Coconino National Forest: The Complete Guide

Red Rock Ranger District

Photography by Laura Tidwell/Getty Images


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Coconino National Forest

Coconino National Forest, Arizona 86017, USA

Covering more than 1.8 million acres, Coconino National Forest stretches from the Verde River near Sedona at its southern border to Sunset Crater National Monument, north of Flagstaff.

Coconino National Forest is one of six national forests in Arizona, and contains all—or parts of—10 designated wilderness areas. It includes the summit of Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona, and Mormon Lake, the largest natural lake in the state (when there isn’t a drought). It is also one of the most diverse national forests in the United States, featuring landscapes ranging from red rocks and desert to Ponderosa pine forests and alpine tundra.

Visitors to the park can explore an ancient Sinagua village, see where the astronauts trained for their lunar landing, or go hiking, biking, fishing, or camping. There are several drives through Coconino National Forest, too, making it a popular destination for Phoenicians looking to escape the summer heat. Here's everything you need to know to plan your visit.

Things to Do 

Because Coconino National Forest is so vast, there is a lot to do within its boundaries. Here are the top things to add to your itinerary.

Go on a Scenic Drive

A scenic drive is a great way to appreciate the park's diversity, especially if you are visiting the area for the first time. Start with the Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive, which runs north-south on SR 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff. From Sedona, you’ll pass through a red-walled canyon, then navigate a series of steep switchbacks to Oak Creek Canyon Vista. Pull into the parking lot for jaw-dropping views of Coconino National Forest below.

Another not-to-miss drive is the Volcanoes and Ruins Loop Scenic Drive, which begins 12 miles north of Flagstaff on US 89. Watch for the Sunset Crater-Wupatki turnoff (Forest Road 545), and turn right into Sunset Crater National Monument. The road loops through the volcanic field where American astronauts once trained for the lunar landing, and continues to adjoining Wupatki National Monument; here, you’ll see the remains of Sinagua pueblos.

Explore the Park Via an Off Highway Vehicle

Off-roading lets you discover even more of Coconino National Forest. The area is crisscrossed with single-track and double-track roads for OHVs (off highway vehicles), ATVs, 4x4s, and dirt bikes. In the Flagstaff area, Cinder Hills Off Highway Vehicle Area has volcanic terrain to explore, while Sedona has 11 OHV routes through red rocks. If you don’t have an OHV, several companies conduct 4x4 tours of the forest, especially around Sedona.

Take to the Trails

Some of the state’s best hiking trails can be found in Coconino National Forest. In Sedona, the national forest website lists more than 90 trails, including Devil’s Bridge, Courthouse Butte Loop, Boynton Canyon Trail, and West Fork Trail. Flagstaff and the Mogollon Rim region have an impressive list of hikes, too. One favorite is Humphreys Trail No. 151, which leads to the highest point in Arizona.

Those who would rather pedal their way through the forest won’t be disappointed; many of Coconino National Forest’s hiking trails also accommodate mountain bikes.

Spend the Day on or by the Water

Anglers can fish at Oak Creek, the Verde River, West Clear Creek Wilderness, Ashurst Lake, Lake Mary, the C.C. Cragin (Blue Ridge) Reservoir, and other rivers and streams. Trout are common, but you can also hook catfish, pike, and similar fish. Rather spend the day on the water? You can launch a boat at Upper Lake Mary and C.C. Cragin Reservoir, or paddle through Marshall Lake.

Visit Lava River Cave

The Lava River Cave is an under-the-radar destination that takes you back in time 70,000 years, when a volcanic vent created a mile-long lava tube. You can hike inside, but bring several flashlights and wear warm clothes: The cave is a constant 42 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the summer.

Help Excavate an Archaeology Site

Elden Pueblo is an ancient Sinagua village like Wupatki, but located on the eastern edge of Flagstaff, just off Highway 89. You can tour the ruins on your own and help with its excavation on Public Archaeology Days. Check the forest’s Facebook page for announcements of the next opportunity to help dig.

Go Skiing

If you love winter sports, Arizona’s premier ski area is located in the Coconino National Forest. The Snowbowl, located northwest of Flagstaff, gets an average of 260 inches of snow annually and has downhill skiing and snowboarding. The area is also popular with Phoenicians who come to sled after a heavy snowfall. 

Coconino National Forest
 JeffGoulden/Getty Images

Where to Camp

Outdoor enthusiasts can camp throughout Coconino National Forest. There’s a good mix of developed campgrounds and dispersed camping available, as well as cabins for rent: Crescent Moon and Apache Main cabins in the Sedona area and the Fernow and Kendrick cabins near Flagstaff.

Getting There

I-17 cuts north-south through Coconino National Forest and is the easiest way for visitors coming from Phoenix or southern Arizona to access it. Most of the forest is south of Flagstaff, but to get to the northern portion, take I-40 to Highway 89 and go north. You’ll enter the forest near the turn off for Sunset Crater National Monument.

If you are driving from the eastern or western part of the state, take I-40 to I-17 and head south. Sedona visitors don’t have to go far—the city is surrounded by the Coconino National Forest.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Some areas in Coconino National Forest, such as the Red Rock Ranger District near Sedona and Sunset Crater and Wuptaki national monuments, have fees to visit.
  • It's free to enter the Red Rock Ranger District on certain days of the year, including holidays such as Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend and special national events like Get Outdoors Day.
  • For more information on special permits and things to do, visit the ranger headquarters in Flagstaff or local district offices in Sedona and Happy Jack.
  • Elevation ranges from 2,600 feet in the southern part of the forest near the Verde River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Humphreys Peak. Check the weather before you go, and prepare for cold nights even in the summer. 
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Coconino National Forest: The Complete Guide