Sunday, November 20, 2016

Coronado National Forest: Mount Graham and Riggs Lake

Mount Graham is a humongous lump of rock and dirt located to the southwest of Safford. It's one of the taller peaks in Arizona with a summit of 10,720 feet, and is the location of a fairly new international observatory. The observatory is a joint venture between the University of Arizona, the Vatican, and other entities. It's supposed to be a pretty nifty place, which the public can tour but not very often. There's something like a 4-month waiting list to get into it, and, given that the road that leads up to it is now closed for the winter, I don't think it's going to make the list of places we visit while we're in Safford.

Riggs Lake. It's noted for its trout fishing. There were people fishing when we were there, including fellow who was fly fishing from a recreational kayak.

We have, however, seen Mount Graham up close and personal. We celebrated Veterans' Day by going for a picnic at the Riggs Lake campground. Riggs Lake is in the Coronado National Forest. It's also about as far as you can go on the ironically named Swift Trail Scenic Parkway, aka Arizona Highway 366. The highway gets to climb from around 3,000 feet to over 9,000 while switchbacking its way around a mountain so you know you're not going anywhere fast. I am told the views out the downhill side of the road can be spectacular. I wouldn't know. I have a thing about heights; I tend to get a bit queasy if I have to stand on a step stool to reach the top shelf in the cabinets. I spent most of the drive up and back down again resolutely looking out the car windows at the uphill side of the drive. Riggs Lake (pictured above) is at an elevation of about 8800 feet.

There are a number of campgrounds on the mountain, including one that is actually in the guidebook we have on RV Camping in the National Forests, Soldier Creek. All the campgrounds on the mountain are fairly small; Riggs Lake might be the biggest in terms of number of sites -- it has 26 -- but it's also set up strictly for tent camping. We picnicked there, and I didn't see any sites where you could use either an RV or a trailer, no matter how small. They supposedly have a campground host there during the busy season (summer) but I couldn't figure out where the host would set up. I sure didn't see anything that looked remotely like the typical host's site.

Looking toward one of the campsites at Riggs Lake. They had great picnic tables and tent pads, but, yep, strictly walk-in camping. Which, even on what was a rather chilly weekend up on the mountain, had its fans. There were several families tent camping even though the kids had to be bundled up in winter jackets.
Soldier Creek is designed so you could use a camper there: a small trailer, a conversion van, a fairly short class C. It's described as suitable for RVs and trailers 22 feet or less in length. I don't know. When I eyeballed the camp ground, it looked like we could fit the Guppy in there on most of the sites. We'd just have to make sure our water tank was full because like most of the campgrounds on the Coronado there is no water. The sole amenity is a vault toilet. Not that we have any plans to do rustic camping so close to Safford. We'll save that sort of fun stuff for the trip home.
 On the other hand, thanks to the rock formations and general lay of the land, whichever site you picked, you'd be a decent distance from other campers. The area is quite nice, definitely the great outdoors. It, like Riggs Lake, is now closed until next spring. The not paved part of the Parkway gets gated on November 14, which effectively blocks the last 12 miles of the road.
Camp sites at Soldier Creek
That last section of the drive was interesting. Calling it rough in spots would be a pretty accurate description. Washboard would be another. We were told and I also read that Riggs Lake is super popular in the summer, which truly illustrates just how hot and miserable it gets down in the low lands.

We did do a drive through of a campground, Arcadia, that's located far enough down the mountain that it's open year round. It has 18 sites, 8 of which can be used by small RVs (i.e., under 22 feet in length). It seemed nice enough, but a little tight. During the busy season, I have a hunch the sites would start feeling small and too close together, but that could be a feature of the topography. There are also a number of "undeveloped" recreation areas on the mountain, places where at some point in the past management probably thought they'd be putting in real campgrounds but then ran out of money. I'm not sure what the official policy is on the Coronado regarding those areas. On some forests and on Bureau of Land Management property, you can boondock in those primitive rec areas without paying a fee. Whether or not it's permitted tends to depend a lot on how popular an area is; fee-free dispersed camping tends to be regulated out of existence if too many people start doing it. 

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