southern arizona dispersed camping mt bigelow

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In the second week of July, we had a friend in town for around 7 days. Said friend had never been camping, and we aren’t ones to turn down a camping trip. Since it’s summer and way too hot to camp comfortably in our usual haunts, we knew we’d be seeking a spot in higher elevations.

So our friend rented a Jeep, we packed up our off-road trailer, and all three of us headed up the Catalina Highway to find a camping spot for a few days.

The developed campground we tried didn’t work out. The campsites were close together, and it was a bit busier than we like. But part of the fun of camping is finding a site, so we pressed on.

I randomly remembered a tip from the Tucson subreddit about dispersed camping on Mt. Bigelow, and we decided to give it a try.

Every other time we tried checking out Mount Bigelow Road, it was closed seasonally for snow or, most recently, due to the Bighorn Fire. This time, the road was open, and we picked a spot on a hill overlooking the well-maintained gravel road.

tucson dispersed camping mt bigelow
Setting up camp on Mount Bigelow

Things to do on Mt. Bigelow

Mt. Bigelow is one of southern Arizona’s “sky island” mountains, and its elevation is similar to where we camped on Mt. Graham. So we were treated to the usual high elevation cool temperatures, pine trees, blue sky, and wildlife that we’ve experienced before.

The difference between Mt. Graham in Safford, Arizona and the mountains of the Catalina Highway north of Tucson is that the Catalinas are a bit more developed.

There’s a village at the top of Mount Lemmon called Summerhaven with several restaurants, a ski slope, a general store, and a small hotel. It’s about a 10-15 minute drive up the road from Mt. Bigelow, so it’s quick and easy to drive there to get supplies or have a bite to eat.

mt bigelow tucson city lights
Looking south at Tucson from Mt. Bigelow at night as a monsoon thunderstorm rolls across the city

Mt. Bigelow hosts a University of Arizona observatory, some impressive federal communications towers, and amazing views of the valley floor and Tucson.

There’s a popular hiking and mountain biking trail nearby, and it seemed to be a spot people like to go for picnics and backpacking. As we found out, it’s also a great place for photographers and night sky watchers.

The first evening, we hiked up the nearby trail as a monsoon thunderstorm was hitting Tucson. At around 8400 feet in elevation, we definitely felt it and all three of us were winded by the time we got to the ledge.

The second evening, the sky was clear, and we snapped some impressive shots of the Milky Way with only the slightest amount of light pollution on the southern edge.

We could see the Milky Way with our naked eyes, and it stretched all the way across the sky. It was nothing less than stunning.

mt. bigelow arizona milky way
Milky Way as seen from Mt. Bigelow in southern Arizona

Camping spot availability and neighbor proximity

We camped on a Wednesday and a Thursday, and by Thursday it was starting to get busy. Lots of people were seeking a break from the desert heat, and spots started filling up fast.

We’ve written about a developed campground in these mountains called Molino Basin before, and much like that campground, your experience on Mt. Bigelow will depend on who your neighbors are.

The dispersed spots were spaced out well, but if people are loud or inconsiderate, you’ll know it. We ended up having two “special” neighbors on this trip.

The neighbors across from us had two big unleashed dogs that kept ending up in our site and barking/running toward people on the nearby hiking trail. Not a big deal for us as we love dogs, but not everyone knows what to expect when a strange dog runs toward you in the forest.

They kept having to yell at the dogs to come back, which ruined the peace a few times. Not to mention all the things out there that could hurt dogs. Snakes, bears, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, javelina, the list goes on.

Also, the people were smoking cigarettes, which is a BIG NO-NO when fire restrictions are as strict as they have been. I kept daydreaming about going Fire Marshall Bill on them with my fire extinguisher.

Our other bothersome neighbors showed up at 11 p.m., blew up an air mattress with a loud air compressor for 30 minutes, and then (putting it as politely as I can) “got to know each other” on it loudly. The good news is it only lasted for about 5 minutes. The bad news is it was awwwwkkkkwwwaaarrrddddd.

Other than a few neighbors, this was a great spot for camping, and we plan to return.


The rundown: How to get there, weather, and road conditions

Heading up the Catalina Highway toward Summerhaven, turn right on Mt. Bigelow Road. The road comes to a T near the observatory office. There are dispersed campsites on both sides of the T. The road is dirt/gravel, but is well-maintained, and you won’t need 4-wheel drive.

We saw a couple of small travel trailers, but as the road is narrow with a few steep drop-offs, I don’t know that I’d attempt dragging much more than our little off-road trailer up there.

To secure a spot, show up early on Friday or, better yet, Thursday if you can. These are free dispersed camping spots, so there are no toilets and no water. Our site had a nice fire ring, but due to the fire restrictions, we used our propane fire pit.

There’s a village near the top of Mt. Lemmon that has a general store with food and limited camping supplies. Be prepared and take water and a plan for keeping warm. It gets colder than you think.

Weather can change fast in the mountains, and this is a recently burned area prone to flash flooding. Be mindful of the time of year and the conditions.

As you can see large communications towers from most of the free camping spots on Mt. Bigelow, cell phone signal is excellent.

Leave the spots better than you found them. Pack out your trash, don’t let your dogs run, don’t smoke, and don’t aggravate the stew out of your neighbors.

Enjoy camping and cherish The Nature!

P.S. Our friend enjoyed camping so much, by the end of the trip he was looking into getting his own rooftop tent setup. I think we successfully infected him with the camping bug! 😂

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