The only two areas where you need a permit to camp in Arizona is on State Trust Land and on Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. Aside from that, permits are not needed to camp anywhere else in Arizona. However, there are situations where you may need to purchase entrance fees to get into a park, or pay per-night camping fees.
Do You Need a Permit to Camp in Arizona?
Only on State Trust Lands and on Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Preserve is a permit required to camp. There are some other situations where permits are needed on federally managed lands, but this is largely for holding group events like weddings and rallies, or commercial activities like jeep tours and survival classes. Some national parks will require additional permits for “backcounty camping” (camping outside of developed areas).
Arizona State Trust Lands
To camp on State Trust Land you are required to purchase a Recreational Permit. These are lands the State of Arizona was granted from the federal government when it entered statehood. Arizona still owns some 9.4 million acres of trust land. A lot of this land is used to generate revenue through farming and ranching leases. It also generates revenue through sales of recreational permits.
About 8.0 million acres of this land is open for camping. Even though a lot of these lands are also under lease to farmers and ranchers, their lease agreements grants anyone with a recreational permit an easement on to these lands. For maps of these lands, as well as information on how to purchase a permit, see, “Camping on Arizona State Trust Lands“.
Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge
Located in the southern portion of Arizona, just outside of Ajo, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is one of hundreds of refuges nationwide operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It is only one of three refuges in Arizona where camping is permitted. The other two are Kofa NWR and Buenos Aires NWR. However, Cabeza Prieta NWR is the only one of the three that requires a permit to set foot on its grounds.
For more information about permits, and the full set of camping rules, see, “Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge Camping Rules“.
Arizona State Parks & Trails
Arizona State Parks & Trails (ASPT) operates thirty-four (34) parks across the state. Each of these parks have one or more campgrounds that will require advance reservations and per-night fees. Some of these parks will require an additional entrance fee just to enter the park. Boondocking or dispersed camping is not allowed at any of the state parks.
The “Annual State Parks Pass” sold by ASPT is used only to cover entrance fees and day-use activities. It does not cover campground fees. If you don’t have an Annual State Parks Pass you can still enter the park by paying a single-day fee at the park entrance.
For more information about camping at Arizona State Parks & Trails, visit their website… https://azstateparks.com
Federally Managed Lands
If you plan to camp on federally managed lands in Arizona, you do not need to obtain a permit. This would include the following federal agencies…
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the most acres of land among the federal agencies. Nearly all of this land is open to camping without permit, and without fees. You literally drive into these lands, find a clearing where your vehicle can get off the road, and set up camp. The BLM does operate a number of developed campgrounds in which there may, or may not be per-night fees. The BLM also operates several “Wilderness Areas” which are off-limits to vehicles, but are still open for hiking and tent camping. The BLM also operates a number of day-use areas which are off-limits to camping; these area will always be marked with signs stating “day use only” or “camping prohibited”.
National Park Service (NPS) manages twenty-four (24) parks, monuments, and recreation areas in Arizona. Most of these properties have one or more campgrounds which will require advance reservations and per-night fees. Some of these properties will also require entrance fees. Note that some NPS properties are day-use only areas such as historic sites. Boondocking and dispersed camping is allowed at some properties and not at others. For example, boondocking is allowed at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, but only in specified areas. Grand Canyon National Park, however, does not allow boondocking, but instead allows “backcountry camping” for hikers and horseback riders, and only in specific areas. Backcountry camping usually requires a permit. Each NPS property has its own policies.
U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages six (6) national forests in Arizona. None of these forests require a permit for camping. All of these forests allow boondocking (or dispersed camping), with no fees or permits. The USFS does offer day-use passes and “Discovery Passes” for day-use areas like trailheads, picnic areas, and even some OHV areas. But these passes are only required if you want to park your vehicle there. They are not required if you can hike to these areas. But for boondocking and dispersed camping outside of these day-use areas, passes are not needed.
Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) manages a handful of dams in Arizona. The reservoirs resulting from these dams include recreational areas. These recreational areas include camping, as well as fishing and hunting. The BOR outsources most of its recreational management to other federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife. The largest BOR property in Arizona is Glen Canyon National Recreational Area, which is outsourced to the National Park Service. None of the camping along BOR properties require a permit. At Glen Canyon, most of camping is found at developed campgrounds, all of which require reservations. There is some boondocking at Glen Canyon, but are free with no permits.
Army Corps of Engineers (COE) does not currently manage any recreation areas in Arizona. They are similar to the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) in that they build and manage dams, but also military installations, ports, and levees. In other states, they operate hundreds of campgrounds, and many of them are free. None of the COE areas require camping permits.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) operates hundreds of wildlife refuges across the United States. Only a small minority of these allow camping. Arizona has three refuges that allow camping… Buenos Aires near Sasabe, AZ, Cabeza Prieta near Ajo, AZ, and Kofa near Yuma, AZ. Only Cabeza Prieta requires a permit to set foot on its land. Both Cabeza Prieta and Kofa allows dispersed camping. Buenos Aires restricts camping to designated sites. All three of these refuges are free to camp at. For locations of these camping sites, see, “Camping at National Wildlife Refuges“.
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