Finding the Salt River Wild Horses
With all due respect to the Rolling Stones’ classic “wild horses couldn’t drag me away” lyric, it turns out that Arizona’s herd of free-roaming Salt River Wild Horses can, in fact, drag thousands of people away from modern life – and into a scene straight out of the Old West.
I was happy to be among them on a recent warm spring day, when, right on the edge of Phoenix, Arizona – one of the largest metro areas in the U.S. – the wild-and-free animals were treating visitors to a taste of western culture unlike any trip to a museum or cowboy reenactment could ever deliver.
On that Sunday morning, I had a front-row seat to a little family-of-three grazing along the riverbank, occasionally sticking their noses deep into the lazy waters of the Salt and rolling energetically onto their backs in the rugged river rocks.
These are not just any horses. They have a pedigree that some say can be traced back several centuries. According to information from the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group, the wild horses of the Salt are likely the descendants of mustangs that Spanish explorers brought to the Americas in the 16th century.
While as many as 500,000 wild horses roamed the Arizona range in the early 1900s, according to newspaper accounts, only about 500 remain today.
These remaining vestiges of the past now hold a special place in Arizona law. Despite a recent debate on whether the Salt herd may have actually been the product of horses let loose by ranchers in the 1970s, the Salt River Wild Horses were protected under a 2016 state law that classifies them specifically as “not stray livestock.”
The protective law is thanks largely to an epic battle waged by the herd’s advocates several years ago. The dedicated group now manages the herd, looking out for the health of the horses, and using birth control methods to manage a population that is fenced in by civilization on all sides.
With all that in mind, it’s hard to resist taking a trip to the Salt River, where the small herd offers a glimpse into the days when a half-million wild mustangs ruled the Arizona range.
Getting to the herd takes a little doing, though, so here are my tips for how to find the Salt River Wild Horses.
The Salt River Wild Horses have been well-publicized in the Arizona media, but it has taken me years to make the trip to see them. One of the reasons for that is that is the out-of-the-way location.
The 200-mile Salt River flows southwest through eastern Arizona, ending at the Granite Reef Diversion Dam south of Phoenix. The wild horses are located mostly along the Lower Salt River in the Tonto National Forest – far east in the massive Valley of Sun.
Depending on where you are in Arizona, it can be a long drive to get there. From the West-Valley communities of Glendale or Surprise, the drive to the various Salt River recreational areas can be an hour or more. If you’re in the east-valley towns of Scottsdale or Mesa, expect a drive of 30 to 40 minutes. And from my home in northern Arizona, the trip can exceed two hours and traverse a number of freeways.
Still, the Phoenix-area freeways are relatively efficient, and a Google Map search will easily direct you onto the 101 and 202 loops to get to Power Road in Mesa, and ultimately, onto the Bush Highway, where the horses can be found.
Where to go
Because they are free to roam, the Salt River Wild Horses will not always be in the same place.
Prior to my trip, I found an online guide that suggested a number of likely spots: The Phon D Sutton Recreation Site; the Butcher Jones Recreation Site; Granite Reef; and Coon Bluff.
They are all stops in the Tonto National Forest that are popular for Salt River tubing, with plenty of parking spaces. I stopped at all of them – with no luck in finding the herd.
At Phon D Sutton, I spent more than an hour wandering along the riverbanks. It’s a pretty spot with lots of wildflowers, but the closest I came to wild horses was a group of horseback riders out on a guided trail ride.
Still, no wild horses
I decided to keep driving.
It took a bit of searching, but I ended up spotting the elusive herd at the Tonto National Forest’s Goldfield Recreational Area – one of the most popular inner-tube take-out points along the Salt River.
While much of the huge parking lot was empty that day, a few people were making their way down the concrete path to the river, and I followed.
Immediately at the base of the trail, I spotted horses grazing along the river in both directions. Grays, tans, and browns – they were there in all their majestic glory.
Not too wild, but definitely free
I’m not sure what I expected, but I think the “wild” description had me expecting the horses to be at least a bit skittish. But they were anything but – looking on calmly as a few spectators and photographers gathered nearby.
I was especially drawn to a little group of three: a duo of light-browns that seemed to be a mother and foal, and a larger white horse. They kept to themselves, meandering along the riverbank, eating and drinking.
Soon, the white horse lay down in the river rocks, rolled onto its back and began rocking back and forth. It wasn’t long before the other two joined him and proceeded to drop and roll in the exact same spot. It was an adorable scene.
It will require a car, a little driving, and bit of hiking, but a visit to Salt River Wild Horses is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon in Arizona.
Of course, there are plenty of other activities available in the area as well. Along with all of the horseback riders, I saw fishermen, kayakers, and boaters. There are convenient recreation areas spread all along the Bush Highway, with picnic tables and pit toilets.
The memorable scenes are virtually non-stop.
Day passes ($12) are required for the recreational areas and are available from a fee machine at the Phon D Sutton Recreational Site.