If you’re of a mind to, you can camp all year long in southern Arizona. In winter, to avoid snow and cold temperatures, you camp on or near the desert floor. In summer, you drive up one of the “sky island” mountains to find cooler temperatures.
The calendar has changed to June here in the Sonoran Desert, and when that happens, it’s like the desert knows it’s time to try and bake us to death and ramps up the 100+ temperatures until monsoon starts.
Since we’re now past the century mark temperature-wise, we figured it was time to visit a place we’ve had on our list since we moved to Arizona four years ago: Mt. Graham.
Mt. Graham is a 2-hour drive from Tucson, and unfortunately, the fastest route is I-10. I’d say interstate driving is boring, but I-10 can be interesting in inconvenient ways and shouldn’t be underestimated.
Wind and snow can make it downright dangerous, as you drive through several canyons on your way east from Tucson. There’s also the playa in Willcox, an ancient dry lake bed that often causes dust storms and closes the interstate.
But it’s worth the interstate haul when you arrive at the bottom of the road to Mt. Graham and start climbing State Road 366 into the Pinaleño Mountains. After a quick stop in Safford, AZ for some lunch and fuel fill up for the Jeep, we started that climb.
If you take the road to the top, you’ll pass through steep grades with big dropoffs, hairpin turns, and fantastic views of the desert floor and other mountain ranges.
Eventually, you’ll lose the pavement, and a bumpy, rocky, dirt road will see you to the turnoff for Riggs Flat Lake.
Since it was our first time on Mt. Graham, we decided to go for it and drive all the way to the top and find a camping spot near or at Riggs Lake.
As we searched for a spot to park ourselves for the next couple of days, we heard the unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake. Once you’ve heard one in person, it’s a sound you never forget.
We thought it was probably off in the forest somewhere, so imagine our surprise when we spotted a large black-tailed rattlesnake on the side of the road looking at the Jeep in strike position.
Black-tailed rattlesnakes are supposedly somewhat docile and slow to show aggression, so we’re not sure what had this particular buzzworm in a spicy mood. Staying firmly behind the steel doors of the Jeep, we ended up getting the best snake photo we’ve ever captured.
If you don’t like snakes, stop reading here or scroll down fast.
We left the snake to go on with its grumpy self and drove down the road to Riggs Flat Lake. It’s an 11-acre lake with trout fishing and kayaking opportunities, and the campground had clean pit toilets, a camp host, and a place to get potable water.
As expected, the campground at the lake ended up being too busy and loud for our tastes, so we ended up at an undeveloped site just off the turnoff for the lake. We set up camp and a friendly forest service employee stopped by to make sure we understood the current fire restrictions.
We were camping on the 1-year anniversary of the Bighorn Fire that devastated Mt. Lemmon in Tucson where we live, so we appreciate and follow fire restrictions. We’re grateful for how the restrictions are being implemented on Mt Graham, which had its own serious wildfire in 2017.
Tired from our drive and setting up camp, we settled into our spot and made a simple dinner of smoked sausage, sugar snap peas, and brown rice.
We sat around our propane firepit and appreciated the stars until we were tired and cold enough to call it a night. The next morning, we cooked up a breakfast scramble and set out to explore some other dispersed camping opportunities for our next visit.
I feel like we could camp on this mountain for years and still not explore it all. Mt. Graham is full of beautiful camping spots and trails, and the environment is home to a lot of interesting wildlife from bears to squirrels to deer and a whole lot more.
We drove down one of the offshoots near the end of the road that goes to the lake, and noted a few dispersed camping spots in a beautiful Aspen forest that looks untouched by wildfires. Then we headed back to camp to prepare to get some star photos.
Mt. Graham is home to some of the most advanced (and controversial) telescopes in the world, and we saw why someone wanted to build them on this mountain. The dark skies here are amazing.
In total, there are three telescopes on Mt. Graham. One is somehow associated with the Vatican, and the construction of telescopes on the mountain was opposed by several Native American tribes who consider the mountain to be sacred.
We’re not informed enough on either of those subjects to have a valid opinion, but we thought it was interesting to mention in case you want to do some research and come up with your own conclusions.
On the second night, the wind picked up and chilled things down. That’s right, we were cold. In the desert. In June. If you’re like me and grew up in a flat place, you’ll come to understand how much elevation can change things when you visit mountains.
Our campsite was at around 8800 feet in elevation. But other than the weather and noticing a few food and beverage containers acting differently, we suffered no ill effects from the higher elevation.
We went to bed a little earlier on the second night, and one of the highlights of this trip is that it was the maiden voyage of the couchbed in the trailer, which made sleeping a lot more convenient and comfortable.
We love how easy it is to flip the front of the couchbed up and down for storage or use, and we don’t bottom out on the floor of the trailer when sleeping and wake up with sore hips in the morning.
After a good sleep with our new mattress setup, on our last morning at Riggs Flat we enjoyed pancakes with bacon and blueberry compote. I mixed up the batter at home, threw it in an Aquafina bottle, and kept it in the cooler until we were ready to cook.
After breakfast, we packed up camp and began our journey back to Tucson. Maybe we’re over-cautious, but we were a little shocked at the types of vehicles people drive up Mt. Graham and how fast they drive given the road conditions after the pavement ends.
We saw everything from dually trucks to minivans to passenger cars, and many of them were driving at speeds that gave us pause considering the narrowness of the road, the absence of guard rails, and the blind corners and hairpin turns.
That must be why we noticed a lot of random car parts laying on certain portions of the road. I’ll take it slow and keep my inflated tires, working suspension, and not falling off a cliff, thanks.
We took our time and pulled over a lot to let impatient drivers pass, which gave us time to appreciate the trees, wildflowers, meadows, and outlooks.
We pulled over at a large waterfall expecting it to be dry since we’re in the middle of extreme drought, but it seems Mt. Graham got enough snow for it to have several of its streams and waterfalls running. When we left, the temperature at the top of Mt. Graham was 69°F and by the time we got to the bottom of the road outside Safford the temperature had risen to 99°F.
I wish I could say the drive home was uneventful, but we ended up sitting on I-10 just west of Willcox, AZ for about an hour because a motorhome tipped over on the interstate.
We sat shaking our heads as we watched one person ride a skateboard down the middle of standstill traffic on the interstate and a few others drive through a steep ditch to turn around and head east on the other side of I-10.
We’re not sure what they were hoping to accomplish, because there’s not a great detour option to continue heading west on that stretch of I-10. Maybe they just went back to Willcox to wait it out.
I hate that the motorhome driver’s weekend ended that way when mine was so good, and I hope no one was seriously injured.
We had a wonderful time visiting Mt. Graham, and found out it’s better for the camping we like to do than our own Mt. Lemmon, which is a bit more developed.
I hope this post gave you an idea of what to expect should you decide to visit Mt. Graham, and I look forward to writing about it again when we go back.