First-timer’s guide to exploring Arizona’s White Mountains

If you were a passenger on a car ride to Arizona’s White Mountains in the eastern part of the state and happened to doze off during the drive, you might wake up thinking you’re in a completely different state – like maybe Colorado or Oregon.

aspen trees on shore of Big Lake
Young aspen trees emerge from a lush green meadow on the shore of Big Lake in Arizona’s White Mountains

Absent from the White Mountains region of Arizona are the iconic saguaro cactuses and other drought-hardy plants that define the Grand Canyon State.

For much of the year, the landscape here is a lush sea of grasses, wildflowers and trees, woven together by a myriad of streams and lakes.

Go for a hike and you’ll find no lack of shade, thanks to healthy stands of Ponderosa pine trees, towering nearly 100 feet overhead.

stream flowing through lush landscape

What cities are in the White Mountains?

Map of White Mountains region

Why are they called the White Mountains?

The “White Mountains,” as the larger area is now known, might have been derived from the conquistadors who traveled through the area (1700s) naming the mountains “Sierras Blancas.”

Less well-known is that to the White Mountain Apaches who have beliefs in their creation stories, one of those mountains “Báshzhiné Dził,” holds spiritual, cultural and historical significance as their holy mountain.

In addition to its older name, Mount Baldy also became known as Dził Łigai Sí’án (“white mountain”) to the White Mountain Apache people. Other tribal nations also recognize this holy site including tribes from Arizona and New Mexico.


What is there to do in the White Mountains of Arizona?

If you’re looking for glitzy malls where people go to see and be seen, you won’t find any in the White Mountains region of Arizona. This place is an outdoor sportsman’s paradise. Camping, hiking, fishing and hunting are the go-to activities, but you can also downhill ski or snowboard at Sunrise Mountain Resort in wintertime. Special trails are set aside and marked for snowmobiling and riding OHVs off road. If you’re into landscape photography, you’ll stay busy capturing the plants and animals of the area.

Popular activities in the White Mountains:

  • Camping
  • Hiking
  • Fishing
  • Hunting
  • Skiing
  • Photography

Special report: If you hike only one trail in the White Mountains of Arizona, make it this one

What’s the weather like in the White Mountains?

When blistering heat renders the lower desert regions of Arizona unbearable in the summer, the White Mountains offer a cool reprieve. You’ll want to pack a jacket when heading to the White Mountains, regardless of the time of year. The air temperature is generally about 30° cooler than the Valley of the Sun. Frequent rain showers and cool breezes are a bonus.

Mount Baldy rises up behind Big Lake
Mount Baldy rises to a height of 11,402 feet west of Big Lake in Arizona’s White Mountains region.

Rising to 11,402 feet, Mount Baldy is the centerpiece of the White Mountains. Only one mountain in Arizona stretches higher – Mount Humphreys near Flagstaff.

Mount Baldy is a magnet for storm clouds of all shapes and sizes. It squeezes out only the precipitation needed to sustain the region’s ecosystem, then generously passes excess water downstream through a network of creeks and rivers.

Snow covered road with tall trees on both sides
Snow-covered road near Greer in the White Mountains. Photo by Terii Cano

Wintertime in the White Mountains could be described as inhospitable, or inviting, depending on your frame of reference. Frigid temperatures and deep snow limit many activities during winter months; however, you won’t find better options for snowsports such as skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and snowmobiling. Indeed, Arizona’s largest ski resort – Sunrise Park Resort – is located in the White Mountains.

What kind of animals can you expect to see in the White Mountains?

  • Elk
  • Bears
  • Deer
  • Turkeys
  • Skunks
  • Chipmunks
  • Antelope
  • Native and stocked trout

During my first visit to the White Mountains, I camped at the Rainbow Campground near Big Lake. There was no cell phone coverage in the campground, so one day I had to drive about 6 miles to find a strong enough signal to send a text message to my wife. During that drive, I saw herds of deer, elk and antelope. Since the area is mountainous and wooded, it would not be out of the question to come across bears, skunks, or other animals that thrive in mountainous habitat.

Are the White Mountains open to the public?

Access to much of terrain in the White Mountains is limited since much of the land is controlled by the White Mountain Apache Indian Community. For example, while it’s tempting for adventure seekers to summit Mount Baldy, it’s forbidden unless you’re accompanied by a member of the White Mountain Apache Indian community.

Why knowing the difference between tribal and federal land is important

It’s important to know the boundaries between the reservation and US forest managed land. Each requires separate permits that are not interchangeable. Similarly, fishing or hunting licenses issued by the State of Arizona are not valid on the reservations, and vice versa. Before exploring the White Mountains, it’s important to get a map and familiarize yourself with the boundaries.

Must see in the White Mountains

Big Lake

Big is a misnomer if you compare the size of this lake to some of Arizona’s more popular lakes. But in these parts, it’s pretty sizable. A key feature is a small marina on the south end that rents fishing boats and kayaks. Fisherman make their way here in hopes of landing a trophy rainbow or brown trout. Over 200 nearby campsites beckon RV and tent campers alike.

Sunrise reflects off Big Lake Arizona

Town of Greer

This quaint little mountain town is comprised largely of short-stay cabins. Few services exist here. There’s not even a fuel station or convenience store. But the town is big enough to support a post office, library and a few restaurants. There’s also a lodge and many AirBnB properties.

Sunrise Park Resort

Sunrise is Arizona’s biggest ski resort and routinely tallies up more annual snowfall than any other in the state.

It’s not just a winter resort. You can hike, mountain bike and camp here, too.

How to get to Arizona’s White Mountains

Getting to the White Mountains is sure to be an adventure. The area is situated so far in the eastern part of the state of Arizona that the few radio signals you can pick up on your car stereo are transmitted from stations in nearby New Mexico.

No matter where your journey begins, it’s likely you’ll find yourself on the well-traveled Highway 260 to reach the White Mountains from points west. The mostly two-lane route passes through the high-country towns of Payson, Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside. All sit at elevations of 7,000 feet or higher. Once you reach the town of Greer, you are deep in the heart of White Mountains country.

Reaching the White Mountains from the Phoenix area to the town of Greer in the heart of the White Mountains requires about 4 hours of drive time. The most logical route is traveling first to Payson on Highway 87, then heading east on Arizona Highway 260, as described above.

If you’re looking to chart new adventures in Arizona, and long for cooler temperatures, make sure to put the White Mountains region area on your Arizona Bucket List. It’s a long way from pretty much everywhere, and that’s what makes it so special. It’s a great place to escape from the noise and stress of busier areas and let yourself unwind a little bit.

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