mescal road dispersed camping in southern arizona

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Just north of I-10 and the community of Mescal in southern Arizona, a road cuts up the east side of the Rincon Mountains. After passing by an Old West movie set, you lose the pavement in favor of dirt and gravel and begin your journey into Coronado National Forest.

Mescal Road leads to a forested area with a variety of dispersed campsites and trails.

It’s a beautiful place to camp if you’re looking for a secluded camping experience where you can enjoy beautiful views of the mountains and the desert. There are lots of trails to explore and many campsites to choose from.

The road is wash boarded, and there are several wash crossings. Because of the wash crossings, we recommend taking a high-clearance vehicle. But for most of the road 4×4 isn’t needed. If you can air down before you hit the gravel, you’ll have a smoother ride.

The farther back you go, the less appropriate the road and camp spots become for larger vehicles and RVs.

How to get to Mescal Road

Mescal road is about 40 miles east of Tucson, off I-10 at exit 297. Head north from Mescal. You’ll cross railroad tracks and an Old West movie set, then the pavement will end.

The area is a mix of State Trust land, public land, and private property. So pay attention to signs or use something like Gaia GPS to make sure you’re not trespassing.

The camp spot we used is about 8 miles back on the right-hand side of the road.

Our Experience at Miller Flats Campground #1 in Coronado National Forest

After driving down the road to scout campsites, we settled on Miller Flats Campground #1. It’s a large campsite with a fire ring next to a wash. When we pulled in, we noticed we weren’t alone — among the trees stood the largest bull either of us had ever seen.

Luckily, he was good-natured and tolerated us in his space. We named him Richard.

Richard paid us little mind as he circled around munching on grass while we set up camp. In the evening, he bedded down in some nearby trees, and we only heard an occasional snort from him in the darkness.

mescal road dispersed camping with cattle
Richard gave exactly zero shits about us and joined in on our camping fun

We sat by the fire stargazing while being serenaded by “hoo” knows how many screech owls. At one point, noises in the wash caused us to bust out a trusty flashlight. A squadron of javelina stopped by for a drink but scattered when they saw our light.

We (and Richard) eventually settled in for a peaceful night of sleep in the wilderness. In the morning, we locked up camp and set off to find a waterfall in the desert.

Soldier Falls Trailhead

Not to be confused with Soldier Trail off the Catalina Highway, Soldier Falls Trailhead is an unmarked trail with a small parking lot about 13 miles up Mescal Road.

We’ve been told the waterfall is best in spring with snowmelt from Rincon Peak, and it was flowing when we visited at the tail end of monsoon.

It’s a short hike to the falls, but it’s not what I’d call easy. (I’m 39 and out of shape, so do with that what you will.)

It took us 10-15 minutes of huffing and puffing to scramble rocks and tree roots. The whole time my crappy ankles were crying out for the hiking poles I left back at camp. I made do by hanging on to rocks and trees. And wasn’t too proud to get down on my butt and scoot along where necessary.

While I was dumb enough to forget hiking poles, thankfully I was smart enough to remember to bring water. A must for hiking in the desert, even in October when it seems cool. My water bottle was darn near empty when I got back to the Jeep, so it seems Soldier Falls Trailhead was the right length for me as an amateur hiker.

There are no signs along the trail. I’m not sure if it’s intentional or if they were eaten by the desert long ago. We followed a barbed wire fence as was suggested in one of the Google reviews and it led us in the right direction.

A stick bug crawled on the rocks with me, and it did a little jig as I stopped to admire it. When we reached the falls, a garter snake was chilling next to the water. It was skittish and streaked across a stream not long after we interrupted its day. Maybe we were the first humans it had ever seen on this lightly trafficked trail. Mexican Jays called out from nearby Juniper trees, and Mother Nature blessed us with a breeze.

The view from the top of the trail is nothing less than stunning, and the “Dr. Seuss-like” trees and cacti environment of southern Arizona never ceases to fascinate me. While not simple to find or easy to hike, a trip up Soldier Falls Trailhead was enjoyable and I recommend it.

view from soldier falls trailhead in southern arizona
Looking out from Soldier Falls Trailhead on the Little Rincon Mountains

Saying Goodbye to Richard

Richard the bull was still hanging around camp when we got back from our hike. After resting for a bit, I grabbed my trash picker and started cleaning up ammo casings, plastic bottles, and beer cans.

Eventually, a white cattle dog appeared out of the trees, and was soon followed by a rancher on horseback.

After a friendly greeting, the rancher joked we must be expert campers to have spent a night with the big bull.

“He’s out here all by himself because he’s at the bottom of the pecking order,” the rancher explained.

If this bull is at the bottom of the pecking order, how big is the one at the top? I wondered.

The rancher said he hoped the bull didn’t bother us, and we assured him that Richard was welcome. After all, we were in his space.

rincon mountains cattle
My camping buddy Richard

“He’s alright, he just bellers a lot,” the rancher added.

He then wished us an enjoyable stay and started shouting at Richard.

“Come on bull, get!”

Richard eventually complied and was loaded onto a cattle trailer. I like to think he’s in another canyon somewhere munching on grass and “bellering a lot.”

Final Thoughts

The area between the Rincon Mountains and the Little Rincon Mountains is a good mix of all the places in southern Arizona we frequent for camping.

The east side of the Rincon Mountains looks a lot like Mt. Lemmon.

The Little Rincon Mountains resemble the Dragoon Mountains near Tombstone.

And the further back on Mescal Road you go, the more the scenery looks like the grasslands of Las Cienegas.

While not a secret by any stretch (Mescal Road dispersed camping is listed on Campendium here), we enjoyed camping in the Rincon Mountains and will be back.

We camped with a MASSIVE bull | Mescal Road | Southern Arizona Dispersed Camping

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