80 miles to Exit 336, Haskell Avenue. Follow Haskell Avenue for 4 miles into Willcox, and make a right at Maley Street/AZ-186. Continue for 31 miles. Turn left at AZ-181. After 3 miles, the road name changes to Bonita Canyon Road. In the next 2 miles, you'll arrive at Chiricahua National Monument.

Chiricahua Mountains in Southeastern Arizona
Ed Reschke / Getty Images 

Accessibility

Accessibility depends on which part of the forest you visit. Popular areas like Sabino Canyon will have accessible bathrooms, paved trails, and other infrastructures. Wilderness areas may not even have restrooms at all.

Tips for Your Trip

  • Because climate, terrain, and activities can vary so much within the Coronado National Forest, spend time researching the specific area you want to visit before you go.
  • Some areas, such as Sabino Canyon, charge a day-use fee. You’ll also need to pay a fee to stay in a developed campground and ski Mt. Lemmon.
  • An Arizona fishing license is required for anyone 10 years or older if you plan on fishing.
  • Most campgrounds in the forest operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. In addition to staying in developed campgrounds, you can also disperse camp in areas where vehicles are permitted.
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Coronado National Forest: The Complete Guide