Desert Camping Among the Saguaro Cactus in Gilbert Ray Campground Tucson, Arizona
In the desolate landscape west of the Tucson Mountains, you’ll find a great RV destination in Gilbert Ray Campground. This unique campground is in such high demand that campers line up for hours every morning hoping to secure one of the 130 camping sites. But with no reservation system, no water, no sewage and only 30-amp electric service at each site, is it worth the hassle of waiting in long lines with nothing more than a hope and a prayer of getting a spot?
An arid landscape surrounds Gilbert Ray Campground. Saguaro cactuses, reaching upwards of 40 feet tall, scattered as far as the eye can see. In this land, nothing but Gila monsters, scorpions and snakes frequent the terrain. Coming from the lush hills of Kentucky, this was completely foreign to us. However, the pure rawness of this desolate place was a sensational beauty beyond belief.
One of our main reasons for traveling to Tucson, Arizona in March was the weather. Abandoning the balmy 20-degree weather of Kentucky to bask in the sunny 75 to 80 degrees of Tucson was a welcome change. But mostly, we wanted to stay at Gilbert Ray campground. I stumbled across this campground when conducting my usual online research. Although there were only a few pictures and a couple of videos reviewing the campground, what we did find convinced us to drive our 41-foot RV (our beloved “Winnie Rae”) more than 1,800 miles to wait in line, fingers crossed, to stay at this campground.
Like most people, my mind is most at ease when my trips are planned out. I suppose that’s the Boy Scout in me. The thought of driving so far without reservations left me with many questions: What if we can’t get in? Where do we stay? Can they even accommodate a 41-foot RV? Once we were within a day’s drive of Tucson, my wife secured us a spot at the Tucson KOA, so we could empty our tanks and fill up with fresh water for our (hopefully) upcoming stay at Gilbert Ray.
We set up camp at the KOA and ventured out with the dogs for a walk and to check out the amenities. We were both impressed at how clean the KOA was and how beautiful the clubhouse and pool area were. I wondered if we should play it safe and stay here for the week rather than hassling with trying to get into Gilbert Ray. After walking the dogs, I returned to registration to inquire about extending our stay just in case. Much to my dismay, the KOA was full the remainder of the week. In fact, we called around, and it appeared that all the campgrounds either couldn’t fit our RV or were completely full. Who would think that campgrounds in Southern Arizona, one of the warmest places in the southwest in winter, would be completely full? Apparently not this naive guy from Kentucky. As each campground confirmed that they were full, my stress level increased. I’d banked our entire stay in Tucson on the fact that Gilbert Ray would have a spot available.
The following morning, I awoke at the crack of dawn and headed straight to Gilbert Ray. Check-out time at the KOA was at 11 a.m., so the pressure was on to secure a place to stay that night—and for the next five nights. As I got closer to Gilbert Ray, the landscape changed before my very eyes. Stores and homes gave way to Saguaro cactuses dotting the horizon. The beauty was indescribable. I arrived to find that the line of people I’d anticipated was in fact already present at 7 a.m. Great. After about an hour, the office finally opened. The front desk attendant explained that an assessment of availability needed to be conducted based on who’d already checked out; then a further determination would occur after the official check-out time of 11 a.m.
Our situation was touch and go for a while. Each camper had to disclose their RV sizes. When I realized that our 41-foot Winnie Rae was one of the largest RVs of the group, I started sweating. The attendant assured me that they had a space to accommodate us, but then added that existing campers receive priority over newcomers. This felt like another strike against us. My hopes of staying at Gilbert Ray were quickly waning. Just before 11 a.m., I was relieved to hear my name called and ecstatic when I found out we scored a site.
Was it worth all the stress? Undoubtedly! Gilbert Ray Campground is one of the most breathtaking and unique campgrounds that we’ve ever visited. There are great hiking trails within walking distance; an old western movie set where classics such as Frisco Kid, Outlaw Jose Wales and even Little House on the Prairie were filmed; and the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, where you can walk through the desert in its natural environment.
The campsites themselves are surrounded by the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. Cactus of every size and color serve as the backdrop for each site, providing plenty of privacy. In fact, from our RV door, we couldn’t even see the campers in the adjacent sites, which gave the impression we had the entire Sonoran Desert to ourselves. Unfortunately, shortly after setting up camp, my wife accidentally put her forehead into a spiny cactus. She was almost in tears as I plucked each hooked needle out of her head. Campers beware: Jumping cactuses are no joke.
We were fortunate that our tanks lasted the entire five days. However, if you need to dump and fill up your fresh water, Gilbert Ray has two dump stations and several water fill-up locations on site. They are easily accessible with plenty of room to maneuver your rig. Additionally, there are a couple bathhouses on site if you prefer to conserve your water tank. Just a tip: Enter the campground from South Kinney Road. Do not take W Gates Pass Road; there are plenty of signs warning that RVs are prohibited.
While the Sonoran Desert isn’t listed as a dark site for astrophotography, the night skies light up with thousands of stars shortly after sunset. If you’re into astrophotography, be sure to take your tripod and a fast-wide lens so you can get some amazing shots of the Milky Way with cactuses in the foreground. I recommend a 24mm 1.8 or below lens. While there is a lot of debate on the best exposure time, I like to keep my exposure under 20 seconds to prevent star-trailing; adjust ISO accordingly to the speed of your lens.
If you don’t live in the desert of Southern Arizona or California, Gilbert Ray Campground will make an amazing RV destination. It’s a remarkably stunning campground. With a nightly rate of $20 and a 7-day maximum stay, you can bet there will continue to be lines of campers waiting to stay at this hidden gem. Boasting such beauty and so much to do in the area for adventurers, photographers and tourist alike, we highly recommend you consider Gilbert Ray Campground if you are in the Tucson area. Happy camping!
2020 update: Since this article was originally published, Gilbert Ray now accepts reservations making this even a better RV camping option in the Tucson area.