Tonto National Forest – Arizona’s Spectacular Desert Beauty


I have been in Tempe, AZ all week for work and on Friday drove an hour south to Florence to visit my “snowbird” mom.  We went for a drive through a part of the Tonto National Forest.  This is the 5th largest national forest in the country.  It wraps around the Phoenix metro area just east of Scottsdale, Tempe, and Gilbert and runs north through Sedona and Flagstaff to just short of the Grand Canyon.  Our’s was a small taste of the southwest section to Roosevelt Lake.


The forest is blanketed with cactus, mesquite, wildflowers, and spectacular rock formations.  The colors are subtle but dazzling!  The rocks alone are a color palate for an artist.

Arizona09There is a surprising amount of green across the landscape that combines with the ochre rock formations and a cobalt blue sky to create warm gorgeous photos.
Arizona21My friend (and mom’s companion) Joe was our driver and he was exceedingly patient with my endless requests to stop for pictures.  The thing is, every time we turned a corner another breath-taking vista appeared!  I’ve read about people like Kit Carson who crossed the western part of the country numerous times by mule and I can’t even imagine how one could survive this harsh landscape of rattlesnakes, scorpions, cacti, and lack of water.  From the comfort of our air-conditioned car however, it was all about the natural beauty of the desert.
Arizona16We passed through a couple towns including Superior, AZ which looked like an old western prospecting town.  As we drove through I commented that it looked like a ready-made movie set.  Indeed it is, as I learned that Numerous movies have in fact been filmed there ranging from westerns (How the West Was Won) to modern films (Oliver Stone’s U-Turn) to sci-fi films (Alien Invasion Arizona).

Throughout the day I was reminded of Sedona, a couple hours to the north.  Sedona is known for its dramatic panoramas of red rock formations famous in artworks, photography, and movies.  I have been to Sedona and have very fond memories of my visit but the beauty of that town extends for hours throughout this desert forest.

We were driving through small mountains, at times getting up around 3,000 feet in elevation.  As the roads would wind up the mountain the view back would reveal canyons, ravines, and bridges across them that seemed to be beautifully adapted to the landscape.

Arizona08 Arizona10As we hit new elevations the colors of the rocks would change, as would the shades of green growing among them.  It was just so visually interesting and gorgeous at every turn!
Arizona12As we left Superior, the next town we hit was Miami, AZ.  Miami is a copper mining town that appears to have seen better days.  What looked to be once a bustling example of small-town America of the west now had a lot of shops and diners that were closed and buildings in disrepair.  Then again, there was also a Walmart, and some features worth visiting such as a museum about the mining and ranching history of the area, as well as the culture that grew around that.


We drove past the copper mine and there was no mistaking what it was.  It appears as if the inside of the mountain has been excavated and a lot of discarded filling dumped around the base of the mountain.
Arizona13 Arizona14As we entered town, there was a tiny roadside chapel that caught our eye.  It was a humble, place of remembrance and when we looked in we saw over a hundred devotions.  There were pictures, handwritten letters, mementos, and candles.  In an instant you felt such pain and longing for departed loved ones, it was unexpected and very moving.
Arizona16 Arizona17As we exited Miami, we turned toward (Theodore) Roosevelt Lake.  This reservoir was created by the Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River.  It is a deep blue oasis dotted with sailboats, a small marina, and surrounded by mountains.  The first glimpse of it is from a high elevation looking down and it looks like a painting!
Arizona18 Arizona19 There is another handsome bridge by the dam and the picture below is a point of land at that crossing.Arizona20I go to Phoenix and Tempe a lot and I always enjoy it because the landscape looks so different from the east coast; but I had no idea that it was surrounded by a nearly surreal landscape for endless miles.  We passed through indian reservations, mountains covered with saguaro cactus, and wild poppies growing on the roadside.  It was a great day spent with my mom and Joe, and an unexpected adventure through the desert.

Superstition Mountain, Pinal County.



  1. Next time you’re in the Phoenix area you’ll need to check out the Apache Trail from the town of Apache Junction up to the little town of Tortilla Flat. You won’t be disappointed and I’ve done several posts over the years on the area that might be helpful.

      1. Thanks. Since our son lives in Phoenix, we spend a fair amount of time here thus I’ve done lots of posts on the area. Also feel free to email me if you’re looking for any recommendations/ideas.

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