Where to camp in the Chiricahuas?
The most beautiful area, in our opinion, is the Cave Creek section of the Chiricahua Mountains. Cake Creek is on the eastern side of the mountains and only a few minutes from the New Mexico border. The drive from Tucson is just under 3 hours (about 175 miles).
Cave Creek has world-class birding, lots of hiking trails, and water running in the creek most of the year. Erin and I have spent a lot of time here… in fact, our marriage ceremony back in April 2001 took place near the John Hands campground detailed below.
From Tucson, take I-10 east 139 miles to US 80 (you will cross the New Mexico border to get to this intersection). Turn right (south) and drive 28 miles, then turn right (west) on the road to Portal, 7 miles.
From Portal, drive west on Forest Road 42 into Cave Creek.
Camping areas in the Cave Creek area
After you pass the Cave Creek information center, you will see 3 campgrounds in the canyon basin: (fee applies, but they have drinking water and restrooms).
1.7 miles up Cave Creek Canyon turn left at the Southwestern Research Center to get to higher campgrounds (no fee, no drinking water; they do have toilets).
Place to eat (and stay)
Portal Peak Lodge: Great food (and the only store and restaurant in the area). If it gets stormy, or you just want to have a nice place to stay, the lodge has nice rooms for about $75 – $85 a night.
Alternate route to Portal
From Tucson, take I-10 east 81 miles. Turn right (south) on AZ 186 and continue for 23 miles. Turn left (east) on AZ 181 toward Chiricahua National Monument and drive 3 miles, then turn right (south) on Forest Road 42.
There is a campground here (Pinery Canyon) at about 7,000 feet which is free but has limited facilities. It could be chilly from November April, and watch out for snow closures during that time since that route is gravel and cannot be plowed.
If you do go this way, it’s a beautiful ride up and over the Chiricahuas and down into Portal. You can also stop and visit Rustler Park at the top of the ridge (8,500′ elevation, camping here at Rustler Park Campground.).
Other area attractions:
On the west side of the mountains, the Chiricahua National Monument is worth a visit. Short hikes along well-maintained trails wind you through beautiful rock formations. See their web site for camping information.