When it comes to camping close to home, Valley campers in the know have long pitched tents or parked RVs inside Maricopa County parks.

Seven of the metro-fringing Sonoran Desert parks offer camping, and they’re all within about 45 minutes, by car, of downtown Phoenix.

“We have a lot of people who rotate around the Valley just for a change of scenery. They get that feeling of being able to get away, but it’s a quicker, easier trip because they’re not going far,” says Dawna Taylor, spokeswoman for the parks.

For years, park campsites have been available on a first come, first served basis, but a new online reservation system rolled out last month allows campers to explore campsites on a map, read a description of each site and book their stay up to six months in advance. It’s at www.maricopacountyparks.org.

“Right now, we’re slowing down because the desert’s getting warmer, but Lake Pleasant is still really popular because you can camp at night and hit the water during the day. We’re booking up quickly at the lake for Fourth of July and Memorial Day,” says Taylor.

Developed sites feature electrical and water hookups, dump stations, picnic tables, fire rings, grills and restrooms with flushing toilets and showers. Semi-developed sites include restrooms, picnic tables and grills. Primitive sites are for those who don’t mind truly roughing it; they have no amenities.

Depending on the park, campers will find hiking, biking and horseback-riding trails and water activities. Every day, staff at the parks offer a variety of guided hikes at no additional cost. Some parks offer kids’ games and crafts, nature lessons, geocaching activities, flashlight walks, astronomy nights, campfire sing-a-longs or storytelling and even yoga. Most activities are included in the $10 to $25 per campsite per night fee; some carry nominal charges.

There is an $8 fee to book a campsite online. Campers may purchase campsites on the spot, at their park of choice, and avoid that charge.

A fire ban in effect at the parks limits campers to gas/propane grills in designated areas; the use of campfires, fire pits and charcoal grills is prohibited.

The parks often offer a buy-one-night, get-one-night-free deal each October.


Camp in a yurt

The Ranch at Fossil Creek: The Ranch at Fossil Creek, on the Mogollon Rim in Strawberry, offers overnight camping in a custom-made yurt. Guests bring their own sleeping bags to spread on futons off the ground, and a deck affords spectacular views of the surrounding forest. Come sunup, campers can sign up for a half-day mountain hike with pack llamas. The ranch, which makes goat’s milk cheese, fudge, soaps and lotions, also offers a $95-per-person, three-hour cheesemaking class one Friday per month. Overnight camping in the yurt is $85 per night, and it sleeps five people. Llama hiking tours are $65 for adults and $40 for children younger than 12. Meals are not included. Reservations are required. Call (928) 476-5178 or visit www.ranchatfossilcreek.com.

Camp in a cabin

Dead Horse Ranch State Park: Eight one-room cabins at Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood are appointed with bunk beds, a full-size bed, a table and chairs. Each is equipped with electricity, so campers can bring a fan or electric heater (cabins are not air-conditioned or heated), and campers must bring their own linens. Each cabin has a barbecue grill and picnic table outside, plus a fire ring. Cabins are tucked away from the other campgrounds at the park. Family-style shower facilities are a short walk away. Dead Horse Ranch offers mountain biking in the Coconino National Forest, hiking along the Verde River, canoeing, picnicking, fishing and wildlife viewing along the 6-mile Verde River Greenway State Natural Area, a unique ecosystem of cottonwood and willow trees that is one of fewer than 20 such riparian zones in the world. Cabins sleep up to six (four adults maximum) for $50 per night, plus a $5 reservation fee. Two pets are allowed at select cabins for $5 per pet, per day. Reservations are required. Call (520) 586-2283 or (928) 634-5283, or visit azstateparks.com.

Roper Lake State Park: Eight cabins line the lake at Roper Lake State Park in Safford. The cabins come with electricity, air-conditioning and heat. Picnic tables and charcoal grills are outside, and restrooms and showers are within walking distance. The park offers fishing, swimming and boating on Roper Lake, as well as 5 miles of hiking trails. It is a noted birdwatching and wildlife viewing spot. Cabins sleep up to six (four adults maximum) for $55 per night, plus a $5 reservation fee. Two pets are allowed at select cabins for $5 per pet, per day. Reservations are required. Call (928) 428-6760 or visit azstateparks.com.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6818 or azajac@evtrib.com

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