For centuries, Arizona embodied the spirit of the American frontier as Westerners moved further and further west into unknown territories. Of course, those territories were well-known to the Navajo and Hopi tribes, and the treatment of those Indigenous people is one of the darkest parts of America’s expansion. But it did establish what would become Arizona as a key part of the American West.
While the state is no longer the Wild West, there is one aspect of the 1800’s expansion that still remains today: horses. The forever-symbol of America’s cowboys remains in Arizona, where approximately 400 wild horses remain a symbol of the era of the Wild West.
The horses live in herd-protected areas run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in a national forest near Phoenix, and on the Navajo reservation in Northeastern Arizona. The herds are managed by the US National Forest Service and the non-profit Salt River Wild Horse Management Group.
These tips will help you plan a trip to see the wild horses and ensure you’re following the guidelines for protecting these beautiful creatures.
Where did the wild horses in Arizona come from?
The horses are called mustangs from the Spanish word mustengo, which means ownerless beast. Photo: Marni Patterson
Members of the herds are descendants of horses Spanish explorers and missionaries brought to the Southwest in the 16th century. Many were left in Arizona when Mexico severed ties with Spain in 1821, since then, the herds have lived independently.
Guidelines for visiting wild horses in Arizona
The horses are used to seeing humans, but they’re still wild animals. So it’s important to keep at least 50 feet away. Move out of the way if horses approach you, and don’t interfere with their natural behavior. If they have to change their behavior because of your presence, you’re too close.
Please don’t feed the horses. Visitors often ask if it’s safe to give them treats such as carrots and apples. However, these and other foods cause digestive problems or worse for the horses. and can even kill horses. Keep dogs on a leash or leave them at home. Horses will likely defend themselves against dogs living chase, which can injure dogs (and spook the herd).
Where to see wild horses in Arizona
The best places to see wild horses in Arizona are in the Tonto National Forest and Lower Salt River Valley east of Phoenix, the Cerbat Mountain range in northwestern Arizona, the Cibola-Trigo HMA in southwestern Arizona, and Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona.
Tonto National Forest and Lower Salt River Valley
There are seven recreation sites in the Tonto National Forest along the Salt River east of Phoenix — Granite Reef, Coon Bluff, Phon D Sutton, Blue Point, Pebble Beach, Saguaro Lake, and Butcher Jones. They’re all within a 20-mile range along the Bush Highway. So, if you don’t see horses at one site, go to the next one and you may have better luck. All spots require a Tonto Pass or an America the Beautiful Pass. Or, if you prefer, you can rent a tube, paddleboard, or kayak and look for horses as you float down the river.
Granite Reef is a riparian area along the Lower Salt River and is an excellent bird-watching area, especially during winter. Visitors are likely to see mallards, great blue herons, ring-necked duck, warblers, and shore birds while looking for wild horses. There’s a trail along the shore that offers a pleasant view of the river and mountains, and tall trees provide much-needed shade when the weather is warm.
Kayakers often see horses eating eel grass and other underwater plants. Photo: High Country
The Coon Bluff Recreation Area isn’t as close to the river as Granite Reef, but a hiking trail leads to an overlook where there’s a good chance of spotting horses in the river or along the shore. It’s a short, steep climb to get to the top of the ridge, but it’s an easy walk on flat terrain from the top of the bluff. There’s also a trail along the Salt River, but the many intersecting routes can make it difficult to follow.
Phon D Sutton
The Phon D Sutton Recreation site offers easy access to the Salt River. There’s a path along the riverbank with a nice view of the mountains where visitors can often spot wild horses and many types of birds. There’s also the Lookout Trail, an easy .6-mile, out-and-back hike. There’s a good chance of seeing wild horses on this hike as they follow this route to reach the river. The trailhead is at the bottom of the staircase at the end of Phon D Sutton Road.
Blue Point is the smallest recreation site in this group. The beach is a short walk from the parking lot, and there’s a mesquite grove near the picnic area where horses often gather. It’s also a riparian area frequented by birdwatchers who want to see great blue herons, spotted sandpipers, hummingbirds, and spring and fall migratory fowl. Horses often gather near the trees and in the woods near the river.
The Pebble Beach Recreation Area is across the Bush Highway from Blue Point. The parking lot is further from the Salt River but has unobstructed views in both directions. It’s easy to spot wild horses when they’re in the water.
Photo: Marni Patterson
Saguaro Lake consists of two sections connected by narrow straits between canyon walls. You can see wild horses along the shore when they emerge from the desert and forests to cool off in the water and graze on plants. Boat, kayak, and paddle boards are available for rent if you’d like to watch for horses from the water. For a less-active way to see the horses, take a cruise on the Desert Belle to sit back and enjoy the view.
The Butcher Jones Recreation area is on an inlet of Saguaro Lake. Mesquite trees provide natural shade, and a lovely stretch of beach is a short walk from the parking lot. This area frequently attracts wild horses because it offers easy access to the water. If you’re adventurous, take the 5.8-mile hike to get to a less-crowded beach, and you may see horses grazing in the desert and along the lake.
The Cerbat Mountain Range
The horses eat desert scrub and chaparral that grow in washes and mountainous areas. Photo: Marni Patterson
The Cerbat Mountain Range is five miles northwest of Kingman, near Chloride, a historic mining town. Like the horses in the Tonto National Forest, members of the Cerbat herd are probably descendants of Spanish mustangs that were brought to the area in the 1500s. However, some historians believe the horses escaped from early explorers in the 1700s or were abandoned by livestock ranchers in the early 1800s.
The area where the horses live is at an altitude of 7,000 feet and consists of rugged peaks, ridges, and canyons covered by desert scrub and chaparral. Temperatures can dip to zero degrees during the winter and soar above 105 degrees in the summer. As a result, the horses are exceptionally agile and have well-honed endurance and excellent survival instincts. So you may need to venture deep into the canyon to find them.
The Cibola-Trigo HMA is in the southwest corner of Arizona near the Yuma Proving Grounds close to Quartzsite, Arizona. There are 120 horses mixed in with a herd of around 285 burros. The horses are mostly bay and black, along with some dun, pinto, and appaloosa, and are most likely decedents of horses that lived on ranches in the area. The best places to see them are in Gould Wash and the Castle Dome Wash as their primary food source is the desert plants that grow in these areas.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Canyon de Chelly is in the Navajo Nation in Northeastern Arizona. Many think it resembles a smaller version of the Grand Canyon because of its stunning, sheer-walled canyons and towering cliffs. There are two scenic rim drives with outlooks and one hiking trail into the canyon. The horses rarely venture up to the road or the overlooks, so you need to hike into the canyon to see them or book a jeep tour with a Navajo guide.
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