Epic Natural Beauty: Camping in Tortilla Flat

Dear Students,

We have an ambitious family goal of camping once a month. April looked shaky, we didn’t know where to go. I pulled out my trusty 144 best campgrounds in AZ late Friday night, but could not decide. It is the cusp of the season here. The winter campgrounds are hot, the cooler campgrounds open in May. We considered Tonto Natural Bridge, Christopher Creek. I dismissed Tortilla Flat because I wanted to sit in the trees. To be honest, I know very little about camping and even less about local campgrounds. The only way to change is get out and go.

In the morning we attended a final soccer game, then home to an unpacked car and a messy house and no destination in mind.

With his participation trophy and his fabulous Coach

So with no better idea, and the fact that we were running into the afternoon, we picked Tortilla Flat. It was close by. Finding trees and shade is too much drama in this part of the world. We packed hastily, chucked a cooler in the car and hit the grocery store on the way out for hot dogs and smores fixings.

We took the Apache Trail, the drive is relentlessly, crushingly, world heritage style beautiful. I took this photo with my phone, I can imagine a real photographer happily spending their career here and never running out of inspiration. It’s that awesome.

The Apache Trail is a state scenic by-way. Simply driving on the trail makes you think you are on vacation. It’s recommended as fun for people that live in Phoenix. I disagree. I think it is great for anyone in the world. I honeymooned in the Canadian Rockies and I felt like the Apache Trail was just as gorgeous. What a treat.

We arrived around 3PM to a nearly empty campground, blazing heat, no shade and buzzing black flies. The awesomeness of the scenery made up for all of that. We made our own shade with the mini van and waited for the relief of sunset.

Camping at Tortilla Flat requires a 24 hour Tonto Day Pass ($6.00). These inexpensive passes are available at many local businesses. We bought ours at the Circle K in Queen Creek. We passed a CVS that had a sign advertising Day Passes Sold Here. The closer you are to the Tonto National Forest, the more vendors you will find, pop in any convenience store and ask. If you don’t have a pass you risk a fine.

The campsites were arranged in three lanes, in tiers, You drove through a one way loop and looked for the best one. All were flat, treeless and covered with fine gravel. We picked #14.

Recreation choices abound at Tortilla Flats. There is a marina, a small row of stores/museums in the tiny town of Tortilla Flat (population 6). As the afternoon waned, the experienced people filled up the campground (and avoided the baking heat).

The dusk brought out the wildlife. Mine and the desert dwellers.

The Tortilla Flat campground is situated in the Canyon Lake Recreation area. As the afternoon fell, a coyotes howled across the canyon. At dusk he loped downhill, thin and grey as smoke to join his friend. I did not take a picture I was too busy picking up Max and walking backward to let him go by unimpeded. From our vantage we could follow him in and out of view, I was glad for the sparse desert vegetation. As the sun set over the canyon rim, the bats came out fat and chunky, feasting on bugs. I wished we would hear the coyote again and was rewarded twice more that night with their lonely desert music. Heaven. I will go back over and over again just to hear coyotes calling within a canyon.

After we made smores, the boys washed up in the bathroom that had flush toilets AND sinks with running water. A real bathroom. I was so excited I felt like someone had given me a one hundred dollar bill. These bathrooms were situated throughout the campsite, sealing the deal of Best Campground Ever.

The next morning found us breaking down camp fairly quickly, without shade the campsite was not a welcome place to spend the day. The camp closes for the season on May 1. We will be be back in November, Tortilla Flat made the list for local winter camping. Of the six places we’ve camped this past year, we saw the most wildlife here: coyote, rattlesnake, bats, quail, turkey vulture and hawk.

The Lesser Long Nosed bat is an endangered migratory bat. I don’t know if this is the bat we saw, but it may have been. The flowers were in bloom at this time of year. Photo by Merlin D. Tuttle Bat Conservation International

Under a wolf moon,
Mrs. Kenney