A long, beautiful weekend at Cholla Campground by Roosevelt Lake

Last weekend, Kathryn and I enjoyed a long, beautiful weekend at Cholla Campground, situated on the shore of Roosevelt Lake in the Tonto National Forest of Arizona. We hadn’t been there in over three years, and we couldn’t help but spend much of the weekend wondering why.

Cholla Campground, view of the lake from the campsite
View of the lake from the campsite.

Little has changed since our last stay at Cholla Campground, but one change was quite important. In the past, one has been able to use the campground simply by displaying a Tonto Pass on the vehicle parked there. The pass is purchased in town before arriving at the site, and upon arrival, the date and time are scratched off like an instant lottery ticket, rendering the pass valid for twenty-four hours. This still works for many of the improved facilities of the Tonto National Forest, although the price of a pass has gone from $6 to $8 since our last visit. Now, however, the campground requires a user fee of $20 per night, paid at a vending machine near the entrance. And you’d better have a credit or debit card, because your Federal Reserve notes are not welcome.

Tonto Pass, no longer valid at Cholla Campground
Tonto Pass from several years ago, unused and useless after the end of 2018, and no longer valid at Cholla Campground.

The vending machine was not difficult to use, but like everything else at Cholla Campground, it was solar-powered and designed to be energy-efficient, and it wasn’t immediately clear how to begin. I took advantage of my advanced education and two decades of working in information technology to conclude that one must push a button to wake up the machine. It worked. From there, further instructions were displayed on the screen in English or Spanish. The machine spits out a pass that has two parts — one that goes on the vehicle’s dashboard, and one that is clipped to a signpost adjacent to the campsite chosen. Before collecting payment, the machine told me exactly when the pass would expire, so if we thought we might stay past 10 am Monday, we could have added another day before purchasing. Or we could have done what other campers were doing and come back to the machine to buy a new pass when the old one expired.

One of the campers renewing his pass was a man who introduced himself as Bob from Wisconsin. I have no idea if Bob was his real name, but the Green Bay Packers hat and the plates on his Buick checked out. I asked Bob if we were supposed to pick a spot first and then come back to pay. He said that’s what he does. It’s not like there was a ranger anywhere checking, so that’s what we did too.

Cholla Campground, mountains
Our campsite at Cholla Campground, with the mountains in the background.

The campground is geared mostly towards trailers and motor homes with their own power sources. There are no electrical or water hookups at Cholla Campground, so they pay the same $20 per night we paid. The rigs are allowed to run generators during the day, except in the summer when, mercifully in the intense Arizona heat, they can run day and night. For us, however, there are two tent loops that are a bit more remote and have parking only for cars and small trucks, from which you must haul gear a short distance to your site. We drove to the tent loop at the far end of the campground where we stayed last time and discovered Bob had already taken the site we last used. We set up camp two sites away, taking a calculated risk that no one would wedge themselves between two other campers in an otherwise mostly open campground. The risk paid off, and we spent three nights with a comfortable distance between us and the nearest camper.

Bob from Wisconsin did invite us to his campsite just before sunset Friday, and we shared a few beers while he built a campfire. Apparently Bob had been there for several weeks already, long enough that he was kicked out during the so-called government shutdown. The thing about Forest Service lands, unlike the National Parks, is that they’re so vast, with so many access points, there’s no real way to barricade it all. However, they can shut down improved areas like Cholla Campground. So, the way Bob told the story, the Forest Rangers came around to evict campers, telling them they had twenty-four hours to get out of the campground, but at the same time telling them where they could set up camp for free on other Forest Service lands just a few miles away.

Cholla Campground, desert
The desert brush surrounded our site at Cholla Campground.

Most of the weekend, though, we kept to ourselves. We enjoyed some long hikes in the campground and down by the shore of Roosevelt Lake. The nearest village is Tonto Basin, about twelve miles away, and we went there twice for supplies, especially ice. We extended one of those trips by a few more miles to have lunch at a cafe in nearby Punkin Center. We also drove to the mining town of Miami, about forty-five miles away, for Mass early Saturday evening. Mass ended around 7 pm, and the highway that runs alongside the lake back to the campground was quite dark. The sun had fully set, the moon hadn’t risen yet, and there was no reflected light visible from anywhere. When we got back to the site, the stars were popping out of the sky until the moon rose a short while later.

The rest of the time was spent taking long naps, drinking beer, and reading. In particular, I managed to get to the end of a novel for the first time in I can’t remember how long. We prepped most of our meals during the week before the trip, so we had little cooking to do and even less cleaning. Our propane fireplace came out for a couple hours each evening. For the most part, we just relaxed. We agreed it wouldn’t be three years until our next visit.

On our way out of the campground, we spotted Bob from Wisconsin and wished him a pleasant continued stay in Arizona and a safe journey back home. He said he’d probably stay another four weeks, maybe six. We said we might run into him again next winter.

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