Camp Tontozona offers ASU an outdoor getaway
The embers in the big iron stove glow, and snow lightly dusts the ground. The football practice field is a sheet of white, just waiting for someone to make a snow angel. And it’s quiet as a mouse.
Welcome to winter at Camp Tontozona, ASU’s own retreat and playground in the mountains near Payson.
Though most people think of “Camp T” as the place the Sun Devil football team goes for preseason training, the camp actually is open to all ASU employees, graduates and students, nonprofit organizations and select off-campus groups.
Situated on 45 acres in the Tonto National Forest about 17 miles east of Payson, Camp T includes eight cabins of various sizes, a large dormitory, dining hall and meeting rooms, all of which can be rented year-round, with a capacity of 150.
There are hiking trails, places to swim and fish, two large practice fields, and lots of places to sit and simply “be.”
It’s also a perfect place for retreats, geology or other camps, conferences, and even weddings.
On a late winter weekend, when the temperature dipped to around 20 degrees and the snow fell fairly steadily all day Friday, ASU employees Bill and Janice Hetke were cozy in the Executive Lodge with Janice’s twin brother, Paul Sim, and her mother, Jean Sim, 84.
The Hetkes have been to Tontozona about a half-dozen times, and this was their fourth visit – a birthday celebration for Janice and Paul.
They had not been to Tontozona for eight years and were pleasantly surprised by the changes.
“Since the last time we visited the camp, the Executive Lodge’s kitchen appliances had been upgraded, along with the furnishings. The first thing we noticed was that the outside of the cabin had been painted and it looked inviting,” Janice said.
The Hetkes prefer to stay in the Executive Lodge, with its massive stone fireplace, open floor plan and knotty pine paneling and doors.
They always bring a few extra things to create a homelike atmosphere, such as votive candles for the fireplace mantel, a tablecloth for the kitchen, a bowl of fresh fruit and candles for the coffee table.
Even though the Hetkes now have their own cabin in Prescott, they enjoy going to Tontozona occasionally for a change of pace.
“We like to experience nature in a way that’s different there from anywhere else,” Janice said. “For instance, one year at twilight we saw 50 elk gracefully jump the fence to feed on the field.
“For about 20 minutes they all grazed on the grass until headlights from a car spooked them. Startled, it took all 50 elk just seconds to jump another section of the fence that took them up the snow-covered hill.
“All four of us – my husband, brother, mother and I – felt in awe of what we had witnessed. After viewing the elk, my mother said, ‘This whole weekend couldn’t be any better unless it were to snow.’ And, of course, it did.”
While the Hetkes were snug in front of their fireplace, Tim Farley, a 1987 industrial engineering graduate, rounded up his children, Ryan, 15, Kathryn, 6, and Jack, 4, to sled near the Sun Devil Lodge. (They would later set off to find a steeper slope.)
Farley and his wife, Christine, have brought their children to Camp T nearly a dozen times.
“We like to go to Camp T because it is close to the Valley, it is safe, and we love the football field, the dark nights, and the walks we can take to Kohl’s ranch,” Farley said. “The people are nice, and the firewood is a good deal. It is also affordable.”
ASU acquired the original eight acres of land for Camp T in 1951. Shortly thereafter, Professor Martin Martensen of the Science Education Department began taking his students to the mountain retreat so they could conduct field trips in cooler weather.
Historic records show that Martensen, with the assistance of faculty, staff and students, built the original camp using salvage materials from the ASU campus. The College of Architecture then constructed one of the first buildings on the site.
By 1959, the first small football field for pre-season training had been completed, with Frank Kush helping to move rocks and level the dirt.
Camp T has come a long way since 1951. Today, it’s a destination that all members of the ASU community can enjoy, summer, winter, spring or fall.
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