If you’re looking to camp for free around Arizona, Prescott, offers one of the largest selections of no-fee dispersed camping areas you’ll find anywhere.
Managed by the Prescott National Forest Service, the Prescott Basin area features no less than 11 distinct camping areas averaging a dozen inpidually marked campsites each, with a 7-day stay limit. What I particularly enjoy about camping in Prescott is that a few of the camping areas are relatively close to town, allowing me to “commute” to Wifi at any of three Starbucks (or my new favorite - Wildflower Cafe, block from Whiskey Row).
The free campsite in the video below is located near the peak of the Thumb Butte Loop on the west side of Prescott — a large area featuring over 20 numbered primitive mountainside campsites, the first of which is only a few miles from downtown. Getting there involves only driving westwardly out from Gurley Street at the center of town, winding through some neighborhoods, towards the iconic Thumb Butte. (Which is a nice hike, with some great views!) Soon after you pass Thumb Butte, the road will become a dirt-packed forest road curving up into the mountains.
Watch The Video
How would I “review” the free campgrounds?
For the ability to get quickly out of town into nature, the Thumb Butte campsites are hard to beat. In terms of camping experience… they really vary. While there are a few prime campsites behind Thumb Butte — I’m thinking especially of Campsite #7, #10 where the video was shot, and those in the #15-20 range — for me most of the rest of the 20+ sites are best for convenience only, to get a night’s sleep before heading back to town. What I don’t find appealing enough to “rate” higher are that 1) many are built on a slight incline, 2) many don’t have good AT&T data reception (I’m one of those iPhone early adopters who’s stuck with AT&T for the unlimited data), and 3) most are right by the main road, which gets a lot of camping traffic. But really I think it’s a matter of taste — Besides the other commuting campers like myself, the Thumb Butte campsites especially seem to attract locals in their “big trucks” who like to have camping parties on the weekends, so if that’s appealing to you, you might really enjoy this set of sites!
Click On The Image To Download The Prescott Basin Dispersed Camping Map
As alternatives, though… Another set of close-to-town sites is down White Spar Road/Ponderosa Road. Again nothing much as far as camping experience goes, but I prefer it for the flat parking and 5-bar AT&T signal, though there are fewer sites available. You’ll also see on the map a set of sites up Copper Basin Road at the bottom of the Thumb Butte Loop, but my experience of those sites was lots of trash and guys who drive there late at night to drink and blast music.
If you want a fuller camping experience in the Prescott Basin, you’ll need to get further out of town. There are two different roads to approach from. Nearest to town, you can turn south on Walker Road from Costco (on 89 east towards Prescott Valley) past Lynx Lake — which is a great place to spend a day! — and check out the Enchanted Forest Trail and Bannie Mine Road. Both of these involve driving DOWN steeply from the main road into a ravine. Between the two, I thought Enchanted Forest Trail has some pretty sites, but I overall preferred camping on Bannie Mine Road, which has some nice variety and large sites with some good separation, along with a walkable creek.
There are also numerous sites down Senator Highway, which is kind of an adventure in itself as it winds around between the mountains. I think my favorite sites may have been the ones down Trittle Mountain Road. Wolf Creek Road has a stretch of campsites which aren’t much more than turnoffs from the switchbacking mountain road, but still attractive, especially if you plan to hike around the area. There are also a few sites on the map I couldn’t even locate!
In any case, there’s a lot of dispersed camping to explore in Prescott. Remember the seven-day limit, and please help keep it clean! Great places to visit in the daytime are Thumb Butte, Watson Lake (particularly the nearby Granite Dells), and Lynx Lake.
If you're interested in a list of personal Top Free Campsites in AZ, NM, TX, UT, CA, and NV -- including favorite destinations like the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Sedona -- you'll want to check out this collection of Free Campsite guides from Frugal Shunpikers: