Our First Boondocking Experience: Bulldog Canyon – Tonto National Forest

As I wrote this, I found myself cringing that Tim and I were hesitant to boondock in Phoenix. We now love boondocking so much! But I guess that doing anything for the first time is a little nerve wracking. Let’s start with a definition of boondocking, for those who don’t know what it is:

Boondocking Definition

Boondocking is when you camp for free on public lands. It’s also known as dispersed camping, or camping on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. There are no amenities when you boondock: no dumpster, no toilets, and certainly no hookups! The general motto is, “Pack it in, pack it out”. Most of the time, the roads to get into the boondocking spots are unpaved, and can be very rough. You can camp anywhere you want to that is cleared out to be a camping spot. You’d know it if you saw it – the brush is cleared away, sometimes there is a small fire ring. Basically, don’t be a jerk and mow a bunch of plants over with your camper.

Nowhere to Call Home

After our stay in Tucson, we wanted to head to Phoenix, which is over 3 times larger than Tucson. We were fairly close (Tucson is only a few hours away) and it seemed like a shame not to visit when we were so close to one of the biggest cities in the U.S.

By this point (March 2018) we are getting picky with where we stay. RV parks are pretty much a last resort. We’re happiest where we can be closest to nature. We looked into staying at any of Phoenix’s regional parks (county parks) that offered camping, but they were completely booked up. Arizona is equivalent to Florida during the winter months – people flock there to escape the northern winters, so sites are booked up far in advance. We even looked into staying at RV parks as a last resort, but 90% of RV parks in Phoenix are 55+ (again – catering to the snowbirds) and the only one I found that wasn’t (a KOA) was ridiculously expensive.

Hmm…time to think outside the box. We wanted to go to Phoenix but had nowhere to stay! I remembered seeing on Instagram that my friend Gina, who I met at a campground in Austin, had recently boondocked near Phoenix. I texted her and within an hour or so we had our plan: boondocking in the Tonto National Forest. With no other option, we hesitantly dipped our toes into boondocking. Looking back on it, we shouldn’t have hesitated. Now, boondocking is on of our preferred ways of traveling and exploring. I’m so glad we did it!

We emptied our tanks in Tucson, filled Trudy’s fresh water tank to the max, and headed for Bulldog Canyon.

Getting to Bulldog Canyon

I had the heads up from Gina that we had to get a permit from the Tonto National Forest Ranger’s Office before we could boondock there. Bulldog Canyon is locked with a padlock, and you need the code to unlock it. The only way to get a code is by applying for a permit. This added another step onto our trip, because we had to go to the Ranger’s Office in Mesa, AZ before we could proceed to Bulldog Canyon. Getting the permit was pretty painless other than finding somewhere to park Trudy on a busy street. Now they have the permit application online, which definitely seems like the way to go.

The lock on the gate for the road to Bulldog Canyon
The lock on the gate for the road to Bulldog Canyon
The sign at the entrance to Bulldog Canyon stating that you need a permit

Gina had also told me that they had wild horses at their site while they stayed there. I didn’t want to get my hopes up that we would see any, but we ended up seeing our first wild horses even before we got to the forest service road! I was so excited. Turns out, we saw wild horses from Trudy just about every day that we stayed in Bulldog Canyon. One night, we were driving back to the campsite in the Escape and one ran out in the road and ran into my car. Thankfully, it was not a bad collision and both the horse and my Escape seemed OK, but it was one of those moments that made your heart stop.

After we got the permit, we drove to Bulldog Canyon, opened the gate with our code, and Trudy experienced her first (well, I’m pretty sure it was her first. Her previous owner took her to RV resorts and that’s it) real test – a very bumpy, unpaved forest road.

Gate open – Trudy ready to roll down the forest road
Trudy heading down the forest road

The pictures don’t at all capture the reality. Trudy was rocking side to side, falling into ditches on one side and going up over big rocks on another. Poor old girl! I was in the Escape while Tim drove Trudy down this tricky road. We moved very slowly. We moved at 4mph on this road, just to keep Trudy in tact. We ended up finding a spot 2 miles up the road, and it took us over 30 minutes to drive those 2 miles! Even to this day, we have not been on quite as rough of roads as we took Trudy on for our first time boondocking. Baptism by fire, perhaps?

All of our effort was rewarded when we found an amazing boondocking spot for Trudy.

Trudy among the Superstition Mountains
Different angle, same beautiful sky
Our little explorer playing outside the RV
Wild horses from Trudy’s windshield

Things To Do While Boondocking

So, there isn’t a whole lot to do at the boondocking site itself. Since it’s not a campground, there are no amenities. At this particular boondocking spot, we were perfectly happy to sit back, relax, and enjoy nature. Lots of reading. Lots of walks as a family. We also did a lot of hiking on the forest road. Unfortunately, Bulldog Canyon was extremely busy with ATV’s, especially on the weekend. I say unfortunately mainly because some of them have no common courtesy. They went right past Trudy at 2am, 4am…I have no idea what you could be doing during those hours, but it probably involved alcohol. ATV’s are just so loud. And they kick up a lot of dust. They woke me right out of my sleep every night we stayed there I know they have just as much right to be there as we do, I just wish their hours were limited until 10pm or something like that.

I probably made Tim take this since I feel like every picture is of him and Calla. Here’s a typical morning – coffee in hand, toddler in lap

The Superstition Mountains are magical. We loved all of the green. In my mind I had always pictured the desert as tan. Turns out you can’t paint with such a broad brush! So much greenery here. This spot was great because we were only about 15 minutes from Mesa, a massive suburb of Phoenix that has every store/convenience you could ever want. Yet we were being greeted by wild horses every day!

The BOB in the wild. We take that stroller some crazy places. Cacti have popped the tires many times.
Tim hiked up a mountain with no trail and captured this shot
Calla paying like a wild child in the desert

We’ve since been to some boondocking locations that have been more peaceful and remote (no ATV noise) but I think Bulldog Canyon will always hold a special place in our hearts. It’s the place that we grew confident in our boondocking skills. We spent 4 nights here – didn’t run out of water or propane, and still had some room left in our tanks before we left.  I think 4 nights is pretty darn good for a first run at boondocking.

Date Visited: March 2018

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