aerial view of camping at gardner canyon road in arizona

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Southern Arizona Dispersed Camping Gardner Canyon Road

At the end of last week, we drove south from Tucson with only a general idea of where we’d camp for the weekend. We wanted to stay near the prairie dog plain at Las Cienegas, but the wind caused us to seek a more sheltered spot. Enter Gardner Canyon Road.

Just north of the ranching town of Sonoita, Arizona on the east side of the Santa Rita Mountains, rocky Gardner Canyon Road winds its way through grasslands, juniper forests, and streams.

We’ve written about the area and all it offers before, but we didn’t own our little Intech squaredrop and it was a brief visit. This time, we made our way down the road with trailer in tow and picked a dispersed camping spot near Cave Creek at about 5300 feet in elevation.

We joked about our “gated community” for the weekend, as the spot we picked was behind a barbed wire and wood cattle gate complete with a bullet hole-riddled sign.

close gate sign
What did the sign do to you tho?

After getting the trailer situated, setting up the rooftop tent, and sprawling out our GCI camp kitchen, we settled in for a weekend of fun and relaxation.

This elevation of the desert looks a little like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. It’s tall enough for juniper and oak trees, but low enough for cacti and agave. The result is a mix of prickly pear, cholla, grasses, and trees mingling together to create a stunning and interesting landscape.

I especially love the alligator juniper trees, as I find their blocky bark fascinating. They were seeping sap that glittered in the glow of our flashlights, and it looked like the trees had bling.

alligator juniper tree bark
Alligator juniper tree bark

After getting our gear set up and exploring the site a little, it was time for dinner. We once jokingly made Spam and sugar snap peas with brown rice for a camp dinner, complete with cracks about healthy meets unholy abomination.

But the joke is clearly on us because it’s become one of our favorite go to camp meals. The salty, crispy spam goes great with the fresh flavor and crunch of the sugar snap peas, and brown rice is good with just about anything. Even culinary blasphemy. I especially love the peas with a little mesquite seasoning.

spam and sugar snap peas
Frying up some Spam on my loved (and well-used) camp stove

We’re big proponents of “camping doesn’t have to mean roughing it,” and part of that philosophy is “you don’t have to eat like a trash panda.” (Unless you want to rough it and eat like a trash panda, no judgment here.)

This trip turned out to be a good one for food, and we’re getting more comfortable with the whole camp cooking thing.

  • Dinner night 1: Sugar snap peas and Spam
  • Breakfast: Egg, sausage, and spinach scramble
  • Lunch: Light snacking – celery and hummus, Babybel cheese, Smartpop popcorn
  • Dinner night 2: Tri-tip roast and brussel sprouts over the campfire
  • Breakfast: Breakfast tortillas with leftover scramble
  • Lunch: More light snacking
  • Dinner night 3: Chili dogs
meals made while camping: chili dogs, tri-tip roast, breakfast quesadillas
Camping meals: breakfast quesadillas, campfire tri-tip roast with brussel sprouts, and chili dogs

We had planned to cook the chili in our new dutch oven, but the wind made cooking a little more complicated, and we “settled” for cooking it over our Stansport camp stove.

This La Niña year has the desert drier than ever, and we definitely didn’t want to set the forest on fire and played it safe with the flames.

We never set out to be recipe bloggers, but these camp meals are so easy and good we plan on sharing the recipes. Keep checking back for those soon.

In addition to the good eats, this trip treated us to perfect temperatures, no bugs, little cell phone signal, and a lot of wildlife. With our $15 Goodwill-find Weboost cell signal booster we had enough signal to get a few messages out here and there, but the nearby cliffs mostly isolated us from texting and social media.

The nights were wonderful because the wind died down and brought out the poorwills and whiskered screech owls. We had no less than four screech owls around us on nearly all nights, and it was fun to sit around the campfire and listen to all the night-singing birds talk to each other.

The moon was so bright the juniper trees were casting long shadows and it was possible to navigate the campsite without a flashlight. This put a damper on any star photos, but we did get this shot of a brilliant, cratered moon.

moon from gardner canyon road campsite

Is Camping on Gardner Canyon Road Safe?

If you look at Gardner Canyon Road on a map, you might notice its proximity to the border with México. People often ask us if we feel safe camping in these areas, and the short answer is yes.

With our signal booster we had enough signal to get calls and messages out, there were plenty of other campers around, and we were 15 minutes from a border patrol checkpoint. We also let at least one person who isn’t with us know where we are on every camping trip, just in case something goes sideways and we need help.

While you should absolutely plan for and take steps toward your safety on any camping trip, you also shouldn’t let fear-mongering and sensationalization keep you from checking out areas you have an interest in.

The border isn’t the war zone your aunt on Facebook (who’s never been here) might have you believe it is. While this area of the United States has its problems just like every other area, there’s also regular people here doing regular things.

The Sonoran Desert is a beautiful and awe-inspiring place full of amazing biodiversity and activities for every interest. This area of the world is worth your time and we encourage you to visit.

mexican jay gardner canyon road arizona
Mexican jay near our dispersed campsite off Gardner Canyon Road in southern Arizona

If you have an interest in camping on Gardner Canyon Road, bring water and a plan for getting cell phone signal or some other way to communicate with the outside world. There’s a little service station in Sonoita, but gas up before you head down because it will be cheaper.

The road in is rocky, wash boarded, and narrow in some places. We saw someone tow a 30′ travel trailer down the road, but it’s probably something we wouldn’t attempt. If you can air down tires and disconnect sway bars, the ride will be more comfortable.

Conditions change fast in the desert, and at 5300 feet in elevation, the nights can be chilly. Check the weather before you head out and have a plan for keeping warm.

cold in the desert
My response to being made fun of for being cold

There’s a place on the road that dips down into a wash, and with monsoon rains these areas can fill up with water quickly. If rain is in the forecast, be aware that low areas in the road could cause you to be stranded temporarily until the water recedes.

If you head back north on highway 83, you’ll stop at a small border patrol checkpoint and that might seem strange and intimidating to you if you’re from an area of the world that doesn’t have checkpoints.

We enjoyed our time camping off Gardner Canyon Road and we encourage you to check it out if it sounds like something that would work for your setup. The coordinates of our campsite are: 31.716189, -110.770447

Be a pal and keep our wild places wild. Put out your campfire, pack out your trash, and leave no trace. Or this lizard will judge you. And I know you don’t want that.

judgy lizard
He’s watching

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